Despite centuries of Ottoman rule, evidence that Turkey’s far northeast long lay under the command of the Georgian kingdom remains tangible. Ruined castles and churches abound, dotting a valley-chiselled landscape more redolent of modern Georgia than “regular” Turkey. The years of Georgian rule are also reflected in place names, most commonly in the form of the common prefix “Ar-” (as in Ardahan, Artvin, Ardanuç and so forth), equivalent to “-ville” or to “-burg”.
Erzurum, the largest urban base, is the most common gateway for the few intrepid travellers who choose to pop by. To the north lie the southern valleys, home to the churches of Haho and Öşk Vank. Without your own transport, you’ll find it easier to tour the western valleys, where the main town, Yusufeli, has reasonable transport links and accommodation, and also provides a good base from which to organize a tour of the stunning Kaçkar Dağları mountain range, or spectacular ruins such as İşhan. Heading north again, Artvin is the best base for a tour of the churches and castles of the northern valleys, or to continue on to Georgia proper. It’s also possible to hit the border from Ardahan, the main base of the eastern valleys. Lastly, the town of Bayburt, astride the young Çoruh River, makes an acceptable stopover between Erzurum and the coast. Dwarfed by the largest fortress in Turkey, dating from the sixth century, it holds plenty of accommodation and dining options.
You’ll need your own vehicle, or a lot of time for walking and hitching, to visit most of the sights. Bus services, where they exist, usually arrive near the sights in the afternoon and depart for the nearest town in the morning – exactly the opposite of tourist schedules. Some roads are bad, but if you can assemble a group and find a willing taxi driver, this can end up being far cheaper than renting a vehicle in Erzurum or Trabzon. Even with a car or taxi, you’ll need at least three days to see all the monuments.