Hidden in a natural basin on the banks of the Kars Çayı, KARS is an oddly attractive town, unusual in Turkey thanks to a few incongruous terraces of Russian belle époque buildings. Although a couple of hundred metres lower than Erzurum, the climate is even more severe; the potholed streets never quite recover from the fierce winters and when it rains, which it often does, the outskirts become a treacherous swamp. There are a few sites in town worth dallying for, but most visitors have made the long trek out here for the sole purpose of visiting the former Armenian capital of Ani.
Kars was once one of Turkey’s ugliest cities but things continue to improve – central streets are clean and have been repaved with cobbles or bricks, with even a designated pedestrian zone or two. Unfortunately the area leading up to the citadel remains something of an eyesore, though this too is slated for substantial redevelopment. Perhaps most visually appealing is the stretch of Ordu Caddesi north of Faikbey Caddesi, studded with several relics of Russian architecture.
Just the other side of the Kars Çayı on the way to the castle, the Church of the Holy Apostles was erected between 930 and 937 by the Armenian king Abbas I. Crude reliefs of the twelve Apostles adorn the twelve arches of the dome, but otherwise it’s a squat, functional bulk of dark basalt; the belfry and portico are relatively recent additions. A church when Christians held Kars, a mosque when Muslims ruled, it briefly housed the town museum before being reconsecrated in 1998 as the Kümbet Camii. Just before or after prayer times, you can slip inside to view the elaborately carved altar-screen.
After decades as an off-limits military reserve, Kars Kalesi, as it’s officially known, is now open as a park. Locals come to enjoy the panoramic view, but there’s little else to see other than the black-masoned military engineering. There has been a fortress of some kind on the hill overlooking the river confluence for well on two millennia. The Armeno-Byzantine structure was maintained by the Selçuks but levelled by the Mongols; the Ottomans rebuilt it as part of their late sixteenth-century urban overhaul, only to have the Russians blast it to bits, then put it back together again during the nineteenth century. On October 30, 1920, an Armenian Dashnakist army besieged in the castle surrendered to Turkish general Halitpaşa, and with that went any hopes of an Armenian state straddling both banks of the Ahuryan River.
At the time of writing, the only other compelling attraction in Kars is the excellent Kars Museum (Kars Müzesi), a fifteen-minute walk out to the east end of town. The downstairs is given over to ancient pottery, and ecclesiastical artefacts of the departed Russians and Armenians, particularly a huge church bell inscribed “This Tolls for the Love of God”.
Originally founded by the Armenians who knew it as Kari, Kars became the capital of their Bagratid dynasty early in the tenth century when the citadel, which still dominates the town, was substantially improved. Later in that century the main seat of Armenian rule was transferred to nearby Ani, and Kars lost some of its importance. The Selçuks took it along with almost everything else in the area during the mid-eleventh century, but devastating Mongol raids made a mockery of any plans the new overlords had for Kars. In 1205 the Georgians, profiting from the wane of both Selçuk and Byzantine power in the area, seized the town and held it for three centuries until displaced by the Ottomans.
As the key to Anatolia, the Russians tried repeatedly during the nineteenth century to capture the place. Sieges in 1828 and 1855 were successful – the latter during the Crimean War, when a British and Turkish garrison was starved out of the citadel after five months – but on both occasions Kars reverted to the Ottomans by terms of peace treaties. Not so in 1878, when, after a bloody eight-month war between the two powers, Kars was finally awarded to the Tsar. It remained in Russian or Armenian hands until 1920, a period that bequeathed both the unusual grid layout of the city centre and the incongruous belle époque buildings found here.
Skiing at Cibiltepe
Skiing at Cibiltepe
Just 55km west of Kars, conifer-surrounded Sarikamiş is the coldest town in the country; accordingly, thick seasonal snow supports the very good Cibiltepe ski resort, 3km back east towards the main highway. Facilities comprise just two chairlifts from 2150m up to 2700m, serving two advanced runs, two intermediate ones and one novice piste threading the trees.