It is hard to imagine that in a single day you can experience Cappadocia, from high above and into the depths of the earth, as well as, at ground level. However, if you are willing to go, go, go you can get in most of the highlights of the Cappadocia region of Turkey. This region, both past and present, people have lived in some improbable places. As far back as the 15th century, BCE people dwelled in underground cities. People no longer reside in these cities however people of Cappadocia do continue to live in caves. With the explosion of this area’s popularity cave homes converted to cave hotels have cropped up in abundance and innkeepers are having no trouble filling their rooms.
Sleep in a Cave
When you think cave, dark, damp, and devoid of creature comforts probably comes to mind. But the accommodations at Eren Bey Cave Hotel in the village of Goreme are softly lit and certainly not cold; naturally cooled by Mother Nature in summer and central floor heating in the cooler months. As for amenities, caves come equipped with a small in-room refrigerator, flat screen television, Wi-Fi, phone, King-size bed with inviting bedding, and a dual-head shower to die for. Our suite even had a mini Hammam.
A Sunrise Hotair Balloon Flight
My ideal day anywhere would not begin before sunrise. However, if I must wake before the sun it may as well be in a cave suite. The day starts with a 3:30 wakeup call, “time to get up” you hear in a soft voice. Why in the world would you be getting up at such an early hour? Why else? A hot-air balloon ride over the unique lunar terrain of Cappadocia. Without being fully awake we make our way to the lobby where a van is waiting to escort us off to the headquarters of Turkiye Balloons. Upon arrival, which is just a short distance from the hotel we are escorted into the office to confirm our group and to take care of payment. Once the formalities are over we indulge in a hearty buffet-style breakfast in a large reception area that reminds me of a lodge. Once everyone checks in and has eaten, we climb into the van assigned to us at registration. After being transported approximately 15 minutes away I am reminded why I would get up before the rooster crows. We have arrived at an open space surrounded by giant rock formations. Our balloon pilots and crew are already there and beginning to set up a massive yellow and white balloon attached to large baskets to accommodate up to 16 people.
By this time a first light is on the horizon. A weightless fog hovers above the field which is obscured by Fairy Chimneys and other limestone shapes.
With a blast of flames the balloons, still tethered, begin to inflate and their bright colors rise toward the dimly lit sky. One then another, then yet another we begin to see the illuminated orbs pop up all around us. We aren’t even aware of just how many are preparing a sunrise flight because they are nestled in the open areas between geological formations. As each one shows itself excitement builds as we know our turn is coming soon. Finally, the team begins to load passengers into the baskets. They need to consider people’s size and weight in determining each rider’s placement in the wicker vessel. As I understand it, this has everything to do with preparing for a smooth landing. Before we know it our basket is full and just about ready for liftoff. The pilot introduces himself and the copilot along with explaining that he can control the up and down movement of the balloon but the rest is up to wind direction, so don’t ask him to go back. Finally, he provides a few instructions for landing. It is around this time we realize we are already floating just above the earth. By now it is dawn. The sky is lit but the sun has not come up over the horizon. Balloons lift off one by one until finally there are hundreds of balloons of varying colors dotting the early morning sky. I can’t help but marvel at the majesty and the peacefulness of the moment. There is a low chatter among the passengers punctuated by the whoosh of flames keeping the balloon afloat.
And then we see it: the sun rising above the horizon. Silhouetted against the emblazoned sky are Fairy Chimneys and stone formations. Everyone oohs and aahs and moves into position to get the perfect photo.
By the time we absorbed this everyday occurrence seen from a whole new vantage point our balloon has passed over the town, it is light enough that we can really take in the lunar landscape. The natural rock formations were created over thousands of years, all due to erosion. In addition to the beauty of the natural scenery, the sky is now speckled with hundreds of balloons all around. By now, the experience has become surreal and serene. Off in the distance is Uçhisar Castle the highest point in the region. It is not a castle like those in England or Ireland. It is more of a hill with caves that were a strategic outlook. Today visitors make the trek up to the top for its astounding views. After about an hour of floating over the valleys and rock formations, the pilot starts the balloon’s descent. After landing in a field of wildflowers along with several other balloons there is a celebration complete with champagne and certificates. At this point, the van takes us back to the hotel. It feels as if I have put in a full day but it is only 8 AM. It is time for breakfast number two. Eren Bey offers a complimentary buffet breakfast for its guests. The spread consists of an assortment of fruits, cheeses, meats, cereal, bread, eggs, juices, and coffee. It is not exceptional but adequate. I found the fruit the most enjoyable part of the meal with a variety of luscious melons. The Turks grow a mean melon. After breakfast, I grab a coffee to go. Enjoy a little time to myself in the sunny courtyard area. Needing to check email this is probably the best place for Wi-Fi reception. The patio has several all-weather sofas and chairs and large potted plants for naturalizing the area. When the sun gets high in the sky the owners bring out umbrellas to shade their guests. On cool nights there is a fireplace built into one of the courtyard walls.
