Cappadocia: Fairy Chimneys above Underground Cities

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About three months ago Amanda stumbled across an article online about the most unique places to visit in the world. The photo instantly caught her imagination, and she noted it was in Turkey.  At that point in our travels we had planned to pass through Istanbul, so she decided to look up where it was located. Unfortunately it was about ten hours Southeast of Istanbul. As we were not expecting to be in Turkey for much more than a week (at that time), we put the photo in the back of our minds not thinking too much more about it and continued on our journey.

Fast forward three months and guess where we were…

Introduction to Cappadocia

Best known for it’s unusual geological formations, and its long history of great powers that have ruled over the region.  From Mesopotamia to the Persians, Alexander the Great to the Romans and later the Byzantine Empire, seemingly all the major historical powers were here.  Even more interesting, the ‘Cappadocia’ region was inhabited by many early Christians around the 4th century AD who carved homes into the hillside rocks and built their churches there as well to avoid persecution by the Romans.

Goreme City Intro -- Cappadocia
City of Goreme where our awesome hostel was located for our stay!

Getting the lay of the land

Upon arrival at 7am in Göreme after an overnight bus ride we didn’t waste any time. We immediately dropped our bags off at our hostel (the Kose Pension) and headed out to explore this strange land we had arrived in. The area is perfect for trekking/hiking; yet the funny thing is that you will barely ever run into any tourists while you do it. Again, we had done some homework (meaning online research) before we arrived. Since we had read the ‘trails’ weren’t well marked we decided not to try to stick to any specific route and instead follow trails that looked interesting to us. Essentially we allowed ourselves to ‘get lost’ among the peaks and valleys of the landscape.

Just a glimpse at some of our hiking adventures.
Just a glimpse at some of our hiking adventures.

We took in the views, admired mother nature’s geological craftiness, and explored hidden homes and churches that were in the middle of nowhere (and most likely not often visited by tourists). Occasionally, when we least expected it we would stumble across a mini patch of land used for agriculture, specifically vineyards in most cases. Some were on the mesas and others were hidden in small valleys between two higher rocks. And when we say tiny we mean tiny, at least in comparison to what we think of as a vineyard. Most had roughly 10-20 free growing vines.

Our first hike lasted almost five hours through and beyond the Rose Valley and was a perfect way to spend our first hours in the area. After a mid-day refresher and nap we headed out for an evening mini-hike in Pigeon Valley before sunset only to find more crazy rock dwellings you could climb up into. Both of us went home that evening with minor injuries from the excitement and mis-footing of climbing the soft rock-like peaks. Fortunately it wasn’t enough to set us back from continuing our curious wandering over the next few days. Almost every day we were exploring some new area and going down trails that led to unknown places. Cappadocia is a wonderland for those that enjoy hiking.

Minor injury occurred while sliding down a rock and unexpected vineyards hidden in the valley.
Minor injury occurred while sliding down a rock and unexpected vineyards hidden in the valley.

Romance on the Rocks

 

Whats more romantic than a sunset? A sunset dinner picnic on the high rocks overlooking Göreme.

Picnic on the rocks at sunset.
Picnic on the rocks at sunset.

 

Every night we made a point of finding a new spot to watch the sunset over the amazing landscape and watch the tiny village of Göreme light up and come to life. Our first night we witnessed the magic from everyone’s favorite viewing point (where there were sure to be many others watching the sunset with you) from the sunset lookout spot just directly above the town.

Sunset Watching -- Cappadocia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second night we decided to find a higher and more private location. We managed to get exactly what we were looking for. Life didn’t get much better: perched atop a strange rock formation, overlooking a foreign landscape painted by the colors of the sunset, sitting next to your adventure buddy who happens to be your partner, and snacking on Turkish dolmas, cheese, fresh veggies, and homemade bread. The light of the sunset always made the strange landscape look even more mystical just before dark.

 

 

Scootering Adventure

While we really do think that hiking is the coolest and best way to see this area (and it is surprising how few people hike), we wanted to expand our hiking horizons and explore other regions. Since the entire Cappadocia region is quite large and dolmuses don’t go everywhere we decided to rent a scooter for a day. We started our scooter adventure bright and early with a full day itinerary ahead of us. Over the period of eleven hours and 250 km we checked out the underground city of Güzelyurt, the Ilhara Gorge, the Uchisar ‘rock castle’, and another spectacular sunset. We had no idea how tiring being on a scooter going 55km/hour all day would be. Every couple of hours we stopped to walk and explore some area (in order to get some circulation back in our legs). Amanda even took the role of driver for a portion of the journey which really confused the men in the small towns we were asking for directions. What was a woman doing driving a scooter with a perfectly good man on the back??

Some of the further out there places we found via scooter.
Some of the further out there places we found via scooter.

Scooter at Sunset -- Cappadocia

 

We definitely got our use out of the scooter though. We took that puppy down tiny dirt roads, along cliffs, and at full speed (75km/hour) along never-ending strips of highway. It allowed us to access trails to explore in the middle of nowhere on far away spots only accessible via personal vehicle. Even though we were both tired at the end of the day, we still managed to keep with our tradition and found a sweet spot to watch another amazing sunset (keeping with our tradition) and relax for a bit before returning back and going completely unconscious.

