Bizarre tuff formations, valleys with cave dwellings and underground cities
Huge volcanic eruptions, followed by millions of years of erosion made Cappadocia into a unique, freakish landscape with gorges and strange rock formations. Since prehistoric times people carved cave dwelling in the soft tuff. This made complete rock walls look like Swiss cheese. There even are underground cities where the population hid when East and West were fighting once again. All of this together makes Cappadocia a unique travel destination.
Travelogue & photos: Hans van der Ham
After our flight from Istanbul to Kayseri it's only a one hour trip to Göreme, at the center of Cappadocia which is part of the province of Anatolia in Central Turkey. Hotel Kelebek Suites in Göreme itself is part of what makes Cappadocia so special: it is a cave hotel and its rooms have partly been carved out in the tuff walls above the city.
From our room (in a new part of the hotel, built in traditional style) we have a great view of the rose garden. Owner Ali collects antiques like jars, vazes, windows and donkey carts. These objects are scattered throughout the garden.
In the garden we have a breathtaking view of the Göreme Valley below us, especially wonderful when the setting sun colors the surroundings. There are all kinds of sounds coming form the valley: crowing roosters, mooing cows, barking dogs and calls to prayer from the mosques.
And there is the odd custom of announcing news several times a day throug a public speaker system, for example wedding announcements. It reminds me of an old tv-series about an English summer camp.
There are apartments and shops carved out in most tuff walls
We descend on a steep cobbled road to Göreme. Göreme National Park and Cappadocia's tuff formations are on the Unesco World Heritage List. The village of Göreme lies centered between these special valleys.
The village is supposed to be the tourist center of Cappadocia, but there aren't many tourists (mid-June). Göreme is a rather sleepy village. There are some souvenir stores and travel offices, but they don't seem busy and they don't approach us. It's very relaxed in comparison with Alanya or Bodrum.
Most of the bustle is caused by a junction of two through-roads in the village, but even this is relative. There isn't much else to tell about Göreme, except that it was built between the bizarre tuff formations for which Cappadocia is known.
Even inside the village you will find these characteristic tuff formations, usually around 20 meters high. In most of them, apartments and shops have been carved out. Many are deserted and look like ruins, but that makes the place very picturesque. In that sense, Göreme is definitely a beautiful and special place.
I find it remarkable that most people look very westernized. The kids look the same as they do at home (in The Netherlands), except that they don't have tattoos or piercings. But I don't see women wearing veils or headscarves either. Outside the villages we see mostly old people: old women working hard in the fields and old men sitting outside.
We walk out of the village to the open air museum: it is the only tourist attraction here. After a few kilometers in the heat, under an azure sky, we see the Valley of the Swords to the left of the road.
It is a group of oddly shaped rocks with clearly visible caves and holes. It is like this everywhere in Cappadocia. But they look different from valley to valley: the colors vary because of the different kinds of mineral in the soil and also the shapes are different. It's really an interesting and varied area.
To our right, opposite the Valley of the Swords, is the entrance of the open air museum. It's quiet here as well, even though the number of turnstiles suggests otherwise.
The open air museum isn't very big, but still you can spend one or two hours there. Again there are interestingly shaped rocks, with caves and holes, but mainly churches that were carved out in the tuff. There are remains of beautiful paintings, but there isn't much left of the churches. Still it's very interesting, with beautiful views everywhere you look.
The only thing you hear is the fire pushing hot air in the balloon
We get up at 4:30 AM and half an hour later we are picked up by a van from Göreme Balloons, where we booked a balloon ride in advance via internet. It is still cold, so we are wearing jackets. At 5:15 AM we arrive at a field somewhere outside Göreme. Meanwhile it's getting light.
There are many people already and the balloons are being filled with air. Some are ready, others are still flat on the ground. How big these things are from close up. The baskets that are attached to the balloons are different in size. Some are for 6 people, others for 20, like the one we end up in.
Getting into the baskets isn't easy for everyone, but it's nothing compared with getting out. There are a few notches in the sides of the baskets, in which you stick your feet to climb inside. You would expect a little ladder, because there are many elderly people. We have to synchronize with people boarding on the other side, to keep the basket balanced.
And then, all of a sudden, we very calmly rise from the ground. Soon we can see, far below us, the bustle around the other balloons that are still being filled with air.
