Mehmet Kocatepe lives in an Ottoman house of wood and crumbling plaster, a place that smells of damp and rot and an overwhelming sweet scent, as if someone has rubbed spices into the heavy furniture for years instead of polish. His kitchen is dark and the floors are uneven, so it's a place to enter gingerly. But it is a womb, hot, throbbing with noise, filled with activity. The walls are covered with wooden instruments, worn with use. The sideboard is covered with torn and fading pictures of dead relatives. Mehmet has lived in Sinop on Turkey's Black Sea Coast since birth. His mother, who sits watchfully in the corner, has lived there all her life. There were other generations of this family here, but no one can tell me names or dates for sure. In this remote part of Turkey, there are always conflicting stories about a past talked about as if it was recent history. Mehmet tells them as we dine, roasted by the kitchen's huge oven. We talk into the night as much about the Crimean War as the possible effects of a projected gas pipeline to Turkey which will cut through the Black Sea from Russia. Mehmet's house is split into his family's area and the selamlik for guests. After dinner, a smelly oil lamp is lit on my bedside table, throwing strange shadows on to the carved wooden ceiling. The bed is massive, the mattress springs are shot, the blankets are exquisitely stitched. As in all Turkey's Ottoman houses I visit, the room is unbelievably elegant and a place out of time. In the morning, light filters into my bedroom through the lattice-work window frame and an exquisite lace curtain. The Black Sea sends flickering patterns up the bedroom walls. There are views through the thick glass down to the beautiful natural harbour, the reason why Sinop has been a packed port since about 4500 BC. The whole family wanders down through town with me, picking up breakfast from roadside stalls: fish in rough bread and mint-sprinkled cheese, with yogurt to drink. I buy locally-made tiny wood carvings of boats, stop in carpet shops, climb for an even better view across the sea from Sinop's citadel, where metres-thick stone walls built in the sixth century BC have been repaired and added to by a litany of conquerors: Cimmerians, Phyrgians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Russians. The port, which takes its name from a mythological nymph who spurned Zeus, is a trade centre that was once home to a large United States Navy presence, a modern city despite its lengthy history. Later in the day, swimming in the sea is a relief. The humidity of the Black Sea region can be unbearable. The water here is surprisingly unpolluted. It is also almost empty as people answer the call to prayer, the voices of the muezzin reverberating from the minarets. This is an almost wholly Muslim nation. But not everyone is busy praying. Students linger over backgammon in the shade of plane trees on the edge of Karakum Plaji beach. In fuggy, aromatic lokanta (cafes) at Kibris Cadessi near the waterfront, men are smoking blackened meerschaum pipes and slamming down tiles in erikric, a heated, incomprehensible game. Mehmet is useless about the rules. But he knows about the yaylas. When Turkey heats up every summer, thousands head to these great high mountain plateaus, away from the intense heat. Traditionally, pastoral nomads took their sheep, cattle and goats up with them. Now visitors are as likely to be tourists, especially Turkish ones, staying in simple huts and old-fashioned canvas tents on meadows fragrant with iris, wild mint and sage. He and I spend the rest of the day looking for a taxi up to the mountains, drinking cay (tea) from tiny red tulip-shaped glasses and eating sun-warmed figs while we lazily bargain. This is not a trip to start late, Mehmet says, and shortly after dawn the following morning, it becomes apparent why. Away from the coast with its new motorways, the unmade roads are frightening. With poor brakes and painful gears, my taxi crawls into the mountains away from the narrow coastal flat-lands. We stagger past women threshing corn and stringing peppers out to dry against the walls of their houses and past three teenage shepherd boys leading a donkey covered with a holey, multi-coloured blanket and laden with basketfuls of filthy wool. The pure air on the tops is as good as a bath after the bone-shattering ride. Grazing horses and sheep wander the wildflower meadows; eagles fly over the vast sweep of mountain valleys. Primitive Guzfindik Bozarmut Yaylasi turns out to be not unlike my idea of a Wild West camp: as light dies, fires burn everywhere, children run wild late into the night, someone plays a zurna (oboe). There is nothing to do here but relax, take long hikes and picnic. When the weekend ends, I board a bus to hurtle down the mountain-side. Everyone but me laughs as we swing at a ridiculous angle around the bends. Nobody bothers much about road signs. Away from a few popular resorts like Kilyos, Sile, Alapli and Akcakoca with their empty beaches and excellent seafood restaurants, the quiet Black Sea Coast still sees few tourists and residents are eager for contact, news and, more unnervingly, your views on the country's volatile politics. Fundamentalism is growing here. Increasing commerce with Georgia and the newly opened Soviet Union has brought new prosperity lately. After the mountainside, it seems a gentle, if long, ride along the edge of the Black Sea, stopping only in Samsun, an ugly, modern industrial city packed with Russian liners, and beautiful Giresun, famous for the cherry trees which surround it and the Byzantine fortress which crowns it. The sea is everything to this lush land. Conquerors have arrived on it; trade via the sea provides much of the area's income; heavy rainfall after the short summer supports forests and productive farmlands; it is thanks to the sea that an area so cut off by mountain ranges is not isolated. In Trabzon, hazelnut groves surround the city. But the Byzantine port seems dark, even in the middle of the day. Wooden houses fill the old quarter and the place still retains the spirit of a medieval town. In search of something a little less moody, I wander into the citadel and to see the frescoes covering every surface of the well-preserved 13th-century church, now restored as the Ayasofya Museum. Then, climbing up to Boztepe park, a panorama of the city reveals its breathtaking setting, on a table-like promontory between two ravines above the harbour. The point of this long journey is to see Sumela, surely one of the most spectacularly-positioned buildings in the world. Less than an hour from Trabzon, the monastery is approached from a path that winds up a deep gorge. The air is cool and the walk past farmhouses and the purple rhododendrons of the Altindere National Park might be in Switzerland. Through gaps in the trees, Sumela appears, perched 270 metres above a valley near the top of the mountain, set like a nest into the sheer rock face. A church was hewn out of the rock in the 4th century, then in the 14th century the place prospered to became a 72-cell monastery. The Greek Orthodox monks were eventually forced out and Sumela died when they left, looted by robbers. It was later gutted by fire. Sumela's real beauty, however, is its setting. Leaning precariously from a frameless window, you gaze past the sides of the five-storey building down an impossible drop into the peace of one of Turkey's most beautiful and remote forested valleys.