Kars is a town in northeastern Turkey, astride the borders of Armenia and Georgia. If you have ever heard of Kars it is most likely in relation to the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which is set in the town and which was awarded the Nobel prize in 2006. However, Kars (pronounced to rhyme with “farce”) has more to recommend it besides the celebrity novel.
After arriving in the city, I was surprised to find that I reached my hotel without the usual Sturm-und-Drang of navigating Turkish cities. At first I congratulated myself on my prodigious directional skills. Then I realized the reason–the streets were arranged in a grid pattern. This orderly layout is not typical of Turkish cities and, like many of the assets that give Kars its unique character, it has its heritage in the decades of Russian occupation and administration following the Russo-Turkish War in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
The first part of my day there was spent in the castle and surrounding area. Kars Castle is free of charge and affords some great exploration and views of the city, as in the above photos. The areas at the base of the castle are also charming, including a rushing river and scenic picnic site, some abandoned Ottoman estates, and the ruins of two abandoned hamams, which were dusty and crumbling and titillatingly creepy to walk through. The Church of the Holy Apostles, however, dominates the area. As Elizabeth at the Dratz Adventure points out, it has had a variegated history as a church, then a mosque, then a church, then a storage space, and finally, it was reconsecrated and once again now operates as a mosque.
The second part of my day inside Kars was a scavenger hunt. Obviously, the Russian and Balkan administrators and settlers did not stop at rebuilding the roads, but they also left more obvious architectural fingerprints. Therefore, I resolved on my scavenger hunt to find as many Russian- and Baltic-style buildings as possible. I started at Fethiye Mosque, which is a converted Orthodox church. Neighboring the mosque and dotting the nearby avenues were many European-style administrative buildings and estates dating from the turn of the 20th century or older. I found at least a half dozen and ended up at Cheltikov, which is a beautifully restored Russian estate-turned-hotel. These architectural features added a depth of character and interest to the city not found in most mid-sized Turkish towns.
Finally, there were food matters to take care of. I dined at Ka-mer, a restaurant whose proceeds benefit abused women. The local meat dish is goose, which I did not try, but I did purchase fresh cheese and of course, honey. The combination of the Caucasian bee–a unique species–and the Caucasian flora means that honey from northeastern Turkey is nonpareil.
History and food nerds like me may like this stuff, but for the average tourist, the main attraction of Kars is Ani. Located about 40 km outside the city, Ani is an old Armenian settlement dating from the 10th century, now preserved as a museum and archaeological site. Set in the expansive Northeastern steppes with a mountainous backdrop–the famed Mount Ararat is visible on a clear day–it is a special and stunning place. It seemed impossible to take a bad photograph or to look in a direction without a breathtaking view.
The standing structures are the city walls, several churches, the barely discernible ruins of a hilltop castle, and a mosque–in fact the earliest Selcuk mosque in Anatolia–spread out over a plain directly on the Armenian border that took us three hours to transverse and explore adequately. The most well-preserved church contained swaths of royal blue-tinged frescoes on its interior walls and intriguing Turkic-animal-style stone detailing on the outside. My favorite church, though, was an old convent chapel perched on an outcropping over a river, in view of a modern-day Armenian border post.
Kars’ twin reputations of wretched cold weather and conservatism keep many a traveler at arms length, but as I’ve said before, don’t let prevailing stereotypes be your guide–from delicious honey, to unique steppe geography, to Russian history and Armenian cultural heritage, and more, Kars has a lot going for it.
Previous Freewheeling Reports, so called after a homework assignment from one of my Turkish professors.