There are already other balloons around us, in the light of the sun rising between the rocks. Every balloon has different colors and patterns.
It's very peaceful and quiet in the air. The sun rises quickly and bathes the rocks and fields in beautiful colors. The pilot tells us something about the areas we fly over. We float over the Pink Valley, the Göreme Valley and the Valley of the Pigs, which has special rocks with nicknames like "fairy chimney", "gnome hat" and "penis rock."
The only sound we hear is the fire from the burner that pushes hot air into the balloon. And we feel it, too.
At some point we are floating extremely low over the valley. It turns out that there is no wind at all here. We descend slowly, until we touch the tops of the trees and then even the wheat on the field.
I even can take a picture of a strawberry plant from close up. This lasts for a short while. A waste of our time, but it's all in the game. We booked a 45 minutes ride, which will now last for an hour.
Ater a while the pilot succeeds in getting the balloon up, but now we are slowly floating towards a rock! I don't know what to do: keep looking at the approaching disaster or not. Eventually I keep taking pictures, pretending to be coldblooded. We miss the rock by less then two meters.
So, we got away from the rock in one piece, but now we float towards a high- voltage cable! But we also succeed - exasperatingly slow - to avoid this one. And then it's time to land.
Landing goes as smoothly as taking off. Before we descend, the pilot uses a walkietalkie to announce where we will land. We can see a tractor below us driving toward the spot where we will touch ground.
Staff on the ground pull on the basket to bring it in the right position, because we have landed over a ditch. Getting out of the basket is hard for some passengers. You have to push yourself up and then climb out of the basket and jump. Debarking also requires that two people on opposite sides of the basket synchronize their actions to keep the basket balanced.
After we have debarked, we get a glass of champagne and a certificate. That is a tradition in this branch of sports. Meanwhile, the balloons are already filling up again with other people.
Back at the hotel it's only 7:30 AM. I have a surreal feeling about what we have done already before this early hour. It is an unforgettable experience. We go back to bed for another hour, because it's too early for breakfast.
Open air museum Zelve
Three valleys with cave dwellings and cave churches
We take a regional bus from Göreme to Zelve, about 5 kilometers farther, which also has an open air museum. After a while, the busdriver tells us to get off the bus. We stand at the beginning of a road with a sign that tells us that this is the way to the museum.
So here we walk, on a deserted asphalt road. It's very hot and the sky is azure. Fortunately, after a while a car with an elderly man in it stops: he smells extra income. He drops us off at the entrance of the museum.
The open air museum is even more deserted than the one in Göreme. The entrance fee is again a symbolic one. The museum covers three valleys. The first one is fenced off because of a ground collapse. The second one is the most popular and the third one doesn't get much visitors.
We visit the first valley anyway. It takes a lot of clambering. We see lots of caves, some with (delapidated) churches in them. The natural surroundings and the colors around us are wonderful, but it's so hot! At some point we can't continue on, so we return.
Then we walk through the second valley for a while. We skip the third one, because of the heat. So back to the exit and a gypsy cab takes us back to Göreme.
Saruhan caravan serai
Dervishes in white dresses and with tall hats twirl their rounds
We have plans for tonight as well. We are picked up at 9:30 PM for a drive to the Saruhan caravan serai, where a dervish performance will take place.
Dervishes are "monks" who belong to mystical Sufi brotherhoods, which are part of Islam. They are famous for their fast twirling dances in white dresses and with tall hats.
The dancing dervishes of the Mevlevi Order originate in the city of Konya, just outside of Cappadocia.
The caravan serai, a place where in the past caravans, including merchandise and animals could spend the night in safety, is large and pretty. Inside three stands are set up in one of the galleries. In the courtyard at its center is a space for the dancers.
Well, we are really disappointed. For a long time )obviously unintelligable) texts or prayers are recited in a sleep-inducing way. After this, endless bows by the gentlemen and then the dance finally begins. But it also is disappointing because of its monotony.
Fortunately the whole thing doesn't take more than an hour. We are only allowed to take pictures during the last 5 minutes. Then we get a warm herbal drink in the courtyard. On the positive side: it all looks very authentic, not touristic.
A complete underground city up to 85 meters deep
We are picked up by a van for a day trip, together with three other people from our hotel and a guide. It's almost a private tour. First we drive to the Ihlara Valley.
