A region born out of volcanic ashes, Cappadocia is enchanting with its fairy chimneys, cave churches and cities, whirling dervishes and memorable hot air balloon rides
IT SEEMED LIKE A HOLIDAY ON THE MOON, ALL WHITE AND CRAGGY. Had someone told me that I would drink champagne at 8.30 in the morning after a hot air balloon ride over the lunar-like valleys of Cappadocia, I would have told them to go take a walk. But at that time I didn’t know that this would really happen, nor did I know that there’s magic in Cappadocia’s air and this seeped into my soul during my short two-day stay there.
Pronounced in different ways-Cappadocia, Kapadokya, Kappadokia–it means the ‘land of beautiful houses’ in Persian. Today, this spectacular region with clear blue skies, pure air, apricot and olive trees, wineries, potteries, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It comprises Aksaray, Nevsehir, Nigde, Kayseri and Kirsehir in the Central Anatolian region of Turkey. Evidence suggests that it has been inhabited since prehistoric times.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Our Australian pilot swerved the balloon for one-and-a-half hours over the zigzag tufa terrain, taking advantage of the gentle winds. Far into the horizon, the sun had risen, the valley had turned all shades of oranges and pale yellows. The streaks of colour in the sky made it difficult to imagine that millions of years ago this ash-white, pristine region was nothing but lava, ash and mud. The fury of now inactive volcanoes has given way to almost surreal surroundings. If you have seen the landscape in Star Wars, you will know what I am talking about. It’s like being on the Moon and you expect angels and fairies to be flying around you.
The curving, swerving and going in and out of the mountains was ‘contour flying’, the pilot explained, and it gave us a grand view of the surreal region. In between the curves and swerves and high and low flying, our guide pointed out the holes in the soft rock mountains. These were the churches and dwellings of the Christians hiding in these mountains, escaping the wrath of the Roman Empire during the 2nd century. But my feminine sensibility liked the romanticism of the local lore. Cappadocia is the place where the angels lived. And when the demons came, they hid in these caves and underground cities in the area because they didn’t want to leave Cappadocia.
Up in the balloon, in the distance, the mountains were rose-colored, hence the name Rose Valley. Along the valleys, we could see pathways to walk through the extraordinary natural formations. We could also see patches of apricot and other fruit cultivations—the seeds had been sown.
We looked down at the red river flowing through the valley. This is the longest river in Turkey, almost 800 miles, and called Kizilirmak (Kizil means river and Irmak means red). It looked like a stream from the height we were at. But we did spot some ducks and the green shore looked so beckoning.
A couple of foxes looked at us briefly, and even as the balloon hovered down, they disappeared into the natural formations.
Hot Air Balloon Ride Operator: Royal Balloon offers 60-minute Queen’s flight and 75-minute King’s flight.
Food & Drinks
The angelic quality prevails across the region. Locals will make you feel at home with their warm smiles and personal touch in everything, including the food. The chicken stew at Bizim EV, a family-run restaurant in Avanos, Nevşehir, was simply heavenly with lots of tomatoes in the curry. And sitting under the warm sun, savoring the serenity, was a treasured experience.
The Greek Influence
Cappadocia is a blend of different civilisations-Persians, Greeks, Romans, Selchuks. And this was visible in the old Greek village of Mustafa, which has a Greek church, opened on special occasions. Our guide told us that the population exchange between Greece and Turkey had led to a lot of mingling of customs and cultures.
The old world charm of the place transports you to a bygone era. The pace is slow, the streets are cobbled, small shops are scattered around the village centre, people smile as you walk by (something which doesn’t happen in the cities). And the sky above is so clear.
We walked to the Old Greek House, where we had a home-cooked lunch comprising baked potatoes, vegetables and it ended with the famous Turkish sweet Baklava and chai. Turks love chai, but it is different from the milk chai we have in India. The cups sure are worth buying for your home.
Treks & Trails
I felt like Alice in Wonderland. The world around me was so silent, yet so vocal, the landscape leaving no space for words. The valley had many flat table mountain tops and pathways for treks, exploring the many caves and churches. This needed a day, at least. The urban dwellings had come up almost seven decades back. The earlier humans had lived in caves. As basic necessities such as lighting and food became a problem, the dwellings changed.
Volcanoes you can climb in summer: Erciyes, Melendiz, Hasan.
Trek through the valleys of: Ihlara, Soganli, Love, Rose, Red, Zemi, Meskendir, Pigeon, Gomeda and Pancarlik.
