Turkey – CappadociaBack to Story

Some of the strangest landscapes

Turkey is a vast country with so much to offer that deciding where to go, having met friend and fellow traveler in Istanbul, we were spoilt for choose. Cappadocia leaps off the many billboard simply because the landscape looks surreal it is so strange. Could the weird mushroom like pillars be real? How on earth were such shapes formed?

Millions of years ago the volcano’s, covered the plateau in silt, which formed layers of material of various strength and porosity. With time the water and wind has eroded the soil leaving odd formations, caves and moonscape. The fact the climate is dry and therefore fairly sparse adds to the sense of drama.

Being on the ground already we head to one of the many local travel agents trying to sell tours and hand out advice. Preferring the more independent style of travel we ask about driving in Cappadocia. The look or horror and shaking of heads combined with the strong advice that driving was crazy – roads are terrible and your fellow drivers insane, was leading us astray.

Previous experience on the roads around Bodrum was telling a different story. Choosing to ignore their well meant but commission based advice, we picked up a car and explored the countryside. The roads were almost empty and very safe and driving allowed us to explore back roads at our leisure and avoid the bus loads of over enthusiastic tourists.

On the advice of an Australian traveler our base for the trip is at the Kismet Cave Hotel in Goreme. Faruk the owner of the hotel and gregarious host arranges a transfer from the airport and before you know it we are seeing this bizarre landscape for ourselves.

Faruk arranges one of his contacts to drop off a car for us to rent. With a bit of negotiating the owner agrees to meet us at the airport so we don’t need to arrange a transfer on the way out of town. Things seem to be very relaxed – minimal paperwork is required and a simple see you at the airport.

The biggest attraction in the region is the Goreme Open Air Museum, which holds the largest concentration of cave cathedrals in the area. Cappadocia was a safe haven for Christians seeking refuge firstly from the Romans and later the Arabs. The landscape of caves made natural homes and of course churches. The museum has well preserved examples of these cathedrals dating from the 10th to 12th Century. As one of the only two UNESCO sites in Turkey it is justifiably very famous.

The highlight of the caves is the colorful frescoes and painting of the walls in the cathedral caves. There is an amazing mix of styles and stories that have survived extremely well. The downside is that the shear volume of people trying to squeeze into the small caves means the experience is a little crammed and doesn’t allow time for experiencing the atmosphere inside these sacred caves. Tour groups tend to dominate the small spaces so an audio guide comes in useful to block out unnecessary chatter.

Thankfully though it proved easy to avoid the predictable path of the tour buses and explore the countryside. Little caves and cathedrals are dotted all over the countryside in empty valleys and lonely roads. So with a local map and some advice from Faruk we soon find ourselves enjoying some of the less famous cathedrals and being the only people there.

Goreme and Urgup are the main tourist towns to stay in and make an excellent base. Most hotels offer rooms built into the caves so you really feel like you’re experiencing some of the local life. Goreme is also famous for taking a dawn hot air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys. Watching the brightly colored balloons floating across the valleys is a pastime in itself if you can drag yourself out of bed.

The shapes and contours and color palate of the land lends itself to amazing views at sunrise and sunset. It is best experienced at sunset as the hills glow and the shadows add to the effect. There are many vantage points to enjoy the view and the locals are the best source of advice as vantage points change depending on the time of the year.

Despite being one of Turkey’s most visited regions outside of the tourist towns the villages are remarkably unchanged. Agriculture remains an important way of life and it is easy to experience these small villages with a short drive. The restaurants serve home cooked food that is much tastier and fresher than some of the tourist traps in the larger towns.

The Old Greek House restaurant in the Sinasos Village was one of those experiences. As soon as you see the village ladies sit chatting in the corner while busily rolling fresh stuff wine leaves you know the food is going to be authentic and fresh. Expectations were both not only met but exceeded as we enjoyed what was to be a favorite meal.

A few days of exploring the countryside and you can’t help but fall into the slower pace of village life. We notice that it is catchy and some of our fellow travelers choose to stay on extra days because they enjoyed the banter of the locals and relaxed atmosphere.  Nothing happens quickly in this part of the world but it all happens with a smile and laugh which soon becomes infectious and before you know it you’re ordering another thick Turkish coffee with your baklava or perhaps one of the local wines.

