From a Persian term meaning “Land of Beautiful Horses”, Cappadocia is not one town but rather a region etched into an otherwise unremarkable plateau in central Turkey. It was in this general neighborhood that the ancient Hittites thrived, paving the way for a unique collaboration between man and nature that is still in effect today. Having always wanted to visit another planet, I was thrilled by the prospect of visiting a landscape that looked right out of a galaxy far, far, away.
Before the emergence of the Hittites—or anyone else for that matter—erupting volcanoes blanketed the region with a mixture of hard volcanic rock and ash, which solidified into a soft material called tuff. Over the millennia, the combination of wind, rain, and temperature changes caused the underlying tuff to erode while the denser upper layer of volcanic rock remained intact. The result is a Dali-like dreamscape of cones and pillars that wouldn’t look out of place with a melting clock or two draped across them. Though the sizes and shapes vary widely, the undeniable stars of the show are the so-called “fairy chimneys.” Political correctness and good taste aside, these towering shafts of rock topped with mushroom-shaped peaks challenge even the most Puritan among us not to giggle while winding through what are essentially valleys full of upright phallus. Personally, I did a lot of giggling.
Most visitors arrive in Cappadocia by air via the rather industrial city of Kayseri. From the airport it is less than an hour’s drive to a pair of the area’s primary tourism centers: Goreme and Urgup. The latter boasts the lion’s share of the region’s upscale accommodations, though throughout Cappadocia the most appealing lodging by far is available in numerous ‘cave’ hotels liberally delved into the mountainsides.
Essentially renovated cave dwellings from generations past, these small-scale enterprises boast all the comforts of home—especially if you’re from the town of Bedrock. The charm derives from the fact that each room is uniquely sculpted from the aforementioned tuff, from ornately carved “moldings” to the hollowed-out nooks for local bric-a-brac. After a long day of giggling and exploration there’s no greater feeling than climbing into your very own hole in the wall.
The nearby hamlet of Goreme is home to the aptly-named Goreme Open Air Museum—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This cluster of honeycombed hills was once a stronghold of early Christianity, as is evidenced by numerous chapels, churches, and monasteries with frescoes dating back to the 9th century. Here, the landscape has been sculpted by more than just the elements. In seemingly all directions are the remains of troglodyte dwellings hewn from the rock in an Escher-like warren of doorways and staircases whose architectural style can be best described as early Dr. Seuss.
For a clearer perspective of the uniqueness of Cappadocia, I suggest rising above the jungle of rock to take in the surreal landscape by hot air balloon. Is it expensive? Well, yes, but those who have indulged in an hour or so drift across this moonscape are hardly quibbling over pennies when they finally touch down. The movement is gentle and serene and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better vehicle to take in the views. If it wasn’t for the challenges of parallel parking, I’d say a hot air balloon may just be the best way to travel period.
As if the cave dwellings and hot air balloons were not enough, Cappadocia is also home to several underground cities such as can be found in Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. Burrowed some eight to ten stories underground, these mazes of chambers and kitchens sheltered tens of thousands of the local populous for months at a time during periods of Arab invasion. Though not recommended for severe claustrophobics, most will find that just such a tour is well within their comfort and interest range, and its fun playing ‘ant in the terrarium.’
Naturally, almost all tours include stops at the local tourist traps where guests are given a demonstration of how local handicrafts are made, then amazingly offered the opportunity to purchase a piece for themselves. At the very least it’s nice to sit down and relax over a warm cup of the ubiquitous apple tea you’re sure to be offered. Plus, adding a handmade souvenir to your china cabinet is worth the trouble of being targeted by smooth-talking Turkish salesmen.
Many Americans may feel hesitant about traveling to Turkey, yet such trepidation is mostly unfounded. The Turks are a truly friendly bunch and if they seem proud about their heritage, just take a look around and you’ll understand why. Prices are generally reasonable and though you’d do well to sharpen your haggling skills, deals can be had. Just a note, if you’re looking to take home that authentic Turkish rug, be sure to save your pennies and be prepared to receive the full-court press if you show any real interest.
Without a doubt, a visit to Cappadocia is an experience far removed from your average vacation. For anyone wanting to try something different without straying from their comfort zone, you’d be hard pressed to find another locale with so much to do and such a unique setting to do it in. Besides, at the very least you should get a few giggles out of it, and after all, isn’t that what travel is all about?