Excursions to the Far East and Black Sea Coast: Places to Explore

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Kars

The setting for Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's somber novel Snow, Kars, not far from Turkey's border with Armenia and Georgia, looks like the frontier town it is: forbidding and grayish, set on a 5,740-foot plateau and forever at the mercy of the winds. The lifting of restrictions on visiting the ancient city of Ani—previously a closed military zone—has meant more tourists are coming through the area, giving locals the incentive to upgrade what Kars has to offer and there are signs of a new breath of life all over town. Some of Kars's Ottoman-era historic buildings are being beautifully restored as part of an ambitious project sponsored by the California-based Global Heritage Fund. A sign of changing times was the opening, in 2006, of the city's first boutique hotel: the Kars Otel.

This mini-revival would be only the latest twist of history in a city that has had at least its own share of ups and downs. Since AD 1064, Kars has been besieged over and over, by various and sundry invaders: from the Akkoyun to the Mongol warriors of Tamerlane. In the 19th century alone, it was attacked three times by czarist armies from Russia. The Turks retook the city in 1920, and Kars was formally ceded to Turkey after the war of independence in 1921. The Russian influence is still obvious in many buildings.

With its low buildings and compact town center, Kars has a relaxed, small-town feeling to it. The city has a reputation as being a liberal and secular-minded outpost, and it certainly has more bars and licensed restaurants than other towns in the conservative east. There is a sense of renewed optimism in Kars today, with locals hoping their position near the border might make the town something of a trade hub and that the tourist traffic to Ani in the summer and the nearby Sarıkamış ski resort in the winter will only increase, further stimulating the city's renewal. For now, though, Kars makes for a nice side dish to the main course that is the nearby mesmerizing site of Ani.

On either side of the bridge you will be able to see some of the restoration projects being undertaken by the Global Heritage Fund. On the south side is the 300-year-old home of famed poet Nemik Kemal, which is being turned into a cultural center, while on the north side a row of Ottoman-era riverside timber and stone homes has been restored and painted. There are also plans to restore two ancient hamams near the bridge.

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