Getting to Cappadocia is difficult over land, there are no trains into the area and from my last stop in Pamukkale the journey would have involved two buses and at least 8 hours. Luckily, there are a couple of low-cost Turkish airlines serving the nearby towns of Kayseri (an hour away) and Nevsehir (20 minutes away).
I managed to find a $45 flight on Sun Express from Izmir to Kayseri so it made sense to backtrack a little by taking the 4-hour train ride from Pamukkale back to Izmir in order to catch it. So, after spending the night at an airport hotel in Izmir, I was at the airport bright and early for my 6:00am flight to Kayseri, excited to get my Cappadocia adventure underway.
Arrival in Cappadocia
After researching the myriad hotel options in the Cappadocia region, I’d decided to stay in the town of Goreme because it was a good central base and the pictures of the town looked like something out of a fairy tale. It’s funny, sometimes when you see fantastic pictures of a place you think, “Well, it can’t really look like that. It’s probably just some sort of creative photography trick.” And I truly thought there was no way Cappadocia could live up to some of the other-worldly images I’d seen. I was wrong.
As my shuttle from the airport rounded the final bend into Goreme, I was speechless. It was like we had driven into a Pixar movie that couldn’t possibly be real. But it was indeed real and a few minutes later we were pulling up to my home for the next three nights, the Divan Cave House.
The Cave Hotels of Cappadocia
One of the coolest things about visiting Cappadocia is the opportunity to stay in a cave hotel. Converted from original homes carved into the soft volcanic rock, enterprising hoteliers have made the cave hotel experience one of Cappadocia’s top attractions over the years. I’d selected the Divan Cave House because of its great location in Goreme and good reviews.
I was immediately greeted warmly by Ali and Hanife, owners of the 19-room cave hotel, who took my bags and invited me up to the restaurant terrace where they were serving breakfast since it was still only 9:00am. Over breakfast, I sat down with Ali while he gave me an overview of the region and made some suggestions for maximizing my three-day stay. I told him I’d already booked my hot air balloon flight for the following morning so that left all of the ground-level attractions.
Most of Ali’s initial recommendations involved the full-day organized group tours that are common to this area but when I expressed the desire to explore more independently he quickly changed course and suggested renting a car for my first day. I thought that would be a great way to cover a lot of ground without succumbing to the proliferation of group tour buses and he was able to take care of the reservation for me and arrange for the car to be delivered right to the hotel.
Of course, if driving in a foreign country is not your idea of a good time, there are LOTS of tour options. Here are just a few:
But before I delve into the story of the rest of my day, a better explanation of what makes Cappadocia so unique is in order…
A History of Cappadocia
Though Turkey has an impressive 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Goreme National Park and the rock sites of Cappadocia are undoubtedly its most famous.
Located in central Turkey, the isolated plateau of Cappadocia is the result of the constructive forces of volcanic activity combined (over millions of years) with the destructive forces of erosion. Continuous volcanic eruptions covered large parts of the area with “tufa,” a soft rock formed by volcanic ash.
Centuries of erosion then followed to shape the tufa into cone-shaped hills in a dazzling array of colors from beige to yellow and pink to deep red. Wind, rain and snow gradually sculpted an extraordinary landscape across the plateau. Perhaps the most unique geological features are the “fairy chimneys” – formed when harder rock above the tufa prevents erosion on the top but not the sides. Eventually, the cap falls off leaving the rest of the chimney to erode.
It is believed the use of soft rock to carve dwellings dates back to the Hittites creating the first underground city of Derinkuyu sometime around 2000 BC. Little is known about the Hittite period but it was followed by the Persians, Romans and Byzantine period lasting through the 11th century.
Under Byzantine rule, Cappadocia was a frontier in the turbulent history of Christianity and subjected to frequent raids. Churches were carved into the rock for camouflage and the oldest of the churches seen today in Cappadocia likely date as far back as the 6th century.
A Driving Tour of Cappadocia
My room was just lovely and after settling in a bit, by 11:00am I had a map and my own wheels for the day and was off to begin my self-guided tour of this incredibly unique corner of the world. My first stop was the Uchisar castle. Though the map I was working with was less than ideal, my navigation was aided by the fact that the castle is situated at the highest point in Cappadocia, atop a giant hill overlooking the town of Uchisar, and was clearly visible from Goreme.
