After you land at the small airport of the northeastern Turkish city of Kars and take a taxi or bus to the center, the first thing that comes to the eyes and mind is the “More” and then the cheese. In all months except August, the probability of being greeted by clouds and rain is high. The city is located at an altitude of almost 1,800 meters above sea level, so the winter is severe, but nevertheless long. The view I show you in the above photo can be seen during the short spring, in the second half of May.

In Kars Castle

Let me tell you more about this view. The heart of Kars is its castle, which dominates the landscape from the top of the Black Hill (Karadag). Its oldest parts are from the 13th century, when it was the capital of the Bagratids. I have to honestly admit that these lands have changed “ownership” so many times that I can never sort out local history in my head. Take, for example, the same Bagratids; once I find them as a Georgian dynasty, a second time as rulers of one of the Armenian kingdoms. I give up…

The Kumbet Mosque, former Church of the Apostles

Below the fortress, there is a complex of interesting buildings scattered at the foot of Karadag. One of them is the former Church of the Apostles, today the Kumbet Mosque (in the photo above). There are several other mosques, a former konak (Ottoman administrative building) turned into a hotel, and three old hammams or bath-houses that do not function as such anymore. Gardens, benches and several restaurants and coffee-shops. All this along the river winding around the hill and bearing the original name of … Kars.

A view from Kars Castle

On the streets that start from the castle, the old and the new coexist hand in hand, or more precisely, wall to wall. The “old” are buildings dating from the nearly 4 decades in which this territory was Russian (didn’t I tell you it was confusing). I am talking about the last years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The architecture is very typical and most of it is in good condition, though you will also come upon views like this:

Old Russian architecture

Today, the renovated and maintained buildings house mostly public institutions, which are not few considering that Kars is both a district and a municipal center. Also somewhat the center of the development region formed together with the neighboring provinces of Ardahan, Agri and Igdir, the names take some time to pronounce. One of the renovated buildings houses the Agency for the Development of this region, which are currently my bosses.

Well-maintained Russian architecture in Kars

The Russian heritage peeks not only from the buildings. You will meet the Pushkin Restaurant and the Dostoyevski Café. The best cheese masters were the people of the so-called Malakan ethnic group, which we can easily associate with the Russian word for “milk” – Moloko. They say that in the villages, people still use Russian words as “Spasibo” – Thank you. And in souvenir shops, they sell Russian fur hats for the winter. Here’s a picture of one of the establishments –

Russian heritage is everywhere

It’s time to finally mention the cheese we started with. The main livelihood of local people is animal breeding, and rather, cow breeding. As the cows graze high-altitude grasses and herbs, their milk turns out to be both very tasty and very healthy. They make different types of cheeses out of it. This livelihood is so important that local authorities have opened a cheese museum located in one of the Ottoman bastions called “Tabya”.

Kars Cheese Museum

The “Tabya” is a military fortification, usually dug into a hill. The entrance to the Cheese Museum – although it doesn’t show too much in the photo – is “dressed” in cheese curds. Inside we are told the story of this kind of livelihood; they introduce us to the climate of Kars, which due to the altitude provides special vegetation for the cows to graze on, as well as special microorganisms that help the cheese ripen.

Inside the Cheese Museum

The locals are most proud of the Gruyere cheese, but I can tell you that if you’re not a fan of the rich flavors, you’ll have a hard time even carrying it in your backpack, let alone eating it. I personally liked the plain yellow cheese, which is a fantastic appetizer for the red Georgian wine sold in the shops. You can also buy it in the museum cafe, and if you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling in the last picture – yes, it’s cables, but the idea is to resemble string cheese, which is also very typical of the area.

Cheese Museum coffee shop

If you find the Kars region intriguing, you may also take a look at  the medieval city of Ani and the palace of the Ottoman ruler Ishak Pasha.