Hot Air Balloons over Cappadocia

 

Hot Air Ballons, Many -- Cappadocia

Hot Air Balloon, close up -- Cappadoica

 

Ben was especially interested in seeing the famous hot air balloons over the bizarre landscape. Cappadocia is littered with hot air balloon companies, and it seems they are all doing well. We set an alarm for 5:50am and Ben brought some coffee with him as we made our way to a lookout point (where most go for sunset) to watch the show. And it was amazing. It was a Monday morning, and there was a quiet calm over the town. Yet already almost every hot air balloon had launched – we counted over 70 at one point. And this was on a Monday.

We managed to capture some great shots of the morning, and the experience was magical, even without being in the balloons. Most balloons held between 8 to 24 people in huge wicker baskets. There were a few ‘normal size’ balloons but most were the massive type. We also discovered that some of the balloon operators were incredibly skilled, yet others are not. A few of the balloons went right next to the rocks (arms length), between them in valleys, and one of the balloons visited us spectators on our hilltop ledge. Close enough to yell hello to everyone and cleverly point out the name of the company on the balloon. Good marketing! By 7:30am, the show was almost over. The hot air balloons only went up for an hour, and all but one late starter seemed to be ready to go back into hibernation for another 23 hours.

Getting up at sunrise to watch was worth it and much much cheaper than actually being in the balloon. In many ways we preferred this peaceful alternative.

Underground Cities

One of the auxiliary attractions to the Cappadocia area is the pervasive cave cities in the region. The prosecuted Christian people in the 4th century had built underground cavelike cities to live in and protect themselves from their enemies. There were somewhere between 50-100 said caves within a 100 kilometer radius. Going with our Japanese/Brazilian friend Miha and 2 girls from our hostel, we first visited the most famous, Derinkuyu. We took a set of dolmuşes to get to the town of Derinkuyu, and then watched as throngs of tourists queued up through the turnstiles to go into the cave ‘attraction’. This was supposedly the largest of the underground cities and also one of the two most visited. While we had our doubts before entering, the cave turned out to be really interesting, especially as Ben was able to get lots of information from the tour guides leading groups that went in at the same time. It went down 6 stories underground, and was said to previously hold up to 20,000 people and their animals. There were separate rooms, places for markets, ventilation shafts, and wells. But most interesting were the tiny passageways going down to the next level, and the doors. The Christian inhabitants had carved enormous round rolling rocks to shut off the cave from invaders should they come under attack. After about an hour the walk through the underground city was complete and everyone resurfaced safely (no invaders to worry about anymore).

Miha waves hello from the Derinkuyu passage leading down to the 4th level underground
Miha waves hello from the Derinkuyu passage leading down to the 4th level underground
Ben barely fitting in the Güzelyurt underground city
Ben barely fitting in the Güzelyurt underground city

 

 

A couple days later on our scooter adventure, we stopped at the town of Güzelyurt where we unexpectedly and happily discovered the underground city there. This one looked as if they had planned to make a tourist attraction out of it, but changed their mind. There was absolutely no one anywhere nearby. They had wired it for lighting, but never finished the installation. So all by ourselves, we went into the earth with just a cellphone light. It was eerie being 50-60 feet underground, no source of light, and seeing that the tiny passageways continued further into the earth (and seemed to be getting smaller too). After about 30 minutes of exploring and a little creeping ourselves out, we halted our subterranean exploration, and went above land to see the ruins, which were just as interesting, and we still had all to ourselves.

 

Visiting both was a perfect combo – the larger city of Derinkuyu gave us the a lot of knowledge on the history and what parts of the cities were used for what. And the Güzelyurt city gave us a ‘realistic’ non-tourist look into what the city used to look like without tons of lighting set up and tours going through.

 

 

Ihlara Gorge

With the freedom of our two wheels in mind, we decided to explore another valley area in the region, the Ihlara Valley and Gorge. It was approximately 90 km from Göreme where we were staying, but we had the scooter and decided to go for it. Taking our time and stopping along the way, we eventually made it there mid-afternoon. When we arrived, however, the valley required a relatively high entrance fee. Hmmm, why should we pay for this one (that was reportedly much less interesting) when we were seeing others for free? So we hiked along the top of the gorge and most likely got better views as we went along, before heading back to Göreme for our sunset ritual.

The Beautiful Ihlara Valley as seen from above
The Beautiful Ihlara Valley as seen from above

Ben completes the Kebab Pilgrimage

As a regular reader of our blog may know, Ben considers Kebabs to be one of the greatest foods ever invented. So he was very excited to try the regional variation in Göreme: the Testi Kebab. No, unfortunately, it is not made with rocky mountain oysters. The Testi Kebab is cooked for hours in a clay pot, like a stew. Bread is often cooked on top (as a lid), depending on the recipe, and when it is ready, you can eat it straight from the clay pot, or you can shatter the pot and eat away in more of a soup-like fashion. Our last night in town, we went out for a ‘splurge’ (about $24 USD total) at Çömlek Restaurant, and had one each along with sides of salad, bread, and rice. Amanda fashioned for the vegetable version, while Ben enjoyed the lamb version. Nice atmosphere, and a great way to replenish ourselves after several days of vigorous hiking and exploring in the sun. The owner even threw in a free desert for us to really make our trip fully complete.

Testi Kebab at Comlek Resturant
Testi Kebab at Comlek Resturant

 

Changes in plans, changes in directions, and the otherwise unexpected constantly happen in life. And particularly when living as a nomad, these changes and surprises become the norm. We had never expected to be in Turkey for six weeks, but with the change and the unexpected we discovered yet another intriguing and magical corner of the world.

 

You’ll find the rest of our photos from this fairytale land HERE.