Turkey of the regions 4: the styles of the Northeast
Only recently have the authorities woken up to the damage done to the built environment with belated attempts to create a new vernacular architecture featuring half-timbering for the official buildings of coastal towns such as Çayeli.
Behind the scenes, though, there is lovely regional architecture to be found even in this part of the country. The best place to start is probably Kars, whose back streets are full of unlikely “Baltic architecture,” a legacy of Russian occupation. There are also several places where more predictable wooden chalet architecture survives, such as around Şavşat and Ardanuç. Occasionally, you will also stumble upon some of the magnificent mansions, not unlike the traditional Turkish houses of Central Anatolia, that were built by the wealthy in places such as Rize and Çamlıhemşin. Trabzon retains one quirky building that looks to have strayed from the Crimea. Surprisingly, it is in the small town of Akçaabat that you get the best idea of what housing might have looked like had concrete never been invented.
KarsDuring the 19th century the northeastern town of Kars, best known to visitors for its proximity to the ruins of the old Armenian capital of Ani, was frequently at war with Tsarist Russia. Under the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano at the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 Kars became the capital of a new Russian province named Kars Oblast that survived right through until 1918. It was during this period that the extraordinary architecture of the streets running down to the river north of Faik Bey Caddesi came into being.
Nowhere else in Turkey is there anything like this. The Yusufpaşa, Cumhuriyet and Ortakapı mahalles (neighborhoods) are all laid out in a neat and very un-Turkish grid pattern. Street after wide, tree-lined street is lined with pastel-colored, one-story stone-built houses adorned with stucco pilasters and swags of flowers. In between them stand grander edifices housing government offices that look as if they would be more at home in Saint Petersburg. In a reminder of the days of horses and carriages most of the private houses came with side arches wide enough to allow them to pass to the backyard. Other houses are of bare basalt with a trim of white wood that stands in sharp contrast. The buildings are routinely dubbed “Baltic” (a more comfortably neutral term than “Russian”) although the designers responsible were apparently Dutch.
Belatedly, these streets are being spruced up in an effort to encourage tourists to linger, and already one hotel has taken up residence in a restored basalt building. The minimalist design of the rooms in the Kar's Otel (tel: 0474-212 1616) may strike some as unduly austere but in the lobby visitors get the chance to inspect a pec, a local variation on the sort of standard tiled stove that was once fashionable across country in Constantinople (İstanbul) and that provided central heating to the entire building.
The Russian occupation has left two other conspicuous monuments in the form of the train station and what was once the 19th-century Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Church and is now the Fethiye Cami, both to the south off Cumhuriyet Caddesi.
Around ŞavşatThe road from Artvin to Ardahan passes through the settlement of Şavşat where concrete rules the roost. In the surrounding villages, however, elegant wooden chalets with pitched roofs still linger on although their owners are almost without exception elderly. The chalets are usually built on two stories with the ground floor used for storage and the upper one for living. Verandahs often run the entire length of the front side while wooden versions of the cumbas (bay windows) of townhouses jut out from the façade.
The best of these houses survive in the village of Meydancık, but this is hard to get to without your own car. Within taxi distance of Şavşat there are also lovely wooden chalets across the road from the ruined Georgian Tbeti church at Cevizli and in the village of Veliköy, where in February wrestlers from all over Turkey and Georgia gather to take part in the country's only kar güreşi (snow-wrestling) tournament.
These days most yayla (upland pasture) settlements are as likely to be full of concrete as the towns, but if you look out of the bus on the right as it climbs from Şavsat towards the Çamlibel Pass and Ardahan, you will spot Yukarı Kocabey Yaylası where neat, simple log cabins still provide summer accommodation for local herders.
Around ArdanuçIn the past it obviously made sense to build in wood in this northeastern area where there was so much native forest, but that didn't mean that everyone opted for the same design. Around Ardanuç, for example, in the village of Bulanık you will see a completely different take on the idea of the wooden chalet, while in nearby Aydınköy some wooden houses even try on the odd Art Nouveau flourish.
ÇamlıhemşinFor most visitors to the Kaçkar Mountains Çamlıhemşin is a little more than a bottleneck village that they must pass through on the way to the uplands at Ayder. If, however, instead of turning right for Ayder you keep following the Fırtına river straight ahead towards Zilkale, you will come to a suburb named Konaklar where, so high up on the hillside that it's almost impossible to imagine how anyone got there, you will see some of the last remaining mansions whose stone and half-timbered architecture supplied the model for the new look of places like Çayeli.
Two-storied once again, these mansions are a mountain take on the traditional Turkish house of Central Anatolia but without the jutting upper stories and sometimes erratic floor plans designed to fit chaotic urban street plans. Instead, these are solid rectangular edifices with more windows than one might have expected in such a cold part of the world built flush into the stone walls.
In a reminder of the geopolitics of this part of the world in the 19th century, many of the mansions were built for men who had made fortunes in Russia, then repatriated the profits to create dream homes back in their birthplaces. Needless to say, many stand empty today.
Rize and ŞürmeneThe houses of Çamlıhemşin are lovely but not readily accessible except by car. To get some idea of what they look like you could instead pause briefly in Rize, where a group of imposing Ottoman mansions of simpler design are grouped picturesquely together in the town center; two house museums, one a restaurant.
Better still, you could hop out of the bus between Rize and Trabzon in Sürmene, where, on a bluff right beside the Black Sea Highway, the superb half-timbered early 19th-century Memişağa Konağı (AKA the Kastel) not only exhibits a slightly more elaborate take on the Çamlıhemşin style complete with cumbas, but is also open to the public. Pop in to take a look at another complex system for centrally heating a house and firing up a private hamam at the same time.
TrabzonThe big port city of Trabzon is hardly renowned for splendid architecture, although it is worth seeking out the hilltop Atatürk Köşkü, a magnificent whitewashed wooden mansion in a splendid garden that was built in 1903 for a local banker, Constantine Kapagiannidis, in imitation of the style of houses to be seen across the Black Sea in the Crimea. In the town center the museum is housed in another building designed for a wealthy 20th-century banker, this time in hybrid Franco-Italian style.
ŞimşirliHigh on the hillside at Şimşirli in the İkizdere valley south of Rize a rare wooden mosque built in the mid-19th century still survives, robbed of its doors but with all its lovely internal woodwork intact. Viewing this, it's hard to understand why concrete ever caught on as a building material for mosques.
AkçaabatNot far west of Trabzon Akçaabat is the sort of small town most people whisk straight through, stopping, if at all, just to lunch on the köfte for which it is famed. But those with the energy to strike up the steep hill at the back of town will be in for a pleasant surprise. In the old Orta Mahalle encircling the late Byzantine church of St Michael the Archangel lovely wood-framed townhouses with jutting cumbas face out to sea, a sobering reminder of what might have been in all the Black Sea towns. They are finally being given a facelift, not a moment too soon.