“Land Really is the Best Art”
As we left the Antalya otogar at nine pm for an overnight bus trip away from the Turkish west coast, we were leaving behind beach town vibes and hoping what lay on the other side of the mountains lived up to the hype. Was it really a land of otherworldly enchantment?
First, we had to get there and the night was looong—nine hours of riding but they tried to make it as comfortable as an overnighter can be. A young guy, wearing a peach and white striped dress shirt with white collar and black bow tie, served tea, soft drinks and small packaged cakes. Two other attendants, in dress shirts with the bus company name on the collar and long ties, kept track of passenger tickets as the bus made several stops along the way to drop off and pick up people at various otogars.
On a mountain road around midnight, the bus had some difficulty and the driver pulled off the highway. All of the attendants got out and looked at the engine with flashlights. No announcement was made but fifteen minutes later, they all re-boarded the bus. They gave no explanation but the bus was working fine again.
At one am, we stopped at a restaurant-cum-shopping center called Gunaydin. They made a long announcement in Turkish which a passenger translated and said we would stop for half an hour. We got off, used the facilities and bought espresso. The break may have been the driver's dinner stop however, because it lasted an hour. When we got going again, it was hard to sleep. Since we had small TVs at our seats, I watched part of that movie about blue people. We made a few more stops in the middle of the night— where, we weren't always sure.
Our welcome to Goreme in Cappadocia was worth the ride. Our bus pulled into the otogar just after sunrise and the sky was a kaleidoscope of color. Hot air balloons floated everywhere amongst the fairy chimneys and other volcanic formations that dot the town. I counted at least seventy-five! It was pretty amazing.
We walked up a small hill to our hotel but we were way too early for check-in. One of the owners came into the courtyard with his tea and invited us to have breakfast on the roof terrace while we waited. We ate and gaped as dozens of balloons were still floating overhead. It gave our meal a magical feel.
After we got settled in our room, we set out on a two-mile hike to the Goreme Open Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s an area of the rock formations that once housed a Byzantine monastic settlement and has been preserved for tourists. It has a number of small cave-like chapels carved into the rocks with the frescoes still partially intact. Unfortunately, dozens of tour buses arrived at about the same time we did. We waited on a long, slow line to get into one of the chapels then we saw it would be the same for the others.
It was way too hot and way too crowded, so we left that area and stopped in a cave church that was down the hill outside the official tourist section. Inside, art students from Verona, Italy were working on restoring the frescoes and we got to watch up close with only a few other people.
From there, we hiked into the Red Valley (Kizil Vadasi), famous for the red-rose color of the rocks. We wandered the trails and explored other caves carved into rocks without encountering many people.
It was a scorching day in September, but we had water with us, so we continued hiking on to the Rose Valley (Güllüdere Vadısı), which had more walking trails and more of the interesting rock formations.
All in all, we must have hiked about 5 or 6 miles. We were thirsty when we got back into town and found a small outdoor place for a 'buyak bira' (large beer).
Cappadocia is a region of extreme weather— 104-113 Fahrenheit in the summer and bitter cold with some snow in the winter. When we were there, evenings were cool and the days were hot, but not in the hundreds. Average highs for September are in the 80s, with lows in the 40s.
When we got back to the hotel, we were tired, especially since we hadn't had much sleep on the bus the night before. We took a siesta for a couple of hours, until we went out for dinner. We tried one of the local specialties, which was a tomato-based stew cooked in individual pottery jars—savory and delicious.
The next day after breakfast, we went on a minibus tour we had arranged the day before because we’d surrendered our rental car in Antalya. Goreme seems to be the best town for enjoying the caves and the phallic fairy chimneys rising from the landscape but Cappodocia has a lot to see beyond the town.
We walked down the hill to the tour office. Our tour guide, Merve, was a university graduate from the Black Sea and she was well-versed in the history of Cappadocia. Our tour was in English, but our fellow passengers were like the United Nations. There were young couples from St Petersburg, Russia, Beijing, China, and Edinburgh, Scotland, two single American girls - one from NYC and one from DC, and a couple closer to our age, from Sydney, Australia.
The first stop was on a scenic overlook, so we got a panoramic view of Goreme and the valleys with the rock formations. Then we drove to the Ihlara valley and hiked a couple of miles through the Melendiz River Canyon, where we visited another cave church with some frescoes. Partway along the river, we came to a tea house that was a lovely spot. All through the canyon, we could see caves carved into the rock where monks lived in isolation many centuries ago. There were also many dovecotes. The monks used the birds to send messages and also used their droppings as fertilizer for their grapes. The hike ended at Belisirma village where we had lunch on an outdoor terrace. It was our main meal of the day and I enjoyed the local trout.
After lunch, we drove to Selime, where we scaled the rocks to visit an ancient cave monastery set up high from the road. There were many chambers to visit, because the monks had, not only living quarters, but also some chapels. From the monastery, the view looked like a Star Wars landscape. In fact, our guide told us that, despite some of the hype about Cappadocia being the site of filming for the first Star Wars movie, they hadn't been able to get the permits. It was actually filmed in Tunisia, which has a similar landscape.
After that, we drove to Derinkuyu to visit the largest underground city in the area. (For many centuries, the early Christians lived in these underground cities to avoid persecution.) This one was two hundred seventy-nine feet deep and had sixteen floors, of which we were able to go down eight. We hiked down (and back up!) a couple of hundred steps and crawled through tunnels. It was a remarkable experience seeing how people conducted their lives in the bowels of the earth.
The final stop was at an overlook of the Pigeon Valley (so-called because of the many dovecotes in the rock formations.). We ended the tour at about five-thirty pm back at the tour office, where Merve served us glasses of apple tea. It was a nice way to end the experience.
Before returning to the hotel, we hiked up the road past it, to a ridge overlooking the town and valleys, to watch the sunset. Quite a few people had the same idea, many with their cameras and tripods. We settled down on the rocks and watched the sky turn to flame and engulf the valleys in a rose-golden glow.
After sunset, we went back to our hotel, cleaned the dust of the day off, and went to a coffee place for an evening snack and the use of their Wifi. (Our hotel had Internet access and we could receive emails at the hotel but couldn't send them.) It was a full day and lots of fun, but it was time to pack.
After breakfast the next day, the airport minibus shuttle picked us up at the hotel in Goreme and drove us about one hour to Kayseri, where the regional airport for Cappodocia is located.
We flew Anadolu Jet (one of Turkey's budget airlines) to the transcontinental city of Istanbul straddling Europe and Asia, happy to have experienced the otherworldly and futuristic landscape of Cappadocia.