Within the multi-level castle, dozens of rooms are hollowed out and connected by a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways. Due to erosion in some places, most of the interior was closed to visitors but stairs scale the exterior and lead up to an amazing panoramic view from the top.
From Uchisar, I headed south to my farthest stop for the day, the underground city of Kaymakli – the largest of the 26 underground cities in Cappadocia. Like nearby Derinkuyu, the Hittites built the city to take refuge from frequent invasions. These troglodyte cave cities were several stories deep with sophisticated ventilation systems and could accommodate as many as 20,000 people.
In Christian times, churches, monasteries and even wineries (now we’re talking) were carved from the rocks and thousands took shelter underground during the Arab invasions of the seventh century.
Though only 4 of the 8 floors of Kaymakli are open to the public, I found the confined, shallow spaces of those four floors to be more than enough for me and after about 30 minutes I was ready to be back outside. I don’t think I’m claustrophobic but it’s safe to assume I don’t have a bright future as a troglodyte.
After stopping for some lunch in Nevsehir, I made my way back toward Goreme and over to the town of Urgup. Long considered the center of tourism to the region, the town of Urgup is home to some of the most luxurious cave hotels. At one time, Urgup was mostly for upscale visitors while Goreme was a popular base for backpackers but those roles have changed in recent years and Goreme now has a number of fine boutique hotels like mine. Though Urgup definitely had dramatic scenery and beautiful hotels carved into the side of its mountains, it also had lots of people and even more traffic. I immediately knew I’d made the right decision to stay in the smaller (and much homier) town of Goreme.
On the way to Urgup I’d passed signs for a sunset viewing spot so after my visit there I decided to head back over there in hopes of a good sunset. The view over the pinkish-peaks of the Rose Valley was awe-inspiring and there were lots of little areas set up on the edge of the cliff with carpets or cushions for seating. And there were a few stands selling drinks and snacks so I bought a glass of wine and grabbed a seat along the edge.
Thanks to some late cloud cover moving in the sunset experience wasn’t optimal but it was still such a terrific view to just sit on the edge of that cliff sipping a glass of wine and soaking in the beauty of this incredible place. By 9:00pm, I was back at the Divan Cave House after a full day of exploring and settling into bed in preparation for what would be a very early wake-up call the next morning.
The Hot Air Balloon Experience
Just seconds after I hung up the phone from my 4:00am wake-up call, the main mosque in Goreme blared its first call to prayer. I’m thinking when I asked for that 4am wake-up call the night before Ali could have just said, “The first call to prayer here is at 4:00am. That’s a mosque next door. You’ll be up, trust me.” And, as it turned out, I would be up at 4:00am every morning of my stay but on this morning, I didn’t mind.
I’d done my homework on the dozens of hot air balloon companies before my arrival in town and decided to go with Voyager Balloons based on their excellent reputation and experienced pilots. The Voyager van picked me up right on time at 4:40am for the short drive to their office in the center of town. There, we completed a little bit of paperwork and had a light breakfast while the pilots evaluated the wind direction and determined the best takeoff location.
By 5:30am, the 12 of us going up in one balloon were at the takeoff site and had enough time for a few quick photos while our balloon began to take shape as the crew filled it with hot air. Voyager had 3 balloons going up that morning but all around us there were dozens more in various stages of flight. Cappadocia allows a maximum of 100 to be in the air at any given time and it looked like we’d be close to that limit today.
I admit I was nervous about going up in a hot air balloon. I love to fly but I typically prefer something in the 747 family. But my nerves evaporated as we gently lifted off the ground and I got my first real look at the landscape around me.
The pinkish glow of the rising sun cast on the striking rock formations was simply spectacular. And the blanket of candy-colored hot air balloons dotting the landscape completed the fairy tale picture. It was completely inspired.
For the next 90 minutes, our pilot, Halis, guided us expertly over the mountains, towns and fairy chimneys of Cappadocia on an epic, high-flying adventure I’ll never forget.
We flew over everything I’d seen on my drive the day before – Uchisar castle, Urgup, my sunset spot overlooking the Rose Valley – at times coming so close to the soaring peaks I felt as if I could reach out and touch them (in a perfectly safe, non-alarming way, of course). The time flew by and before I knew it we were coming in for a landing in an open field just outside of town.
