Driving deeper into the northeastern corner of Turkey, we left behind the Kaçkar Mountains and headed into the flat, open farmlands of Kars.
For travellers, Kars is mainly used as a base for visiting the ancient ruins of Ani. At first glance, Kars didn’t seem like much to write home about – it was dusty, hectic and slightly overwhelming. But by the time we left, we were won over by it’s energy, charm and the best moustaches we would encounter in all of Turkey.
Kars daily life.
We arrived on a quiet Sunday evening, and woke up on Monday morning to find a busy and bustling town. The streets were alive with market stalls and people buzzing about in all directions. Wandering off in search of food, we ducked off into the back streets which were lined with butchers, teahouses and shops selling Turkish bread, spices, cheeses and honey. All the necessary staples for a Turkish diet.
We passed groups of Turkish men sipping tea and concentrating hard on their ongoing games of backgammon. We encountered direct stares as we passed by, which were intimating but not unfriendly. After a ‘merhaba’ from us (hello in Turkish) we’d received a quick nod in return and occasionally even a smile.
Kristen, being the photographer, felt unsure about taking photograhs and so we held back. Instead, here’s a photo taken by her favourite photographer David Hagerman. His pictures of Turkey capture its spirit perfectly.
A visit to Kars Castle.
Kars Castle sits high on a hill on the outskirts of town.
The castle itself was originally built in 1153 but was destroyed in a Mongol invasion in 1385. Nearly 200 years passed before it was rebuilt in 1579, and since then it has been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, due to further conflict and damage mirroring the unsettled times of the city itself.
The castle was the sight of bitter fighting between the Turkish and Armenian forces during and after WWI. Captured by the Russians in 1878, the castle was left in the hands of Armenian forces when the Russians withdrew. In 1920 during the Turkish-Armenian war, Turkish soldiers retook the castle and since that time Kars has remained under Turkish control.
Looking down from the castle I had never seen so many mosques, with their minarets standing tall, on seemingly every corner.
This quaint church, built in the mid 10th century, is another building in Kars that has lead a number of different lives depending on who is ruling (or occupying) at the time. From Armenian church, to mosque, to Russian orthodox church, to museum, and as of the mid 1990’s, it’s again a mosque.
While standing on the walls of the castle, we also experienced our first dueling call to prayer. We often heard dueling mosques doing the call to prayer at the same time but in Kars the experience was multiplied by a hundred and just sounded like a high wailing noise.
Speaking of the call to prayer, special mention here has to go to the mosque just next to our hotel, where we heard the best muezzin (the person who sings the call to prayer) during our time in Turkey. By this time we’d been in Turkey for over a month and had heard the call to prayer more times than we could count, but this one stopped us in our tracks and gave us goosebumps. When it’s done well, it’s a stunning experience to hear it echoing through town.
In Kars we felt a long way from home – and we loved it!
Where to stay in Kars: There aren’t too many options in Kars. We stayed at the Hotel Kent – another perfectly okay hotel located in the main town. We found the area to be safe, the staff friendly (with a little bit of English) and they had the usual tasty Turkish buffet breakfast.
Where to eat in Kars: There are a few nice restaurants on the main street, but like all towns in Turkey, just wander until you find the local favourite pita/lahmaçun place.
Road Trip Tips around Kars: The rules of the road in Kars, are, there are no rules! Don’t be surprised to see cars and vans coming towards you on the wrong side of the road and people happily wandering in all directions around you. My best tip is don’t panic, go with the flow, and somehow it all works itself out. Outside Kars, there are good open roads with barely another car insight. Just watch out for the usual farm hazards – cows, tractors and geese.