From the moment that we step off the overnight bus in Goreme our jaws drop in wonder and continue to drag along the ground as we spend the next two days exploring a small fraction of this astonishing and otherworldly place that is Cappadocia.
It’s that quiet lull in time before a town wakes up, the early morning stillness is quite eerie. It’s as if the bus has dropped us off in the ruins of some great and ancient fantasy kingdom. Massive stands of rock cones and pillars, some with gaping black windows and doorways, tower over the houses and shops. And in the distance, the rock carved mountain castle of Uchisar looms over the town. We walk to our hotel feeling slightly uneasy until a brightly coloured curtain flapping in the breeze catches our eye, and reminds us that people still live here.
These fantastic structures are not the ruins of an ancient kingdom, they are the patient handiwork of Mother Nature eroding the soft volcanic rock over millions of years to create this fantasy landscape. Since prehistoric times humans have taken advantage of Mother Nature’s boon, hollowing out the soft rock to build their homes and places of worship.
We are not really tour group people, preferring to arm ourselves with a good guidebook and explore at our own pace, but knowing what sloths we can both be, especially after the overnight bus trip, we pre-booked the full day green tour or Ihlara Valley tour. I am so glad that we did!
We soon discover that Cappadocia is not only a fantasy kingdom above ground but also beneath as well. As we descend eight stories down into the subterranean depths of Derinkuyu Underground City, the dimly lit stairway becomes increasingly narrow and the ceiling becomes lower and lower, forcing us into a crouch. I think I hear the pounding of Orc war drums … oh wait, that’s my heart!
Once I have calmed myself, I realise with the aid of our guide that this is no mere hole in the ground, it’s a complex and defensible city with a water supply and ventilation shafts, stables, churches and sleeping areas, all of the amenities that you would expect to find in a city. We marvel at the engineering of these ancient builders, although I couldn’t help wondering how you would get a horse to agree to enter the dark passage to the underground stables.
Back in the sunlight and after a short drive we descend, yes, another descent, but this time down a wide and open staircase to the floor of the Ihlara Gorge for a short hike to the end of the gorge where it flattens out. It’s quite a staircase, 400 steps to be precise, and I’m most grateful to be on a guided tour because with my luck I would have entered from the flat side and then would have to crawl out and up the 400 steps, puffing and wheezing, on my hands and knees.
We meander along the river in a valley dressed in spring colours surrounded by sheer rock cliffs peppered with hidden churches. Fleeing persecution, some of the early Christians settled in this concealed valley, carving out secret places of worship adorned with frescoes into the rock. It’s a beautiful hike along the meandering river but at times slightly unsettling as we look up at the towering cliffs dotted with black gaping holes, entrances that echo of a people long gone and forgotten.
Our tour is almost over, we travel to our last stop of the day and what is undoubtedly the highlight of the tour for us, the Selime Cathedral complex. A daunting citadel of rock cones congregates on the side of a cliff. It is a bit of a scramble up the rocks to get to the main entrance.
We enter the complex via a long and steep rock-carved tunnel – although no hunching is required this time! We emerge deep in the heart of the citadel into an open- air courtyard surrounded by a ring of crumbling rock cones. Scrambling along the rather treacherous pathways between the rock cones we soon discover that each one has been hewn out of the rock with a specific purpose, there are kitchens, sleeping areas and even a brewery!
But it is the complexity of the architectural and engineering feat required to hew out the rock to build their cathedral that simply blows us away. We stand in awe of these builders, beneath a perfectly executed barrel-vaulted ceiling, supported by thickset columns that divide the space into a nave and aisle. How did they achieve this using only rudimentary tools?
After our whirlwind tour of the outlying regions of Cappadocia, we enjoy a pensive glass of wine on our hotel room patio as the shadows cast by the rock cones around us lengthen, and the sun sets behind Uchisar Castle. We are quiet, each deep in contemplation of the day’s experiences … and then the flood gates open and neither of us can get a word in.
We never expected to be so completely captivated by Cappadocia. Our focus was purely on ticking off our bucket list hot-air balloon flight, but here is the thing … exploring the fantastical kingdom of Cappadocia is a bucket list event of its own.
Good to Know:
Despite the obligatory stop at an onyx factory and not really being tour group people, we thoroughly enjoyed the overview of Cappadocia that the Green or Ihlara Valley tour gave us. Our hotel booked us onto a small group, our guide was knowledgeable and as a bonus, most of the places that we visited were pretty empty.
Despite warnings from other travellers that it is too touristy, we based ourselves in Goreme. Yes, it is a tad touristy and busy but we loved the hustle and bustle of the town. Exploring the markets, our mostly hilarious interactions with the Turkish rug store touts and chance encounters with other travellers swopping Turkey travel tales over an Efes beer or two was priceless. And, Goreme is central, an easy walk armed with a good guidebook to the nearby valleys and the open-air museum.
Don’t miss out on a little tableside theatre – order the regional speciality, testi kebab. A blazing hot pottery jug sealed with bread dough is brought to your table and cracked in front of you releasing the mouth-watering and delicious aroma of a stew that has simmered in its own juices for hours.
DISCLOSURE: All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.