The path through the Georgian Valley from the Black Sea to Kars is a long and winding one, full of historical riddles, narrow passes, and vistas of awe-inspiring beauty. All you need is a set of wheels, and hunger for adventure.
By Monica Liau
Borders are some of man’s most arbitrary, yet powerful inventions. They ebb and flow with the tides of war and rulers, leaving behind remnants that endure for centuries. In the northeastern corner of Turkey, one finds the Georgian Valley, a land of natural and cultural distinction. Craggy peaks and lush highlands make up some of Turkey’s wildest, most breathtaking scenery, which are peppered with crumbling, near-forgotten 10th century monuments. Properly exploring these arteries that follow the Georgian and Armenian borders requires a car, a little fortitude and time to wander. There are many secrets to be uncovered, dramatic gorges to gape at, and yayla (highland pastures) of heartbreaking greenery that will make you want to linger in the filtered afternoon light.
Turn your wheels away from the Black Sea at the roughneck border town of Hopa and set your course along highway 10. Here, the Yalnızçam mountains continue on where the Kaçkars let off, folding themselves ever higher towards the Ardahan plateau, the Caucasus and modern day Georgia. This landscape is sometimes sharply arid, sometimes awash in pines and shaking birch trees, but always with the roaring water of the Çoruh River close at hand. Pass quickly through the shambling city of Artvin and head northeast. Formerly known for its spectacular setting, the valley is now deeply scarred by the march of progress and a series of massive hydroelectric dams that will soon submerge more of the surrounding area. Once past, you slip towards stillness, and a landscape that feels immune to the march of time.
To understand this area means digging back thousands of years. The Georgian Valley houses the ghosts and specters of many tussling nations–the Persians in the 4th century, the Arabs in the 7th, the Byzantines in the 8th. However, it was the medieval Georgian Kingdom of the 10th century that really left its mark, when King Bagrat III became the first ruler of the unified Georgian empire. He left behind a legacy of castles and churches, many of which are unmarked and absorbed into an unassuming part of the surrounding landscape. There is also a remaining diaspora their Georgian ancestors who still speak the language and have incorporated older customs into their modern Turkish identity.
Most building remains lack ticket gates, proper signage, and roofs. However, they are worth seeking out, if naught but for the view and sheer gravity of their presence, clinging to the sides of cliffs with all-seeing eyes. Dolishane church is one such fascinating offshoot, marked by a single sign and accessible only via an incredibly steep dirt road. After 15 minutes of teeth-rattling, jaw-aching precipices, you arrive at the stately ruins of what was once a monastery, it’s walls incorporated into the surrounding bite-sized town of Hamamlı (population 170). Clamber inside and one gets a sense of its former magnificence. Same to be said for the Porta monastery (also known as Khandzta) 20 minutes down the way. The sprawling complex was originally built in 782 AD and presided over by Saint Gregory of Khandzta, one of the most influential monks of the time. Today, grass grows through the walls, but its grandeur endures. Highway 10 is rife with finds like these and more. All one has to do is look up at the mountain tops.
After hours behind the wheel, schedule a stop outside of Şavşat at Laşet Restaurant, set just above a yayla pasture. A less tidy iteration of the Swiss Alps, here you will gaze out across a bucolic setting of lazy cows, idyllic cottages, and swaths of verdant grasses that look remarkably fine in the golden days of spring and summer. Settle into the Laşet garden and listen to a burbling brook while feasting on local alabalık (river trout), its crisp skin bubbling with butter that was churned just down the way. Pair this with a mezze of thick strained yogurt and the tongue-searing mıhlama, a specialty of cornmeal and stringy white cheese.
Should facing more narrow, sharp passages be too much, the basic guest rooms at Laşet are clean and comfortable. If you’re continuing on, steel yourself for a series of 180 degree turns that climb at a nose-bleed pace. Suddenly, at Çam Geçidi (Çam Pass), the pavement straightens and the steppes of far eastern Turkey begin to stretch out towards the horizon. On this high altitude plateau, snow stays around well into late June and mountain flowers explode riotously in purple starbursts, yellow droplets, and shy white blooms, amongst a carpet of hardy shrub and lichen. Pull over at the peak and hike a bit away from the highway until all you can hear is the cool, rushing winds and the utter silence of the open land.
From here, it’s a straight shot into Kars, where one can rest for a day or two and peruse a mishmash of fascinating history. Set near the border of Armenia, the city is best known for the remarkable ruins of Ani–remnants of a powerful city that saw its peak between 961 and 1045 AD. Indeed the collection of rust red castles, churches, mosques, houses and monasteries are a sight to behold, despite their various and dilapidated state. Even when tour groups are around, it’s easy to find quiet spots. Clamber down to the Monastery of the Virgins, set over the Akhurian River that separates modern day Armenia with Turkey for a truly remarkable experience.
However, the city of Kars itself is often overlooked, with tour groups rarely taking time to linger. What they would discover is rough around the edges, but fascinating. Old buildings harken back to a long scuffle between Russia and the Ottoman Empire for control. A wander towards the Castle of Kars, built by the Ottomans in 1153, reveals also a series of unusual mosques and buildings that reflect the city’s complicated cultural past. From the peak of the crumbling turrets, rebuilt four times by four different armies, you can look down over the sprawling city. It appears surprisingly low and small, a blip that looks as if it could be swallowed by the flat, misty steppes beyond.
For this adventure, it’s easiest (and most money sensitive) to rent a car from Erzurum. This allows you to make a leisurely loop through the Georgian Valley to Kars and then return. Give yourself at least three days, if not more. For a more tangled adventure that takes you along the stunning Black Sea, it is also possible to rent a car from a city along the coast and drop it off in Kars or Erzurum (a more expensive decision, but interesting to see shifts in landscapes and demographic).
Where to Stay
- Laşet Restaurant and Motel offers clean basic rooms and homestyle food featuring delicious river trout. Ardahan Yolu No.9, Şavşat/Artvin; T: (0466) 571 21 36
- Kars Hotel is an 8 room boutique hotel set in a lovely, renovated Russian building (and best accommodation in Kars). Yusufpaşa Mahallesi, Halitpaşa Caddesi No.31, Kars
Where to eat
- Kamer Cafe & Restaurant is a sweet restaurant offering surprisingly refined versions of homestyle dishes like mantı, plus excellent soups and desserts. Yusufpaşa Mahallesi, Halitpaşa Caddesi No.48, Kars
- Hanımeli Kars Mutfağı is run by two women, who whip up Kars specialties like lahana sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat) and roasted duck served over bulur with homemade pickles. Ortakapı, Faikbey Caddesi No.16, Kars; T: (0474) 212 61 31