Cappadocia, Turkey

With Moonshadow tucked away in Cesme Marina, we organized an early morning flight from Izmir, an hour away by car, to the city of Kayseri in the central Turkish region of Cappadocia. To avoid a very early wake-up call, we decided to head into Izmir the day before and have a look around Turkey’s second largest city. Izmir sprawls for miles in every direction with nondescript, high-rise concrete apartment blocks. That said, the city center appears to be quite cosmopolitan and has a long and lovely waterfront promenade. We enjoyed an afternoon checking out the trendy cafes and boutiques along the waterfront and wandering through the labyrinth of alleys and lanes that make up the city’s huge bazaar. Attached to our hotel was reportedly one of Izmir’s best seafood restaurants and we were not let down at dinner that evening.The next morning we caught the 0730 Sun Express flight from Izmir to Kayseri. In just a little over an hour, we were transformed to a completely different Turkey than that to which we had become accustomed along the Aegean coast. On the shuttle bus from Kayseri Airport to the town of Urgup we caught glimpses of Turkey’s vast agricultural heartland and industrial towns. Approaching Urgup, we came upon some of the most unique geological formations on the planet. It is these bizarre formations formed over thousands of years by volcanic activity, wind and erosion, and the civilizations that carved their homes out of them that make Cappadocia one of the most unique places in the world, and one of Turkey’s premier tourist destinations.



Assorted mushroom rocks, near Goreme.

Our accommodation was a little “cave hotel” called Elkep Evi, which we were told translates to “the ruins.” While the hotel itself is closer to four stars than the Flintstone’s Bedrock digs, it is situated amongst what was once a flourishing Greek hill/cliffside community. Our room was carved out of a solid rock cliff face with just one man-made wall containing a door and window to allow access and protect it from the outside world. All of the room’s architectural features – columns, lamp shelves, ceiling decorations, bookshelves and even a cozy little sleeping alcove – were carved out of solid stone. Unlike building a house where you just add all the things you want, with a cave house one has to imagine what they want and with a hammer and chisel, take away the rest. Completely devoid of paint or wallpaper, the interior decor is truly “natural”.

The Elkep Evi cave hotel.

It just happened to be market day so we took a stroll though the town of Urgup. Surrounding the town we found many ancient buildings, cave houses and ruins. We sampled some local wines at a nearby winery and enjoyed a wonderful dinner on the rooftop of a restaurant near our hotel, overlooking the town.

A cave room.

The following day we took what is called the “Ihlara Tour.” Starting from the nearby town of Goreme, heading in a southwesterly direction, we stopped at a few choice vantage points to view the “fairy chimneys” (conical shaped rocks) and “mushroom rocks” (cylindrical rocks with larger caps made of harder stone), some of which had been hollowed out as dwellings. These are some of the signature features of the Cappadocian landscape.

This mushroom rock scene appears on the Turkish 50 Lira note.

Despite the fact that Cappadocia is blessed with some of the most fascinating topography in the world, many of its early inhabitants chose to live underground at least part of the year. To date, at least 36 underground cities have been discovered, and it is believed that many more existed. The early inhabitants, mostly Christians, often took refuge underground during the summer months to evade invading armies from Persia. We visited the Derinkuyu Underground City which was discovered accidentally by a farmer and just opened to tourism in the 1960’s. Derinkuyu consists of a complex maze of passageways, rooms, stairways, air shafts and wells extending for acres and descending eight levels into solid rock before reaching the water table. We were told that there was actually a tunnel that went all the way to the next underground village ten kilometers away. The original inhabitants made provisions for virtually every aspect of day to day life underground, from sheltering their herds, winemaking and milling grain, to creating places of worship and incarceration of prisoners. The magnitude of the effort it took to build this city is unfathomable considering the primitive tools available in the day, not to mention what it must have been like to be in residence with 8000 people (the estimated population) in the rather cozy quarters. As sophisticated as it might have been, it is still no place for claustrophobics or sun worshippers.

Back above ground we headed to the Ihlara Valley, a long and fertile gorge whose 500-foot sheer walls were carved over centuries by the Melendez River. Starting at the town of Ihlara, we descended by foot into the gorge and walked a couple of miles downstream along the river amongst stands of tall green trees. The meandering walk took us by numerous farms, hundreds of churches, and thousands of ancient cliff dwellings and tombs. The most notable feature of the homes is the neat rows of pigeon holes carved into the rock near the entrances, looking like the mailboxes at an apartment complex. The ancients raised the pigeons for many purposes: the meat for eating, guano for fertilizing crops, feathers for bedding and some of the birds were used to carry messages to other villages. At the end of the walk we sat on pillows in a thatched roof gazebo built out over the river and enjoyed a cool Efes beer and a fresh trout for lunch.

Dwellings and pigeon holes, Ihlara Valley.

After lunch it was a short ride to the village of Selime where we visited an ancient monastery nestled against the rock face of a large plateau. Carved into the heart of fairy chimneys hundreds of feet high is a massive religious complex including some very large churches with multistoried chambers. Climbing the precipitous stairways to dizzying heights and looking out of rooms opening on to sheer cliffs is very exhilarating, if not frightening, but no place for the acrophobic or not-so-sure-footed. The site is absolutely authentic and no guard rails have been installed for safety.

The Selime Citadel.

The final stop of the day was at a viewpoint above Pigeon Valley, a lovely area with a variety of Cappadocian rock formations in hues of yellow and pink with the town of Goreme as a backdrop. All of the homes in the valley – thousands of them – were carved in the walls strictly for use by pigeons.