Amazing Landscape, Ceramics and UNESCO Site
At 9:30, the tour company picks us up in their air-conditioned van. Now we are off to see what we saw from the air but now at ground level. We will also visit an underground city, one of two in the region with the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. First, we are off to the Valley of the Monks where we see what the region has become known for; the fairy chimneys. These are natural limestone formations shaped by thousands of years of erosion. Our guide gave us time to walk around the area. We climb on and in and around these creations. And some consider this a good place to have their wedding photos shot. The day we were there a couple was doing exactly that. We did not spend a lot of time here as the heat was unbearable. Our guide seemed surprised that we did not stay longer. Under cooler temperatures, I’m sure we would have explored more. The next stop is Deverent Valley, also known as Imagination Valley. While the rock formations here were created in the same manner as the fairy chimneys their appearance is quite different. There is a reason this area has become known as Imagination Valley. Much like the way we look at the shapes of clouds and see whales or a bunny the rocks bring our imagination to life. Look around and see a stone camel or an angel or anything else you can fancy. Next up on the itinerary is the Underground City of Derinkuyu, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is an intricate tunnel system complete with wells, rooms, ventilation shafts, animal stalls, and even a church. No one knows who or when the city was built but experts believe that it may date back to the 15th Century BCE. In this case, the Hittites would be credited with building the elaborate underground metropolis. An alternate theory is the Phrygians built the maze of tunnels and dwellings between the 8th and 7th Centuries BCE. Some things historians and archeologists agree on is the system was built to keep intruders out. Access into the city is through narrow tunnels which enemies would have to come through single file. Also, there are massive “doors” of stone that are rolled into place like a wheel to seal off sections of the city. All of the tunnels and living spaces were dug out by hand. The City of Derinkuyu is not the largest of the underground cities throughout the region but experts believe it is the deepest, possibly extending down as much as 18 levels. Only eight levels have been excavated and are open to the public. These alone traverse 280 feet below the surface. This site is only for the able-bodied and sturdy shoes are a must. I recommend going through with a guide who can provide context. On our way back to the hotel we make two stops: one at Pigeon Valley, the other at the artisan’s village of Avanos. The country’s longest river, Kizilirmak (Red) River, runs through Avanos, a little enclave of ceramicists. The clay mined from this expansive waterway is used in their works of art. Clay is thrown (shaped) on a kick-wheel which means the potter is kicking a large stone wheel with his foot while working the clay spinning between his hands to create the beautiful vessels for which Turkey is known. The artists make it look easy. However, I am an experienced potter and when given the opportunity to try it I could not coordinate the hand movement and maintain the consistent wheel speed required. It was fun getting dirty and I have a far deeper appreciation for potters who do not use electric wheels. After playing in the clay we moved on to the area where the pieces are glazed before firing. The highest quality pieces get painted free-hand with intricate patterns including the tulip design common to Turkey. The lesser vessels get their pattern with the use of a stencil. This is an opportunity to buy gifts or something for your home at all price points. The different techniques and whether the pieces are made and decorated by a master or a novice create a vast price variation. Next stop, Pigeon Valley. We drove to an overlook. No fences here, so don’t venture too close to the soft limestone edge. From this vantage point, we can see Uçhisar Castle at the far end. The windswept valley that extends deep below us looks quite different than the terrain of the Fairy Chimneys despite both being carved out in the same manner. Pigeon Valley looks more like a river cut through it. Caves and pigeon houses punctuate the valley walls and protrusion from the valley base, hence the name. This could be considered an early communications hub as the pigeons were used to carry messages throughout the region. Their droppings are used as fertilizer. But today pigeons are not housed in the valley. We did not hike the Pigeon Valley due to time restraints but if inclined you can enter from behind Uçhisar. There are two trails, a long and a short that travel in different directions. There is no charge to enter. By this time we have been awake since, what I call, “before the ass-crack of dawn.” We viewed the region from the air, on the ground, and even underground. We have worked up an appetite.
Authentic Organic Turkish Food
After being returned to Eren Bey I recommend walking the short distance into the village for dinner at the Organic Cave Kitchen. The food is all made fresh and the meal is served with bread made on the premises in a stone oven. Additionally, they serve salad which you may or may not feel comfortable eating. I did, without incident. For your main course, I recommend the kabab pot. If I’m honest I recommend this in part because of the ritual that goes with it. But also, Turkish food has such a richness of flavors that makes it wonderful. Take a look at this comprehensive digest of Turkish foods. The food is cooked and brought to the table in a sealed clay pot. The waiter will have someone from the table do the honors of breaking open the vessel with a small hammer. We ordered two and shared, one chicken and the other vegetarian. Both were tasty. After our meal, while we waited for our Turkish coffee I wandered to the back patio area. I was so glad I did. Just behind the restaurant, a small group of village women had gathered. It was a great photo opportunity. I had already taken hundreds of pictures through the course of the day but I love seeing people in their natural environment going about their daily routine. It provides perspective. It feels a bit like peeking behind the curtain. For me, this was a delightfully unexpected ending to a photo-worthy day. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you can see most of the highlights of the area. I did not get to the Open Air Museum but one member of our group, and I am embarrassed to say the oldest, made it there. She says she would have been disappointed had she not gotten there. She felt it was worth the sleep deprivation. If you enjoy early religious sites and time allows, then this is probably something you should fit in. It is my understanding that you can spend an entire day visiting the churches and viewing the beautiful frescos from the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries. The surrounding area is considered especially good for hiking. If I have the good fortune to return this is where my trip will begin.