The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia rose out of the desert landscape like hard, dry sandcastles on a barren beach; a stone mirage appearing as we drove into the heart of Anatolia. We gasped at the sheer number of them, at the feeling of being simultaneously swallowed up by the desert and surrounded by thousands of these otherworldly formations reaching up out of the earth.
These stunning natural sculptures, our young Turkish guide Murat told us (my in-laws, Pete and I) as we continued driving, were created when three volcanoes on the edge of the region began erupting more frequently. The deposits of volcanic ash, lava and basalt that came out of these laid the foundations for today’s landscape, which earthquakes and erosion shaped to become the chiselled cones, pillars, mushrooms and chimneys that make this landscape so trippy today. The top layer is made of hard basalt, but the “tuff” below (thick ash that’s solidified into soft rock) is really easy to cut. Which is why the locals have been carving some of the planet’s most otherworldly homes out of it for more than a thousand years.
We arrived at our fairy chimney hotel in Göreme in the blasting mid-afternoon heat, and immediately set off to explore the town. We didn’t get very far. A couple of hundred metres down the hill from our hotel we spotted a wall covered in intricately embroidered antique kilim rugs. We stopped for pictures and soon discovered that this was the entrance to Galerie Ikman, a treasure trove filled with thousands of Turkish kilims, antique dresses and coats from the ‘Stans, wall hangings made out of vintage grain sacks and saddle bags… If I believed in heaven, this is how it’d look. We pored over endless stacks of kilim, played with the tiny kittens skittering from room to room, chatted to Bilal Ikman, the gentle Turkish man who runs the 50-year-old business with his dad and who we trusted immediately thanks to his hands-off sales approach (welcome respite from the hard-sell of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar), and finally set about purchasing enough kilim to last us a few lifetimes – no apple tea required.
That evening, as the imam’s evening prayers rang out over the valley, we drove up to Nevsehir, the village above Gorëme that has incredible panoramic views over the whole region. Cappadocia’s ritziest hotel is up there – a Relais & Chateau property called the Museum Hotel – and although a stay there was beyond our budget we just couldn’t resist their Lil’a restaurant. It was the perfect spot to sip some Turkish narince (a dry medium-bodied white wine, their version of chardonnay), nibble some soft grilled eggplant and a rich clay pot stew, and watch the sun cast its glow over the craggy peaks.
Early the next morning we took off on a hike through the pink folded cliffs of Rose Valley, where monks and hermits used to live as far back as the 5th century. We scrambled up the layered lemon, rose and off-white formations backdropped by the stark blue sky, a couple of sweet stray dogs in tow, and tried not to lose our footing as we eyeballed the dozens of hot air balloons drifting gracefully above us. On our way back down, Murat showed us some abandoned cave houses that are up for sale for over a million US dollars that will most likely be converted into boutique hotels, and the cave house of a little old local man who showed us through his organic garden, handing us freshly picked organic tomatoes and apples along the way.
Perhaps the most interesting side of Cappadocia, though, lies underground. Later that afternoon we visited Kaymakli, one of Cappadocia’s 36 ancient underground settlements. This eight-storey underground city, Murat told us, was created in the fourth century A.D., and was used by the Hittites, the Greeks, the Persians and the Byzantine Greeks when they needed to find refuge during religious wars.
It wasn’t the most comfortable experience for any of us. Some of the tunnels are less than a metre high and the city goes eight floors below the ground, so it can certainly bring out the claustrophobic in you – especially when your guide tells you that a Chinese man was recently stuck down there, lost for three days in the maze of tiny tunnels. But it was incredible to see the underground chapels, the food and animal storehouses, the rock-carved wineries and the ventilation shaft that penetrates 80-metres into the ground, all dug into the soft stone. We could barely stand ten minutes down there, so it blew our minds to think that 5000 people used to get crammed together down there for months at a time.
Now comes my confession: I went to Cappadocia, and I didn’t take a hot air balloon ride. The next morning when my in-laws and Pete headed off before daybreak to go hot air ballooning, I hiked up the hill behind our hotel and watched the balloons rise silently with the sun over the surreal formations, from my own secret spot safe on the ground.
I’d ballooned before, you see, but I suffer from vertigo and remember feeling completely out of control and like I wanted to leap out of the woven basket when I was up there above the world. It was a trippy experience for sure, but one I didn’t really feel the need to repeat.
Instead, I went for another hike – this time to Pigeon Valley, so called because of the thousands of dovecots that have been carved into the rock for the pigeons there (in Islam, the main religion in Turkey, doves and pigeons are respected because they’re believe to have helped Muhammad distract his enemies, so they want them around). I hiked through the lush valley filled with apple, fig and pomegranate trees and small vineyards, pigeons cooing in chorus from their dovecots, feeling as though I’d landed on the surface of the moon. I watched the pigeons swoop into their dwellings while Murat told me that their droppings are used as fertiliser for the surrounding orchards and vineyards, and that it was also once used to create the cave frescoes. When we reached the end of the hike, the stunning surprise of a bare tree hung with hundreds of blue glass evil eyes awaited us.
Cappadocia has one of the oldest wine industries in the world, stretching back 4000 years to the Hittites who carved cellars into the rock formations. Knowing that, of course my winemaking husband and father-in-law wanted to visit Turasan winery in the picturesque nearby village of Ürgüp, so my mother-in-law and I took the opportunity to wander the dusty streets and shop for antique Turkish jewels (coming soon to my Bazaar).
Our final Cappadocian adventure was a visit to the Göreme Open Air Museum, a Byzantine monastic settlement of rock cut chapels filled with stunning frescoes dating back to the 10th century, and not surprisingly a Unesco World Heritage site. We explored some of the tiny churches (each of them fitting just five to 15 people), where villagers used to come to learn about religion when most of them couldn’t read.
We left this strange and spectacular land of fairy chimneys, high on the heady scent of shisha smoke and apple tea with visions of hot air balloons floating in our minds, feeling as though we were being forced to come back down to earth. We weren’t ready, but we’ve promised ourselves we’ll be back… if only to pick up some more kilims from Bilal.
Cappadocia Cave Suites in Göreme is one of dozens of fairy chimney hotels in the area, but this one is gorgeously decorated with local textiles and treasures, and is positioned just below the lookout that will give you fantastic views of the balloons at sunrise.EAT THERE
Dibek is a wonderful little restaurant in a historic home down in Göreme’s main village. Here you sit cross-legged on floor cushions, surrounded by antique treasures and listening to Turkish music, as you munch traditional home cooked food like gözleme, okra soup and pottery kebabs.
Anatolian Kitchen is the place to go for an alfresco afternoon drink. Bags one of the cane sofas in the garden and while away a sunshiny afternoon sipping a glass of narince or the local raki (an anise-flavoured spirit, like the Turkish version of Ouzo) if you’re game.SEE THERE
If you’re not riddled with anxieties about ballooning like me, my travel buddies highly recommend flying with Royal Balloon. Their balloon pilot apparently had the skills – which not all of them do – to get down low and weave in and out of the rock formations, getting so close you could almost touch them.
Dune buggy riding is also meant to be a pretty epic way to experience the landscape – if it’s not too hot, hire one about an hour before sunset (there are loads of places to do this in Göreme’s main village) and ride off into the horizon.NEED TO KNOW