From Van (where I was prior to Kars), there are no direct flights to get to Kars, a small town sat somewhere near the Turkey-Armenia land border. A bus is the next best option, and at Van’s bus terminal you could easily get yourself a bus ticket that travels the next day (there is only one bus from Van to Kars per day). The bus is modern, comfortable and heated, while the roads are well maintained so you could expect a pretty smooth ride. The entire drive from Van to Kars takes about 7 hours with very minimal stops, so pack yourself some snacks and a light lunch.
As I arrived in Kars, it was late and freezing cold with no taxis in sight, so I had to hitch a ride with a wonderful girl and her father to the hotel (it’s a very small town, everyone lives close to each other). At a first glance my thoughts on this town was this; freezing cold with traces of Soviet Union. The temperature was a cool -13 degC, and the buildings had a distinct architecture, none like what I’ve seen in other places in Turkey. There were statues of animals by the streets, and buildings made of bleak dark stones. Nights are extremely harsh with icy pavements and frozen trees, but the daylight will allow you to immerse yourself in this quaint place filled with history and wonderful people.
There are a few things not to miss out when you’re in Kars, and here are my recommendations.
1. Spend a day exploring Ani, an ancient Armenian city
If there is one thing you need to do when in Kars, it is certainly this. Ani is a large compound of what used to be an ancient city, a place that at its peak, was home to 100 000 people. It was eventually abandoned and what is now left are beautiful ruins set in the most enchanting, scenic landscape by the valleys of a river (this river is also the natural border between Turkey and Armenia, and you can easily see Armenia from Ani).
The city fortress is the majestic stone walls still intact for the most part, and as you go through them you’ll find yourself in a vast space with small lanes which would lead you to a variety of monuments, like cathedrals, churches, mosque and even remains of what used to be common houses. You’ll need at least half a day to explore this place, and since it is basically the outdoors, be prepared for a windy/rainy/cold day.
Ani is about an hour drive from Kars town. To get there, you’ll need either a car, a bus or a taxi. To get a taxi or a bus, easily ask your hotel to arrange one for you, as they know plenty of contacts.
2. Have lunch by Cildir lake, and maybe go on a horse-carriage ride across its frozen surface
Cildir lake is located almost an hour away from Kars town, and this place is especially recommended during the winter. When it’s really cold (and believe me, it gets extremely cold here in the winter), the lake freezes over, becoming a popular winter wonderland destination for locals. Imagine a beautiful vast white space lined with pine trees, and horse carriages available should you ever want to experience a ride across the flat ice surface of the lake.
There are also a few restaurants that serve lunch using fish from the lake, and you’d be missing out if you don’t sample some. I deeply enjoyed a beautifully prepared trout, simply fried with a some lemon wedges and served with pickles, a hot cup of tea, all while nestled against a heater inside the comforts and warmth of the restaurant, the glaring white landscape a sight to behold from the windows.
3. Escape the cold and eat a hot serving of kunefe
What on earth is a kunefe? It is a type of dessert popular in Turkey, made with layers of cheese, shredded filo, different kinds of nuts and a healthy dose of syrup, all served spanking hot with the cheese and oozing treat for your tastebuds. It is great anytime of the year, but it is especially good in winter, when all you need is a warm hug in a form of a comforting dessert such as this one.
Kunefes can normally be found anywhere in the country at any good bakeries, but in Kars there is a well established place called Kars My Kunefe that you just simply have to try. It’s a large café with efficient service, and they make nothing else but kunefes, with all kinds of varieties and sizes for you try. I tried at least 3 different types and they were all marvelous. Each order also comes with a large pot of tea, a perfect compliment for this sweet treat.
Location: Kars My Kunefe, Yusufpaşa, Atatürk Cd. 58/A, 36000 Merkez/Kars, Turkey
4. Walk around the Old Quarter of Kars town
The Old Quarter of Kars is by no means as big as the ones you’d find in Antalya or other bigger cities, but it is charming in its own way. The central of the Old Quarter is a river called the Kars Stream, and surrounding this river are the Kar Castle, a park, a beautiful stone bridge, an old mosque and an Armenian church. It’s a beautiful place for a nice long walk, and this Old Quarter eventually connects to the rest of the town, where you can see Soviet-influenced old structures, large mansions used to be inhabited by privileged Armenians and local cheese shops selling Kars cheese.