On the way we visit Derinkuyu, one of the most famous underground cities in Cappadocia. The city goes 85 meters deep and has 15 floors. Tourists can only visit ten per cent of the city, which was opened for the public in 1969.
The oldest remains date back to the Phrygians in the eighth and seventh century BC, but the most important additions date from the Byzantine period. The city, which was connected to other underground cities via kilometers- long tunnels, offered room for 50,000 people in times of war. It had wine and olive presses, warehouses, stables and chapels.
The underground city had around 600 entrances, most of them hidden underneath houses. The entrances could be secured with enormous stone doors. Only in times of disaster people went underground. Even though the guide explains everything clearly, we don't really understand how people lived underground.
A green gorge with churches and dwellings in the tuff walls
We continue on to the Ihlara Valley, a 16 kilometers long gorge at the foot of the 3,916 meters high Erciyes volcano. Together with the Hasan volcano (3,268 meters) and dozens of smaller volcanoes, it erupted 30 million years ago and covered a large surface with ashes and lava, from which the erosion-prone tuff was formed which gives Cappadocia its look. The eruptions lasted for no less than 10,000 years.
In a village on the edge of the 110 meters deep Ihlara gorge we walk down stairs all the way to the bottom. Many, many steps. At the foot of the stairs is a church which has been carved into the tuff. At least, it used to be that. There are many like these in the gorge, but we pass the others without looking.
We walk 3 kilometers along a fast-flowing brook, between shrubs and bushes, over rocks and stones, with left and right steep tuff walls in beautiful colors and with holes in them. In short: it is breathtakingly beautiful, but it's a tough hike.
On the way we see a Turkish family who are barbecueing and fishing. For the rest it's just nature, lots of birds and butterflies.
At the end of the walk there is a bridge to the right and on the other side is a restaurant by the water. It's a wonderful place to rest and have lunch. Meanwhile it's already 2 PM.
After lunch we continue on our tour with the van, which is waiting for us. After a while we arrive in Selime at the end of the Ihlara gorge. Above Selime is a tuff wall with graves in holes and dwellings. We need to climb to get there. The view is again wonderful.
We drive to another caravan serai. It is not as pretty as the first one, where we saw the twirling dervishes. It's more like a ruin, but still impressive. We are back in our hotel at 6:30 PM, after a tour with many highlights.
Fairy chimneys and rocks shaped like candelabras
On our last day in Cappadocia we want to take it easy, because the coming night will be short: an early flight back to Holland. After consulting with yesterday's driver, he will give us a private tour. The route is fixed, but we can stop whenever we want and spend as much time as we like.
Our first stop is on a mountain top just outside Göreme, where we have a splendid view of the Göreme Valley. We already saw people on this top from our hotel terrace and were wondering how they got there.
Our next stop is at a collection of tuff stones just before the Zelve open air museum. We passed it without noticing on our way to this museum. It is a little off the road, hidden behind some souvenir stalls.
The tuff stones are famous for their wonderful shapes. They look like three-armed candelabras, hence their nickname: candle rocks. They are very pretty, but the weather is a spoil sport today. It's not only cooler and there is some wind, but there are also dark clouds.
We continue on to the Devrent valley near Pasabagi, famous for it rocks with horizontal-lying stones on top of them, which seem to wobble. The nickname of the valley is Valley of the Fairy Chimneys.
It is a natural phenomenon, caused by erosion. The horizontal stones are basalt, solidified lava. The "rocks" on which they sit are tuff (from volcanic ashes) which are much softer and easily worn by the weather.
We also see a group of rocks in which you can discover animal shapes with some imagination. With the camel rock it isn't so hard.
We continue on to Mustafapasa. This old village is mostly known for its old Greek architecture.
Until 1926 many Greeks lived in Mustafapasa, but because of the peace treaty between Greece and Turkey, they had to move to Greece (forced population exchange). The restaurant looks very Greek (and old) indeed.
Our last stop is in Ortahisar, a village built on and against the slopes of a mountain. But in a very special way. It looks like a fortress and that is exactly what it is. Ortahisar mean "middle fortress." It reminds me of a scene in The Lord of the Rings.
Back to the hotel, because our alarm will go off at 2:30 AM, for our flight back from Kayseri via Istanbul to Amsterdam.