Cappadocia, A World of Caves in the Middle of Turkey

By Pat Yale
Stick a pin into the middle of a map of Turkey, and chances are that you will hit Cappadocia, that wild and wonderful part of the country where a combination of prehistoric volcanic activity and much more recent erosion have created a crazy, mixed-up landscape of soaring rock cones (‘fairy chimneys’) and deep gorges. Here it was that early medieval Christians hacked complete churches and monasteries out of the rock, decorating them with brilliantly-colored frescoes and equipping them with stone-cut columns, altars and domes.
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Cappadocia is best known for its spectacular scenery.

Here, too, other even more determined individuals tunneled right down into the soil to create entire underground ‘cities’ where they could take refuge from passing marauders.

These days the best of the frescoed churches form the jewel in Cappadocia’s tourist crown, protected inside the Göreme Open Air Museum, where a rock-cut convent is surrounded by many smaller churches and chapels. Finest of all is the Karanlık (Dark) Church, painstakingly restored by UNESCO so that its colors shine as brightly today as they did when first they were painted in the 11th century. On the walls and ceiling, it’s possible to make out all the most familiar stories of the life of Jesus, as well as images of Christian saints, some of them all but forgotten. Almost equally magnificent is the Tokalı (Buckle) Church which stands just across the road from the museum and features Bible stores painted in long strips along the ceiling as if in a comic book.

THIRTY UNDERGROUND CITIES
More than thirty underground cities have been uncovered and an increasing number are being opened to the public so that the non-claustrophobic can try to imagine what it would have been like in the days when people would have to live in their dank, dark rooms for weeks on end, stabling their animals on the upper levels while making their wine and cooking their meals further down. For the time being, by far the most visited sites are at Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. Derinkuyu was carved an astonishing nine layers deep into the ground, and is especially interesting because it contains the remains of what is thought to have been a mission school, complete with a huge and very uneven rock table running down the center.

For more than a thousand years, local people hollowed their homes out of the rocks, creating complex networks of cave storerooms, stables and wineries, and then building stone facades in front of them. Even today many of these old cave-houses are still inhabited, their residents storing grapes and bread to see them through the harsh winter months in the rocky rooms hacked out at the rear. But one unfortunate side effect of ongoing erosion is that some of the cave houses have had to be evacuated for fear of rockfalls. When the three valleys that used to make up the old village of Zelve were emptied in the 1950s, they were turned into a museum where visitors can now have fun scrambling in and out of the rock houses, and inspecting the old churches and the mosque that used to serve the local population.

The specific sites aside, Cappadocia is best known for its spectacular scenery, and especially for the dramatic and notoriously phallic-shaped ‘fairy chimney’ rock formations left behind by the wind and rain. What better way could there possibly be to appreciate them than from the basket of a hot-air balloon, floating silently over the valleys in the early hours of the morning? These days you have many choices when it comes to companies offering flights, but Kapadokya Balloons has been in business the longest and has a safety record second to none. Drifting gently downwards, the operator will bring the balloon so close to the trees that you can pluck an apricot from the branches. It’s a thrilling, unforgettable experience.

Of course the weather can be a fickle thing, and although days are usually guaranteed to be hot right through from late May to late September, there are occasional glitches when strong winds write off the chance to go ballooning. Never fear, for there are plenty of other ways to appreciate the scenery. You can, for example, set off on foot, preferably with a guide to ensure you don’t get lost, to explore the many valleys that fan out from all the main settlements. Or you can hire a horse to see the scenery as it would have appeared to the first Europeans to penetrate the area in the early 18th century.

IHLARA VALLEY
One of the finest places for walkers is the Ihlara Valley, on the western edge of Cappadocia, which has a stream running along the bottom of a vertically-sided gorge. Here you have a choice. Either you can sign up for a day trip, which will include a short walk through the part of the valley most pockmarked with ancient churches, or you can opt to do it yourself and walk the entire 10 miles from Ihlara village in the north to Selime in the south, stopping for lunch and a soak of your aching feet in the riverside restaurants at Belisirma, midway through the gorge.

And where should you stay while you’re doing all this? Well, for many years the tiny troglodyte settlement of Göreme was the main port of call for independent travelers, with more than sixty hotels and pensions, and plentiful restaurants to feed their guests. Recently, however, Göreme has moved upmarket and now boasts one of Cappadocia’s most luxurious hotels, the beautifully restored Anatolian Houses complex, as well as the versatile Kelebek Hotel and Pension, with rooms to suit most budgets. Over in Ürgüp a string of exquisite boutique hotels hide away in the secluded Esbelli Mahallesi, while smaller Uçhisar offers the gorgeous Maisons de Cappadoce (self-catering apartments) and the Museum Hotel, with its infinity pool overlooking the glorious landscape.

When it comes to finding somewhere to eat, the choices are simple: in Göreme the colorfully-decorated Alaturca Restaurant, in Uçhisar the stylish Elai, and in Ürgüp the inviting and centrally-located Şömine Restaurant.

THE PLACES
Anatolian Houses: +90 (384) 271 2463, www.anatolianhouses.com
Kelebek Hotel and Pension: +90 (384) 271 2531, www.kelebekhotel.com
Esbelli Evi: +90 (384) 341 3395, www.esbelli.com.tr
Maisons de Cappadoce: +90 (384) 219 2813, www.cappadoce.com
Museum Hotel: +90 (384) 219 2220, www.museum-hotel.com
Alaturca Restaurant: +90 (384) 271 2882
Elai: +90 (384) 219 3181
Şömine Restaurant: +90 (384) 341 8442
Argeus Tours: +90 (384) 341 4688, www.argeus.com.tr
Kapadokya Balloons: +90 (384) 271 2442, www.kapadokyaballoons.com

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