Drama lovers, take note: while Istanbul packs a wallop of culture and ambiance, Turkey’s most exciting nature-made attractions are just hours away from the country’s capital.
We’re talking places where history is never boring and the wonders of Mother Earth move far, far beyond the norm—the fantastical, distinctive landscapes of Pamukkale and Cappadocia.
After a few days in Istanbul, it’s an easy flight to Denizli, close to one of Turkey’s most famous natural features. “Pamukkale is an unusual and beautiful geographic feature that many travelers find fascinating,” says Artisans of Leisure’s John McGee. Indeed, the hot springs of Pamukkale have been a big draw for centuries because of their healing powers. The calcium bicarbonate of its warm spring waters cascading down a cliff-side, hardened over time, created the famous “cotton castle” for which the area is also known: travertine terraces that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These white-ish cascades form their own pools; most are now closed off to the public in order to protect them, yet a couple are still open so visitors can soak their feet and feel the smooth limestone beneath. The visual effect is incredible—from far away, it looks as if the hillside is draped in snow.
After a full day at the hot springs and travertines, send clients to the ancient city of Hierapolis, built by King Eumenes II in 190 B.C., although it reached its peak during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Chief among its sites are the remains of a basilica built in the fifth century, Roman baths and theater, and the Necropolis, said to be the largest ancient cemetery in Anatolia and home to a number of sarcophagi. The Apostle Philip was martyred here and many Christian tombs are found close to the ruins of the church of St. Philip.
Hotels in the area tend to be smaller and cuter the closer they are to the travertines, although the bigger ones closer to Denizli, where many of the tours stop, are better equipped to take advantage of the area’s thermal waters. Pam Thermal Hotel has its own “terraces” through which the area’s muddy-red water—another local peculiarity, rich in iron—flows down and where guests spend hours soaking in its curative properties. The hotel also has an expansive spa with a hammam and a full array of treatments, including many that use local mud. Rates start at around $125 per night dbl. Visitors who want a more homey experience with wonderful views of the terraces, however, will want to consider the small Venus Hotel, which has a popular restaurant. Call for rates.
on to the fairy chimneys
From Denizli and Western Turkey, travelers can choose between a roughly 10-hour bus ride (with rest stops along the way) or a flight to Cappadocia and its expansive maze of cone-shaped formations, caves and once-hidden temples and churches. To date, however, there are no direct flights from Denizli to Cappadocia, so those who don’t want to travel such long distances by bus or car can drive approximately four hours to Izmir’s Adnan Menderes International Airport (ADB) to catch a nonstop flight on Sun Express and arrive at Erkilet International Airport (ASR ) in Kayser, roughly an hour’s drive from the area. Roundtrip tickets can go as low as $70 roundtrip.
“It is a magnificent part of the world. It is, in fact, not like this world— such as the face of the moon,” explains says Itir Aykut, Gemini Travel’s v.p. “You feel so free, and somehow enlarged.” The inbound operator expertly puts together custom-made tours of some of Turkey’s most renowned and off-the-beaten-path attractions. “We work with veteran guides who have been with us so many years, who are [trustworthy] and very knowledgeable,” says Aykut, explaining that Gemini has a GPS-controlled vehicle fleet that is monitored all over Turkey and a very hands-on staff. “Last year we handled 27,000 passengers from all around the world.”
Cappadocia, easily worth at least a 4-night stay, is a place for sturdy sneakers, because hiking along the fairy chimneys and discovering the ancient homes carved out of the landscape for thousands of years is part of the experience. In fact, early Christians in the area hid and lived in caves for fear of persecution and even carved and decorated churches and monasteries from the local rock, called tuff. Some of these Byzantine- era sanctuaries, with its frescoes still visible, are now part of the Open Air Museum at Goreme National Park, although there are many more tucked away in the landscape. The largest in Goreme, called the Church of the Buckle, houses frescoes of all 12 apostles. There are also quite a few intricate underground cities here that are open to visitors, including Sarhatli and Derinkuyu, which has a total of 11 floors and once housed thousands of people.