Cappadocia is famous for its cave hotels and the government has rules and regulations in place for restoration. We stayed at the Argos hotel in Uchisar. It took 14 years to restore Argos. I say restore because these were caves converted into 32 rooms. There were no TVs in the rooms, but iPods and other amenities made it a cool stay. Looking at the interiors, it was quite difficult to imagine it as a cave. The exterior melted into the landscape and there was nothing amiss for it just belonged with the landscape.
Over a sumptuous dinner and a bottle of red wine, the manager of the hotel informed that preservation was part of the government’s plan. The wine was thicker than French or Italian wines and a specialty of the region.
We also visited the Cappadocia Cave Resort, which boasted of a heavenly spa and a couple spa room in a 1000-year-old cave.
We were in the land of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi (1207-1273), so we couldn’t miss the famous ‘whirling dervishes’ ceremony, called Sema. It is held at Saruhan Carevanserai every night. This is a well preserved 13th century serai on the Silk Route.
The ceremony of Sema symbolises man’s mystical journey of spiritual ascent. It has different stages. “The dervish with his hat (his ego’s tombstone), and his white skirt (his ego’s shroud) is spiritually born to the truth. When he removes his black cloak, he advances to spiritual maturity. At the beginning and each stage of the Sema holding his arms crosswise he represents number one, and testifies to God’s unity. While whirling his arms are open, his right hand directed to the sky ready to receive God’s beneficence, gazing his left hand turned toward the earth for giving what he received to poor, he turns from right to left, pivoting around the heart. This is his way of conveying God’s spiritual gift to the people upon whom God ‘looks with a Divine’ watchfulness. Revolving around the heart, from right to left, he embraces all of humankind, all the creation with affection and love,” explains goreme.com.
Respecting the Sufi ritual, the audience sat in silence. Entranced by the mystical swirls, we watched till the very end, caught in the spiral flow of energy. And there was Turkish tea on the way out.
Fairy Chimneys, Cave Churches
Cappadocia has many surprises in its bosom for those who love history and geology. Our guide also took us to see the fairy chimneys, which give the region its surreal ambience. These are tall tufa structures with basalt caps on the top to prevent erosion. And in these fairy chimneys lived the monks. Local legends say that the monks lived here as God didn’t want to do any more creation and humans couldn’t make these.
We also went to the Open Air Goreme museum with its cave churches and more monk dwellings. Göreme became a monastic centre between 300-1,200 AD. The rocks there have eroded into pillars and minaret-like forms.
With our guide, we walked into the museum to see the frescoes inside the churches. The life of Jesus—disciples, birth, crucification, and other important events—were painted in natural vegetable colors. The complex contains 30 rock carved churches and chapels with some frescoes dating between the 9th and 11th centuries.
A natural treasure trove, Cappadocia has more than 35 underground cities. We explored the Kaymaki Underground City, largely used by early Christians as hiding places before Christianity gained acceptance. As the roof is low, you have to bend a lot between turns and twists in the city which is built on different levels. The government has installed electric lighting now, but I could imagine the darkness of the eras long gone.
The city was a work of ingenuity with its ventilation systems, water storage facilities, living areas, granaries, chimneys, prayer rooms, bedrooms. I was transported to the beginning of time and the history of evolution flashed through my time. Many more excavations were underway, I was told.
More underground cities: Mazı, Tatlarin, Derinkuyu, Guzelyurt, Ozkonak, Ozluce, Gaziemir.
Drive through Cappadocia
The best way to explore is to hire a bike. But we went around in a car. There are cave cafes in the region too. We climbed up three stories inside the cave to soak in the environs, the view leaving us wonderstruck. The interiors were traditionally Turkish with bright rugs, cushions and we enjoyed the Turkish cuppa.
There is another interesting spot, Pigeon Valley. The name is self explanatory. It is where the pigeons live. Their poop was earlier collected to use as manure, but then chemical fertilisers replaced this.
Time was short, and we saw a local open-air market briefly. A trip to the wineries, carpet weaving centres, pottery making centres is unmissable. Another must do is a night drive in the mountains.
All too soon, the two days came to an end, and here I am sharing my happy memories, a decade later.
How to reach Cappadocia: The nearest airport is at Kayseri and has regular flights to and from Istanbul, which is well connected to all major international cities.
This travelogue first appeared in Swagat (Air India’s now defunct magazine), March 2011 issue.