Up, Up and Away — Cappadocia, Turkey

Our cave hotel came with a welcome cat. Cut into the soft, rock cliffs, caves are everywhere in Cappadocia, and make the best kind of boutique hotel. The cat is the Cappadocian equivalent to a mint on your pillow. And a natural byproduct of leaving your window open.

Cappadocia is a large region best seen by car. We used the lazy-traveler method of hiring the cabbie who drove us to the hotel as our guide. I’d had such good luck with my last one.

Our new guide’s name was Ufuk (pronounced oo-fook, come on, now). He was 40 and at mid-afternoon was still laughing at a feeble joke I’d made in Turkish, hours earlier. I was charmed, especially since “joke” and “Turkish” is overstating it. He rejected the standard tour bus routes for a more natural one, which included sites called “Church with the buckle” and “Church of the snakes,” and where he had to chase the keeper of a 9th century monastery down from high in the branches of a tree so that we could pay the $2.50 entrance fee before we left.

Cappadocia is the land of fairy chimneys, rock churches and underground cities of tan, brown and black, softened by shades of green from the cypress groves, apple trees and grape vines. Fairy chimneys are the Turkish counterparts of the hoodoos in the North American badlands, eroded by wind and water out of ancient volcanic deposits from eruptions more than three million years ago. Like Stone Age Rorschach tests, the formations take on many shapes: black-hatted chimneys, a camel, the profile of Napoleon.

The churches were carved out of rock 1600 to 2000 years ago and painted at some point with murals on a black background. While the murals in some churches were still quite colourful, the monastery looked to have unrelenting black ceilings until Ufuk borrowed a powerful flashlight. As the light played over the black, paintings of Jesus and the apostles came out of the shadows, as if being discovered for the first time. There is Greek graffiti (Plato heart Persephone-style) dated 1888 on the walls adding to the sense of history. Ufuk also led me up a set of very worn, just-short-of-vertical stone steps to another church and top of the world moment. He complimented me for making it without any difficulty by saying that even young people in their 20s had trouble. I looked around for my cane.

The underground cities are the stuff of Indiana Jones movies and nightmares for claustrophobes. The region has an estimated 200 of them, linked to each other and to the houses of the ancient residents through hidden trapdoors and courtyards. We toured Kaymakli, a four-level city, walking through slanting tunnels just wide enough for a person and in some areas only high enough to walk fully bent over at the waist. The tunnels were generally well lit, with fresh air due to effective ventilation shafts, and opened every few feet into rooms about five feet high. They were used for retreat when under attack, had their own water source that couldn’t be tampered with from ground level, and could house 10-30k very short people with their tiny horses. The first level was kept as the stable.

Our final moment of wonder was going up, up and away in our blue- and yellow-striped balloon, suspended over the canyons and valleys of Cappadocia at sunrise, one of 100 hot air balloons dotting the sky. The balloons themselves draw the camera as much as the wide vistas. People whisper or gesture. The balloons glide, up and down and rotate in each direction to provide everyone a view. The pilot brings us within touching distance of the cliffs then we rise silently by them. It’s peaceful. Awe inspiring. Not at all scary. And a great metaphor for Turkey itself.

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