Kyra Kuitert, a Dutchwoman, explains what’s involved when creating a route, details the practicalities of making such a route feasible and tells us how the walking route can potentially have a positive impact on people and places along the way.
From an idea to a reality
The emphasis of the project is on developing a walking trail which more or less follows the route Süleyman the Magnificent, the longest reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire, took on his expeditions to capture Vienna. He left Constantinople in both 1529 and 1532 to besiege the city as part of a campaign to control more of the West, but failed to capture the city on either occasion. The Sultans’ Trail begins outside Vienna, near the Castle of Neugebaeude (built on the spot where the sultan was said to have set up camp), and ends at the sultan’s tomb behind the Süleymaniye Mosque in İstanbul. When completed, it will be some 2,100 kilometers long, passing through Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria, with about 330 kilometers in Turkey.
So where did the idea come from? “After walking the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain on different occasions both my friend Sedat Çakır, who’s Turkish, and myself realized that parts of this route are slowly becoming overcrowded, especially in the summer,” Kyra highlights, noting: “Some 135,000 pilgrims walked the Spanish part of the route in 2009 alone! Some people walk the trail a second, third or even a ninth time. This made us realize that there’s a large demand for adventurous, cultural and historical long-distance walking trails in Europe. Last year, Sedat walked from Amsterdam to İstanbul and I joined him part of the way; while walking in the mountains in Bulgaria we came up with the idea behind the Sultans’ Trail: a cultural-historical context for a new trail which also has the potential to connect the East with the West as well as be a meeting place for people of all faiths and cultures.”
The story of how the route has come into existence is one of people who have made something happen by being determined and enthusiastic. So what have Kyra and Sedat done to make the trail a reality? “Since last summer we’ve been walking, developing and marketing the trail with the support of a growing number of volunteers,” she explains, and says: “We’ve also started an NGO, Stitching Sultans’ Trail International, based in the Netherlands. We’re in contact with a lot of organizations, both in the Netherlands and in countries along the route, such as mountaineering associations and both local and national authorities, like the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry and the Ministry of Culture in Serbia. Since last summer we’ve also visited many different holiday fairs to promote the route and we’ve developed a website, given presentations, printed brochures, written project plans and made stickers and arrows to mark the way.”
Funding is always on the agenda and to date they have covered many of their expenses themselves. “We’ve had sponsorship from the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry and over 30 people and organizations have also sponsored signs that we will bring to Turkey this summer and put on different landmarks along the route -- at the border, in village squares or at city halls, for example.”
Nobody knows the exact route Süleyman the Magnificent and his army took to Vienna but along the way there’s historical evidence to link him with certain places, Kyra explains. “So we’re working out a route that includes those and also includes culture and nature. The Sultans’ Trail partly follows existing European long-distance paths, including parts of the E8 and the Donauweg, and also runs more or less parallel to the Via Comitis -- the original road to Jerusalem. It then joins the Sufi Path from Purbach in Austria to Konya.”
“To make sure that the route is feasible, last summer Sedat walked the trail from Vienna through Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria to the Turkish border. I joined him in Bulgaria, the most mountainous part of the trail, and we were joined in Edirne by seven friends. For the time being we’re following the Donau bike road from the Hungarian border to Belgrade as a walking route and in time this will change into a real hiking route. This summer, we will start waymarking the Turkish and Serbian sections with volunteers. On June 11, eight hikers from the Netherlands and two from Brazil will help waymark the Turkish part from the Bulgarian border to İstanbul. In July a group from Belgium and the Netherlands will walk parts in Serbia and do the initial marking there. This is the part from Belgrade to Nis, some 600 kilometers. We’d like to find local hikers to fine-tune the waymarking along the whole trail in the coming months.”
More people are welcome to join the Turkish stage of the waymarking, Kyra highlights, and goes on to say: “Volunteers need to cover their own costs, have experience in long-distance hiking and bring and carry their own camping gear. Being able to speak some English and/or Dutch would make the social aspects of walking in a group much more enjoyable.”
So much more than just a walking trip
The Sultans’ Trail has come about because people are looking for walking routes with a meaning, and Kyra is enthusiastic about its potential. The name of the trail is a clue to one of the aims of the trail: to prompt people to find out more about the Ottoman Empire and its influence, something that’s not very well known in Western Europe. “We’d like to increase people’s awareness of history and historical facts,” Kyra emphasizes, adding: “We should be able to do that by informing everybody who walks the trail, as well as people at home reading the website about the historical highlights they will come across on their journey. Travelling from Vienna to İstanbul on foot, walkers will come across sites ranging from medieval ruins to remains of the recent war in former Yugoslavia.”
Kyra used to be project manager at the European Center for Ecological and Agricultural Tourism (ECEAT), and so sustainable tourism is part of her agenda. “We also aim to promote sustainable tourism along the route,” she highlights and explains that “walking is, of course, a sustainable form of transport. We’d like to encourage local community-based tourism, as the trail often passes remote areas where most people have a meager income, with many making a living from subsistence farming. The extra income generated by people walking the route -- for lodging, food and drink and souvenirs, for example -- is often more than welcome. As when you walk through villages, locals like to talk to people passing through and often offer to help find a place to stay, drink or eat. Professor Santos Malaquias from the Universidade Católica do Salvador in Bahia, Brazil, is also going to write an academic paper on the potential of hiking and sustainable tourism in Turkey.”
You can’t go walking through remote areas and remain unaware of the need for nature protection and conservation efforts, and this is another aim of the Sultans’ Trail. “We hope to encourage Balkan people, including Turks, to walk more in the countryside. By doing that, people become more aware of nature and feel more connected to it, ” Kyra highlights.
As the trail is trans-border, another aim behind the trail is to encourage collaboration between countries as well as fostering good relations among people who live along the route, amongst walkers and between walkers and locals. “We hope that people from different countries will share their experiences and find a way to understand each other. On a local level, just the fact that people from abroad are interested in the villagers’ way of life is a boost to their self-esteem. It would be great if the Sultans’ Trail also serves as a catalyst for collaborative projects to unite people across borders.”
So how does she envisage the future of the route? “This whole project is a very big adventure for all of us and at the moment we don’t know exactly where it will take us or in what time frame,” Kyra underlines. “Everything is dependent on funding and also time, as we’re working on this in our spare time. It will probably be a step-by-step project, developing the trail in all of the five countries along the way. Given that last summer the Sultans’ Trail was nothing more than two people walking in the Bulgarian mountains brainstorming an idea, huge steps have already been taken with an official NGO, a website, brochures, stickers, signs and lectures.”
For more information about the Sultans’ Trail, visit www.sultanstrail.com or contact: [email protected] or [email protected]