Underground cities

The region has hosted and protected many different groups over its history (AND). In 2 BC the Christians sheltered in the caves and lived in underground cities to hide from persecution firstly from the Romans and later from the Arabs. There are many underground cities still in Cappadocia today but the deepest is Derinkuyu Underground City. It is possible to visit these caves and have an insight into an almost prehistoric way of life.

The Kaymakli underground city is built under the hill known as the Citadel of Kaymakli. The people of Kaymakli constructed their houses around nearly one hundred tunnels. The discovered township extends over four levels and archeologists estimate that up to 3,500 people lived in the city in its peak. Some of the network is used by locals today as storage.

Goreme

Goreme is possibly the town at the heart of the action in Cappadocia. As a result it feels a lot busier and you have to seek out the travel experiences that make it more personal. Set in a small valley a lot of this town has houses and rooms still set in caves. It is well worth exploring the back streets after the tourist buses have left town for the night. You may see farmers bringing home their animals after grazing during the day.

Another popular way of appreciating the landscape is to take a hot air balloon over the valleys. At dawn, weather permitting, Goreme airspace is alive with a sea of hot air balloons. Don’t be surprised to see one float past your hotel room window if you are staying in Goreme. So if you have always dreamed of hot air ballooning make this destination the one to do it.

The ridges around the hills of Goreme offer a 360 degree vantage point for both watching the balloons or enjoying the sunset. Well worth the short hike up the hill or alternatively if you hired a car the road winds its way up there.

Turkey is also a well know location to buy an oriental rug or kilim. New Zealander, Ruth Lockwood and business partner have a store in Goreme called Tribal Collections. It is well worth popping in to browse through the extension collection and learn about some of the complexities of each of the rugs including weaving styles and tribal patterns. Thinking they might have culturally aligned sales techniques we check it out.  The selection proved to be very comprehensive and we didn’t feel the suffocating pressure to buy. While they didn’t get the all important sale we left feeling like we’d learnt a lot about carpets and with the mental promise to come back if we ever needed a carpet.

Staying and eating

Despite being a very popular tourist destination there is still a sense of country village life in Cappadocia. Goreme is certainly to liveliest of all the towns and where you will find the most diverse range of hotels and restuarants. Kismet Cave Hotel is a small character filled hotel hosted by Faruk Keles who provides true Turkish hospitality. If you want something a little more 5 star, with a pool perhaps, try Anatolian Houses.

Urgup

A town which is popular for Turkish visitors is the quieter Urgup. This sleepy town is worth a drive through and stop at one of the many specialty stores and taste the Turkish Delight or dried fruits. Urgup is fast becoming known for its boutique hotels and fine dining. Pre 1923 this town had a large Greek population and the influences in architecture can still be seen in the buildings.

While the hot air balloons may be based in Goreme, Urgup is a mere 20 minute drive away so an excellent alternative to use as a base.

Staying and eating

Boutique hotels are easy to find in this town. Try Serinn House or Sacred House as both offer the chance to stay in a cave.

Ziggy’s Shoppe and Cafe will be certain to lure you back for a second time. Even if only to have another cup of the best expresso you are likely to find in Cappadocia. It is a fair distance to walk from the centre of town but well worth the walk uphill or drive if you’ve a car. The little shop downstairs is also well worth checking out for handmade jewellery.

Around Cappadocia

If crowds in small spaces aren’t your thing then rent a car and explore some of the lesser trod paths. The tour buses all follow a well worn path and a quick chat with a local will point you in the right direction. If you are going to rent a car best pick it up at the Kayseri Airport, because Goreme and Urgup, the two most popular towns to use as a base, are approximately 60 minutes from the airport. Otherwise your hotel can arrange a transfer or you can book a transfer.

The surrounding valleys provide an excellent base for exploring either in your own time or perhaps on a guided walk. The Red and Rose Valleys have many unexplored areas. Or perhaps the Ihlara Valley, which has a deep gorge and many churches with frescoes. If you are out driving in the area definitely worth a visit is the Old Greek House, restaurant  in the Sinasos Village not far from Urgup. Set in a old sandstone building you can see the village woman rolling the stuffed vine leaves just before they appear on your plate. The food is as authentic and fresh as it comes and is some of the best food to be found in Cappadocia.

Fairy Chimneys, village life, and Ziggy\'s Cafe

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