Kars, Turkey – a city of 1,001 churches, excellent skiing and Caucasian dancing

Urban Kars is dominated by Kars castle built from the local basalt on a precipice akin to Edinburgh Castle.

 THE KARS REGION of Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia boasts a stunning, untouched UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mammoth frozen lake for ice fishing, winter-wonderland walks alongside a semi-frozen river, Pushkin’s favorite Hammams, traditional regional food, music and dance, and one of the best ski slopes  (photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)
THE KARS REGION of Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia boasts a stunning, untouched UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mammoth frozen lake for ice fishing, winter-wonderland walks alongside a semi-frozen river, Pushkin’s favorite Hammams, traditional regional food, music and dance, and one of the best ski slopes
(photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

Thermal top? Check.

Inner and outer gloves? Check.

Siberian-grade military hat? Check.

Gatkes? Check.

Neither of us had experienced temperatures so low before. The forecast suggested a night-time low of minus 19°C. On the flip side – snow. Everywhere. Pure white. Crystalline. Powdery. Ski heaven.

 Winter wonderland in Kars, Turkey. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) Winter wonderland in Kars, Turkey. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

The Kars region of Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia boasts a stunning, untouched UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mammoth frozen lake for ice fishing, winter-wonderland walks alongside a semi-frozen river, Pushkin’s favorite Hammams, traditional regional food, music and dance, and one of the best ski slopes in Europe.

We got the phone call around a month ago. “Would you like to go to Kars?” asked Selim, a Turkish government representative in Israel.

Google Maps was the obvious point of call.

“How on earth do you get there?” we asked each other.

The truth is, while it is tucked away in the northeastern tip of Turkey, it’s only a two-hour flight from Istanbul, with a brief, wonderful layover in the Turkish Airlines business lounge, or for the adventurous – a 30-hour tourist-train ride from Ankara – and lots of visitors take the train. The Turks hope to soon offer direct flights from Israel to Kars but that’s still on the drawing board.

Kars is both a region and a small city at its heart. 

 Kars, Turkey is home to 1,001 churches. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) Kars, Turkey is home to 1,001 churches. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

Urban Kars is dominated by Kars castle built from the local basalt on a precipice akin to Edinburgh Castle. A river curves its way around the base of the castle hill. Half frozen with steep icy banks and abutted by historic buildings with snow-covered roofs and smoking chimneys, it could easily be the setting for a novel by Dickens or one of the Brontes – but this is Pushkin country. Much of the old town is 150-year-old Russian.

While the locals fiercely embrace their Turkishness, kissing the national flag at the end of a wonderful dance performance, they are deeply aware of this region’s mixed roots – Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, Molokan, Turkish and many others. 

It’s reflected in the food: goose, lamb shank, pickles, flaky breads, hearty vegetable soups. The entire Caucasus on a plate. At the restaurants close to the castle, there is a good chance you’ll be serenaded by an accordionist at lunchtime (he’ll be much obliged if you clip a Turkish lira banknote to his squeezebox). 

Witty duets from mustachioed baglama-playing minstrels (think oud) and traditional dance troupes accompany dinner. Make a full evening of it.

Souvenirs take two forms. Cheese. Honey. Lots of it. So much so that in the tourist area every other shop seems to sell both. The gruyere equivalent Kars gravyer is remarkably good. Sharp. Firm. Delicious.

 One of the attractions of Kars, Turkey is Caucasian dancing.  (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon) One of the attractions of Kars, Turkey is Caucasian dancing. (credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS, Mark Gordon)

ALL OF Kars’ out-of-town attractions are within an hour of the city. Activities at Cilir Lake are somewhat hackneyed, but kids will love the troika horse with sled that takes you out onto the frozen lake. The horses skid to halt on 70 cm.-thick ice, where a swarthy man in a fleecy-blonde hat (but no gloves!) begins digging a hole in the ice. 

He is fishing for dinner. Your dinner. Just off the lake is a great restaurant where fried yellow carp is the specialty. Wash it down with a Turkish tea or beautifully presented coffee. You’ll need to warm your very cockles. 

For history buffs, an hour’s drive east from Kars will bring you to the magnificent ancient city Ani. It dates back 1,000 years. While its houses were destroyed by earthquakes, its churches stand proud and in remarkable condition given the harsh climate. 

In its heyday, the city, on the trade routes between Europe and Asia, boasted a population larger than that of Constantinople. It became known as the “City of 1,001 Churches.” You can also see the first Turkish mosque, the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple, and what may have been a synagogue. Two Stars of David and what appears to be a carved menorah adorn one of the spaces in a strip that would have housed stores.

Much mystery remains about this site because much has yet to be excavated. It is known there was a far older settlement under Ani. One of the problems archaeologists face is that for large chunks of the year the site is under snow, meaning that the exploring season is relatively brief.

The plan is to develop the site and bring in many more tourists but for now it is a truly hidden gem.

Some 45 minutes on the other side of Kars city is the ski resort at Sarikamis. It boasts four- and five-star hotels, powder snow on some 21 km. of slopes, ski lessons and more. Full-board accommodation at the hotels is extremely well priced, significantly undercutting similar venues in the more well-trodden areas of Western Europe.

Ankara wants to modernize Kars – to introduce more hotels, better transport connections and give the place a more touristy vibe. But for now, the region is raw, the locals are incredibly friendly (look out for hidden bars in Kars city with extremely potent wines), the prices are excellent and the scenery is magnificent.

It’s an anytime-of-year destination but really comes to life in the winter.

Remember to pack your gatkes.

The writers were the guests of the Turkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) and Turkish Airlines. You can hear their Kars podcast and the rest of their travels at jpost.com/podcast