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Queen of the Wild Frontier

Min Hogg journeys from Kars to Van

She may be unconvinced by Noah’s Ark, but Min Hogg finds plenty to feast on as she journeys across the vast borderlands where Turkey approaches Armenia and Iran. From Kars to Van, from Silk Road to honeycombs and colossal breakfasts, she brings a wry, painterly eye to her lively account

Few would go to Kars for their holidays. But lying as it does close to the borders of Georgia, Armenia and Iran, and midway between the Black Sea and Lake Van, it is a perfect jumping-off point for adventures. The landscape is huge, flat and treeless. Older houses are either one-storey in stone with grassed roofs or Neoclassical painted stucco – reminders of a Tsarist past. Interestingly, in 1918 Kars declared itself a republic, but after only eight months the cabinet, based on a Russian model, was coerced into joining Turkey. In the outskirts small farms with compounds enclosed in dry-stone walls are teeming with cattle, geese and sheep. Heaps of compacted dung bricks resemble the vaulting horses in a school gymnasium. The haystacks are way larger than the houses, and everything is the colour of nature save for clothes on washing lines, which flutter in brilliant reds, pinks and greens. High on a rocky outcrop is Kars Castle, where a statue of Atatürk stands frozen in mid-stride.

The Simer Hotel is a sober concrete affair of seven storeys, and the pillows on its beds in no way reflect the local abundance of goose down, but we are made very welcome. As a pre-dinner snack I order cecil – a Kars cheese that I am reliably told resembles string. Curious. We are brought a herby cream variety, not in the least stringy, which turns out to be otlu peynir from Van. After a couple of further attempts, the waiter understands my ever more energetic sign language and, wreathed in smiles, brings a skein of stringy white elastic. Sadly it is less than a culinary highlight.

Kars Museum has the expected ancient pottery and lovely costumes. In its garden are stone sculptures in rounded shapes resembling the sheep drawn in the 1940s by Henry Moore, and as we inspect them a live flock scampers past – apparently their fatty tails make a soup almost fatal to an unaccustomed digestion. The horned rams look like miniature Highland cattle. The sheep attempt to board our parked bus but are beaten off by the herdsman.

The governor of Kars lives in a low yellow-stuccoed house. Guards with talkie-talkies usher us through to the mighty chandelier-lit drawing room, its five windows curtained in olive-green velvet and nets with pointed lace hems. Round the perimeter, for each guest, is an armchair, a coffee table, a plate of cakes and a glass of tea. The visiting Minister of Culture, seated on a throne of mock-croc leather, informs us in faultless English that, shamefully, the UK was not represented at his Istanbul conference on intangible world heritage – songs, dance, patterns and so on. The governor speaks in Turkish, brilliantly translated by a schoolmaster with a Groucho Marx moustache…

Min Hogg is the founding editor of The World of Interiors

To read the full article, purchase Issue 44

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Issue 44, 2010 Classics with a Twist
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 44
  • Silent Witness

    These empty homes on Istanbul’s Asian shore were once full of life, hopes and dreams. Maureen Freely studies the haunting photographs of Metehan Özcan

  • Sea of Blooms

    The magic of southwest Turkey can still catch you unawares, especially if you sail. Botanist Ro FitzGerald boards a fine ketch and plots a course for that stunningly beautiful corner where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean.

  • The Bottle-Top Mansion

    An architectural extravaganza built in America’s Gilded Age for the man who invented the bottle top, the Everett House in Washington DC has a long and colourful connection with Turkey. Thomas Roueché charts its history. Photographs by Jürgen Frank.

  • On the Road to Ruins

    John Henry Haynes was the father of American archaeological photography. Many of his images are the only record of a vanished Anatolian heritage. On the centenary of his death, Robert Ousterhout pays tribute.

  • Plum Perfect

    Only Kastamonu in the hinterland of the Black Sea, boasts the naked plum (üryani erik). In Daday, a valley just outside the town, a handful of villages have been encouraged to keep cultivating this plump, purplish-blue variety. When it is ripe and oozing with fragrance and sweetness, the delicate skin peels off easily to expose the amber-coloured flesh.
    More cookery features

  • Adventures in Istanbul

    There was never a dull moment growing up in the British Consulate in Sixties Istanbul. Griselda Warr selects photographs from her mother Gillian’s album and tells tales of shooting stars, benign espionage and a call girl wronged

Buy the issue
Issue 44, 2010 Classics with a Twist
£8.00 / $10.14 / 332.92 TL
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