That evening we took a stroll into the town of Urgup for dinner. We found a lovely restaurant off the town square that offered a Cappadocian specialty, clay pot stew. It is prepared by placing a combination of bits of meat, vegetables and seasoning into a terra cotta pot and then sealing the top with a chunk of bread dough. While it is slow cooking for hours in the oven, the bread hardens and seals in the juices. It is served by carefully whacking the top off the clay pot with a meat cleaver and pouring the stew on to a serving platter. After a long day of crawling, hiking and climbing, it was the perfect meal to compliment a chilly Cappadocian evening and a chilled Cappadocian wine.

Up, up and away!

We were up before sunrise the following morning and ferried to the launch site for hot air balloons. Floating over the stunning geography at sunrise on a crisp morning was a beautiful way to experience the splendor of Cappadocia. Our pilot skillfully used the gentle and shifty early morning breezes to steer us over the hills and through the valleys. At one point we were thousands of feet up heading north, minutes later with treetops brushing the bottom of the basket we were heading south. During the hour we spent suspended from the massive bag of spinnaker cloth and steel wire, we were able to see a variety of rock formations, vineyards, creeks, towns and farms, not to mention dozens of other beautiful balloons sharing the air space. After a perfect landing we enjoyed the customary glass of champagne and then headed back to the hotel for breakfast.

Hot air ballooning over Cappadocia just before sunrise.

After a hearty breakfast of local bread, fruit, olives and cheese pie made while we watched, at the hotel’s outdoor dining area overlooking Urgup, we returned to Goreme for the “Cappadocia Tour.” The day started with a leisurely mile-or-so stroll through “Rose Valley,” a gorge with small farming plots on the bottom, and a myriad of dwellings and pigeon holes neatly carved into the steep valley walls. On the valley floor were numerous smallish and well-formed fairy chimneys in pinkish hues. Near the end of the valley was a larger fairy chimney with a small chapel carved into it.

Fairy chimneys, Rose Valley.

After a cup of Cay (Turkish tea) at a cozy makeshift cafe situated along the trail, we carried on another kilometer or so to the village of Cavuin. Overlooking the present-day town is an imposing piece of rock which in its day it was a thriving Greek cliffside community, but an earthquake in the 1950’s severely damaged the area, and the Turkish government relocated the residents to safer quarters. Quite a few of the old homes, both cave-style and aboveground, are still intact and we spent some time exploring the area.

Some of the ancient dwellings are still used today.

From Cavuin we headed north to the town of Avanos. Situated on the banks of the Red River, the deep red clay from the river bed is the raw material for Avanos’ most important industry – terra cotta pottery. The first order of business was lunch at a large restaurant that was completely underground, carved into a solid rock hillside. The entry hall alone was at least two hundred feet long and fifty feet wide and had numerous drawing rooms branching off to its sides. There appeared to be seating for hundreds of diners in five wings branching off from a large round central hall. A lone musician played traditional Turkish music on a bulbous-looking string instrument while we enjoyed an excellent clay pot stew.

After lunch we visited the largest pottery factory in the region, a family-owned business that had been passed through many generations. The entire factory and massive showroom were underground. Most of the floors were canted one way or another, and the lack of any windows had a tendency to play a bit with one’s equilibrium. After a brief demonstration of the art of hand (and foot) crafting of clay pots, we were served a cup of Cay and invited to the massive showroom containing every imaginable type of pottery. Styles were mostly Turkish but there were also items ranging from Oriental to Greek. The craftsmanship was quite impressive with prices to match.

Heading back south we stopped to have a view of a spectacular formation known as “The Castle” in the town of Ucisar. The Castle is a massive fairy chimney located on the top of a high hill and had served as the lookout and fortification for the town that had grown around it. Views from the Castle and surrounding town’s homes and guest houses are breathtaking.

The Castle, Uchisar.

Making our way back to Goreme, we stopped at a few more interesting vista points to view the various rock formations. One of them, “Imagination Valley” tempts the viewer to detect the various animal shapes (dolphins, camels, snails, etc.) formed by the rocks. Another, called “Love Valley” features large formations in the shape of phalluses.

We finished the day at the Goreme Open Air Museum, a large complex of churches and monasteries, all carved out of the rock formations. There is reported to be one church for every day of the year in this small valley, so even the most devout would not want for a change of scenery. Some of the churches are quite large and impressive, with a number of the beautiful wall and ceiling frescoes still intact. One monastery’s refectory features a solid rock table and seating benches at least 30 feet long, carved out of, or should I say, left in the room that was carved out of solid rock in ancient times.

Merima at the head of the refectory table, Goreme Open Air Museum.

After resting our feet for a few hours and a lovely Turkish BBQ dinner at the hotel, we took a taxi to a restored 13th century caravansary. Situated along what was once the primary trade route between Istanbul and Asia, the Saruhan Caravansary was a safe haven for weary merchants, their entourages and camels traveling through the region to and from the Far East. In a small mosque attached to the caravansary we watched a Whirling Dervishes Ceremony. While the caravansary itself was quite impressive I’m afraid the Whirling Dervishes left us wondering what all the fuss was about.

Chuch frescoes, Goreme Open Air Museum.

We set aside our last day in Cappadocia to sleep in, relax and spend some more time strolling around the towns of Urgup and Goreme. The following afternoon we were back aboard Moonshadow in Cesme, getting ready to make our final trip of the season across the Aegean Sea.

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