With our basket now safely back on the ground, suddenly everyone had an accident story to share. It is an unspoken code of conduct not to speak of such things pre-flight, of course. I mentioned that I’d been a little rattled by the recent accident in Virginia (I wasn’t alone) and apparently there’d been a particularly nasty accident in Egypt recently that I’m glad I hadn’t heard about.
We asked Halis if there had been any accidents in Cappadocia and he said yes, there were two – one in 2009 and one just last year. Though people were killed in both accidents, most did survive which goes to show that paying attention to the pre-flight safety instructions and adopting the correct landing position when instructed to are essential to a good experience.
I do, however, think the single most important factor is selecting a reliable company with a good safety record and experienced pilots.
Which brings me back to one of the many reasons I’m not a big fan of group or packaged tours. If you were to visit Cappadocia on a package tour, your trip would likely include a hot air balloon flight. However, the big difference here is that your tour company (not you) would be choosing which company you go up with and chances are, their number one consideration is price. Call me crazy but I don’t think this is an area where you’d want to pinch pennies or, say, shop around for a Groupon.
Once the basket was firmly secured to the trailer of our follow truck and we’d all climbed out, it was time for the traditional post-flight champagne toast. We gathered around while Halis gave the toast and handed out our flight certificates.
As I sipped my champagne and gazed out at the magnificent landscape around me I couldn’t help but think there was no place in the world that could have topped Cappadocia for a first hot air balloon experience.
The Goreme Open Air Museum
With my hot air ballooning adventure complete, I was back at the hotel by 8:30am with a full day on my hands. My plan for the rest of the morning was to make the mile or so walk over to the Goreme Open Air Museum. I’d driven past it several times the day before and I was dying to get a closer look.
The museum (which isn’t anything like a traditional museum at all) is a section of town containing some of the best-preserved examples of Cappadocia’s early Christian churches. Built between the 4th and 13th century AD, this area of Goreme served as a monastic center to the increasing number of Christians in the region.
The ghostly shapes of the rock churches are striking but their interiors are even more amazing. Defined by a variety of architectural styles from cruciform to columned and transverse, each one is unique. But they all feature intricate frescoes from different time periods adoring the cave walls.
I spent the entire morning wandering in and out of the churches before heading back toward town for a late lunch and a little work. By early evening I was exhausted from my pre-dawn start and full day of hiking around town (it’s a small town but it’s all hills!) so when thunderstorms moved in after dinner, I decided to call it a night.
Last Day in Goreme
For my last day in Cappadocia I was much less adventurous. I managed to go back to sleep after my initial 4am wake-up call from the mosque and began my day at the far more respectable hour of 9:00am. I didn’t have anything specific planned for the day, I wanted to relax a bit and enjoy the town of Goreme. I’d spent so much time seeing the rest of Cappadocia the past few days I was feeling like I’d neglected my home base.
Over breakfast, I noticed people walking on a cliff high above town and realized that was the other sunset spot Ali had pointed out to me when I arrived, I’d totally forgotten about it. I asked him how to get up there and after breakfast I grabbed my camera and headed that way.
The walk up the hill on the opposite side of town was fantastic and I passed a dozen more charming small cave hotels before arriving at the little café and boardwalk on the top of the mountain. The view over the entire village of Goreme was exactly what I’d been looking to photograph and I knew I’d need to make the walk back up again for sunset that night.
For the rest of the day I wandered the cobbled streets of Goreme exploring every little corner and thinking that the whole place was just surreal, like some kind of theme park. That afternoon I did some souvenir shopping since this was my last stop and I didn’t want to go home empty handed – especially to my niece and nephew.
That evening I walked back up the hill to Goreme’s sunset spot. This time my hike was rewarded as the town’s fairy chimneys glowed orange with the setting sun. I couldn’t have scripted a more poetic ending to my stay in this beautiful place. I have no doubt that visions of Cappadocia will stay with me for a lifetime.
But alas, my month-long adventure that began so long ago in Moscow is finally coming to an end. Tomorrow morning, it’s on to Istanbul to begin the long journey home.