The drive from Trabzon to Kars took about 8 hours, including a stop for lunch. It was about 6.5 hours for driving. The first third of the drive was along the Black Sea from Trabzon, through Rize, to Hopa. From there we turned inland and headed southwest to Kars through Artvin and Ardahan.
Our breakfast at the Radisson Blu before checking out was similar to what we had in most restaurants-eggs made to order, plus a Turkish platter with cucumber, tomato, cheese, lunch meat, bread, honey, butter, jams, and Nutella. And a choice of juice, tea, and coffee.
We left about 9 am and drove for just over 2 hours along the Black Sea. This was a combination of mountains and sea views and tunnels. Once turning inland at Hopa, the road to Artvin was VERY WINDING. My 7 year old felt horrible the whole way, and I was having to manage motion sickness as well. If you are prone to motion sickness, take meds ahead of time.
Not long after departing Hopa, we left the Black Sea Region and entered Eastern Anatolia. This region has a number of well-known geographic features, including the extinct volcano Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı in Turkish), Lake Van, and the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. We saw all four on our trip! This part of the country historically has been a huge melting pot with Christian Armenians, Syrians, Orthodox Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Kurds and all are still present in varying amounts. Kars, our destination for the day, was the 10th-century capital of Armenia and was a point of contention between the Turks and Russians.
This region of Turkey is the most undeveloped and unspoiled, with lots of nature, small villages, and long drives between civilization. The region includes borders with Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Syria, and Iraq.
There were a number of quite long tunnels again, just like the road from Samsun to Trabzon. The longest one was 5,228 meters or about 3.2 miles! DS particularly loved the tunnels.
In Artvin, we stopped at a gas station that had clean Western toilets. Then we headed on the road for another 10 minutes to reach Saklı Bahçe et mangal Restaurant for lunch. It was conveniently right on our route and had a little parking and views of the dam they were building. Service was extremely slow, though I don’t know if that is normal or due to coronavirus slowdowns. There was plenty of seating (we were one of two families there) and a small outside playground area. It was old and a bit rickety, but the kids enjoyed it after being cooped up in the car. The workers did not speak any English and there wasn’t really a menu! Eventually they showed us a picture on the wall outside that had photos of their food and I pointed to what we wanted. We got 2 grilled kofte platters, homemade bread, and 3 waters for 115 tl (about $15). The platters were good, though the meat was very fatty. The homemade bread was delicious!
The hills and turns continued through Karagöl-Sahara National Park. We reached some pretty high elevations. The views though were amazing and, as our meds had kicked in, much more appreciated than before!
The road flattened out as we left the park and approached Ardahan. The land near Ardahan and to Kars was flatter and more farmland. We arrived at our hotel in Kars about 4:50 pm.
Kars is remote and set on a grassy plain. “Kar” means “snow” in Turkish. It was founded in the 10th century by the Armenian King Abas I. It used to have 100,000 people, though now is closer to 78,000. The Seljuks captured it in 1064, was ruled by the Georgians and Ottomans, and finally by the Russians (from 1878 to 1919). You still see a lot of Russian influence in the architecture. Famous sites in Kars include the citadel and stone bridge built by the Ottomans and the 10th century Armenian church. Most tourists who come to Kars are there to visit Ani, an hour away.
Kars is a smaller town and does not have chain hotels. We chose Hotel Katerina Sarayi and really enjoyed our stay there. I’d stay there again! We booked through a third-party booking site for ease as their website wasn’t great. It was a little hard to find initially in Kars as GoogleMaps claimed a road existed as a cut through that didn’t. I submitted a fix for that, and now the correct route seems to show.
The hotel is beautiful and decorated in lots of red and gold, which my daughter loved. The staff was very friendly, though had limited English. But nothing GoogleTranslate couldn’t solve! We booked 2 rooms as their largest said it only fit 3. When we got there, it turns out we could have fit 4 into one of the rooms as our 4 year old didn’t count towards numbers. But we were happy for the extra space. One room had a queen bed and a twin, and the other had a queen bed. Both had sitting areas. We ended up having DH sleep in the smaller room, and the kids and I slept in the larger room (kids in the queen and me in the twin) as they are too young to be on their own at night. The cost for both rooms was 105 Euro a night, which included breakfast.
The rooms did not have A/C, but do have small screened windows that open. There are heaters if you were there in the winter. We were comfortable enough in mid October, but it might get a bit warm in the summer. The hotel is an old manor house and has stairs, but not elevator. Our rooms were 2 flights up and the breakfast room was 1 flight above the ground floor.
They do not serve lunch or dinner in the hotel, but there were options within walking distance. Town is about a 10 minute walk away. The hotel is set at the foot of the castle, which rises on a hill above it. The town of Kars is very cute and we enjoyed walking along its sidewalks.
We chose to eat dinner at the Alexander Pushkin Cafe and Restaurant, which is a mix of Russian and Turkish food. It was the most unique meal we had on our trip and was quite delicious. We had shredded goose with bulgur rice, beef bits, soup with lentils and greens, and a dessert they said was unique to Kars–a helwa type dish with what appeared to be nuts, carrots, and molasses in it. The staff was delightful and very helpful. We particularly loved the goose, which was a first for the kids to have.