The Middle East

In and Above Cappadocia, Turkey

written by | Posted on July 1st, 2009

Not even Walt Disney could have dreamt of such lofty, multi-tiered housing for Tinkerbell—miles and miles of pyramid- and mushroom-shaped rocks that have sheltered or hidden people for thousands of years. Cappadocia is a region of both commonly visited valleys and little-known areas still ripe for discovery, hikes and vivid flights of fancy. In this part of central Turkey, it’s easy to imagine you’re in another world, although whether it would be a realm from another planet or Hollywood’s imagination is hard to say.

Walking it, tasting it in full, soaring above it—clients can easily spend a couple of weeks in Cappadocia and discover something new each day. Those smooth, cone-shaped formations that have made Cappadocia famous, its own army of stone soldiers in funny-looking hats, developed over time by erosion and volcanic eruptions (there are two dormant volcanoes in the area) and commonly known as fairy chimneys. They are made up of a rock called tuff that is relatively soft and has thus allowed people to carve out their own living space for thousands of years. Beginning in the third century, persecuted Christians hid throughout Cappadocia and chiseled out homes, churches and monasteries inside these massive stones. Some of the latter are open to the public and form part of the Open Air Museum at Goreme National Park, with names such as Church of the Snake or Church of the Apple—appellations given by simple interpretations of the vivid, intricate frescoes inside the churches that are still visible today.

Some towns are better known than others and may offer more tourist facilities, but travelers who like to rough it will find that there is never a shortage of kindness or help from locals. Near Goreme is Urgup, famous for its wines and cave rooms in inexpensive inns; Avanos, one of the oldest settlements in Cappadocia, known for its generations of fine potters; and Zelve, which has a particularly high crop of fairy chimneys. Here, also, are underground cities such as Ozkonak, with galleries, temples and storage areas connected by narrow tunnels, where centuries ago inhabitants hid from persecution and raids.

up above Nature and time have turned out to be master architects here, and the best way in which to really take it all in is on a hot-air balloon, where the hardest thing visitors have to do, besides getting up before sunrise, is hop on the wicker basket that will serve as their mode of transportation for the next 60 to 90 minutes. Tell clients to take a jacket and especially warm socks and shoes, as their feet are the part of the body that gets the coldest up there—and a camera, of course.

Lift-off on the balloon is as easy as…one second you’re on solid ground and the next thing you know, you’re just not. There is no jolt or bump, just a feeling of weightlessness. Except for the occasional whistle of a flame that propels the rise of the balloon, all is very still up above. Passengers fall silent, struck by the landscape and the feeling of paramount serenity—as spiritual an experience as any one could feel so close to earth. But you’re not quite alone up there. Dozens of balloons rise and float beside you, hovering over fairy chimneys in hues of red and yellow, gliding past fields of wildflowers and skimming over apricot trees.

Clients should spend a few days here, and not just because the area is so beautiful; should bad weather impede a balloon ride one morning, there is always the next dawn. In fact, visitors are encouraged to show up early but they won’t know until they are at the site whether it’s a good time for air travel.

There are many hot-air balloon outfitters in Cappadocia. One of the longest running is Kapadokya Balloons, which offers flights at about $350 pp (at press time, the exchange rate was 1.4 euro) from March through November and whose baskets typically hold from six to 16 passengers (some baskets may hold up to 24 people).

Although there are plenty of accommodation options, cave hotels are the way to go here if clients want to soak in the full Cappadocia experience. Museum Hotel has just 30 rooms of different sizes with rates running from $203 to $1,260 for the Sultan’s Imperial Suite, as well as a wealth of antiques throughout and a fantastic location right in the middle of Cappadocia, overlooking the region. Guests can sign up for cooking lessons, horseback riding or morning walks and finish the day with a glass of local wine and authentic Anatolian feast.