Get away from Turkey’s big cities and find all the culture, beauty, and fresh air you’re searching for in the west: Cappadocia.
Ready for a break from the urban chaos of Istanbul? Pack your walking shoes and head to Cappadocia for, literally, a breath of fresh air. Just a short flight from Istanbul, this magical landscape was created millions of years ago after the Erciyes and Hasan Mountains erupted — offering a historic wonderland to visitors. Now dormant, snow-capped Erciyes Mountain dominates the landscape and adds to the breathtaking beauty of the region.
The origin of the region’s intriguing underground homes and rock-cut cave dwellings is unknown. According to the Turkey Culture and Tourism Office, local seismic activity made having a stone and earth home more practical even in Neolithic times. These underground settlements (many of which can be toured) were well insulated from the harsh climate and protected from tribal warfare, yet archeologists cite the lack of toilet facilities as an indication they may have been used only temporarily for security. When excavations began in 1964, Turkish scientists thought the cave dwellings were built by Christians to hide in. Subsequent study revealed a much older origin, largely erased by the rebuilding of new homes on top of older ones. The Greek soldier and author Xenophon, student of Socrates, notes their existence in 401 B.C. but their continued occupation, whether for military, defensive or residential purposes, is lost to time.
Exploring the Region by Foot
With a pace that is as far removed from the bustling city of Istanbul as you can get, the village of Uçhisar offers stunning views, a handful of restaurants, and quiet streets filled with local residents. Wherever you make your base, call early and book tour guide Mustafa Yedek (90/532 609-5593) or hiking guide Haydar Haykir (90/384 341-6000), Uçhisar locals, to explore these extraordinary rock structures.
Try hiking the Red Valley, where you’ll slowly descend about 100 meters and visit the Direkli Kilise (Column Church), a soaring Byzantine cathedral set in a cliff, which is virtually invisible from the outside except for a tiny window and stairs. Alternately, hike the White Valley. Also known as Love Valley, it’s a flatter hike (perfect for kids) and just as spectacular. You’ll get up-close and personal with the phallic-shaped fairy chimneys that dominate the landscape and give the valley its name. Go early in the day and what you won’t see is a single coach bus or a large group of tourists. The rate for a guide is approximately $50 or with transportation $50-100 per day. To save some money and enjoy the flexibility to explore on your own, pick up a rental car from Uçhisar, Ürgüp, or Göreme. It’s easy and inexpensive and ideal for families with kids who want to sightsee at their own pace.
Whether on or off a tour, don’t miss the surprisingly luscious greens of Ihlara Valley. A river snakes through an incredible gorge, giving life to unexpected foilage in what is otherwise a martian world. Peer into cave churches then stop to have tea on the river as you end your jaunt through Ihlara.
If this is your first trip to Cappadocia, don’t miss Göreme’s Open Air Museum, but go at noon, while the tour groups are still enjoying their Turkish buffet lunches, or after 5pm to avoid the crowds. While in Göreme, stop by Tribal Collections (90/384 271-2400) for a chat with Ruth Lockwood, a transplanted New Zealander who can offer an honest introduction to Cappadocian kilim rugs as well as advice on out-of-the way places to visit.
Hike, bike, or drive your way to the village of Çavusin to see an abandoned Greek city. Clamber over ruins and learn about the pigeon caves as you take in stunning views of the valley’s incredible sediment striations. If you haven’t had enough climbing, be sure to head to Selime Monastery. Here you can crawl across steep slopes of rock that make up an incredible, all-natural network of monastic cells.
Be sure to finish your trekking in time to find a comfortable spot to watch the sun set, Sunset Point is a romantic location to spend time savoring the region’s best-tasting export, their local wines. You’ll find Kocabag winery in Uçhisar (90/384 219-2979) and Turasan winery in Ürgüp (90/384 341-4961) — free tastings are available at both. The white wine grapes are grown locally while the red grapes are grown elsewhere in Turkey and blended, but after a few glasses, does it really matter?
Exploring the Region by Air
Save Sunday for a quiet leisurely breakfast or, alternately, get up before dawn to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime breathtaking hot air balloon ride with Kapadokya Balloons Göreme (90/384 271-2442) starting at 230€ per person. Families should note that balloon rides are not recommended for children under 6-years-old and last 1 to 1½-hours — by the end of our family’s trip, my 7-year-old was ready to land. The baskets are also high, making it difficult or altogether impossible for small children to see the landscape, and the 4:30am wake-up call to get to the balloon on time does little for their spirits.
After the balloon ride, select the perfect Cappadocian kilim for that bare spot on your floor or stop by the village of Avanos to discover the local terra cotta pottery. You’ll have just enough time to catch a shuttle back to Kayseri Airport for an evening flight back to Istanbul. However you choose to spend your time, a weekend in Cappadocia won’t disappoint.
Take a Friday evening flight on either Turkish Airlines (90/212 444-0849) or Onur Air (90/212 444-6687) and you can be sleeping in a troglodyte-style cave as people have been doing for thousands of years, albeit now with a lot more amenities.
There are several fun options for lodging ranging from luxurious to basic in all price ranges. The award-winning Les Maisons de Cappadoce (90/384 219-2813) starts at $$$ for 2-person suite. Ideal for families, apartment style rooms are equipped with kitchens, outdoor terrace areas, barbeques, and some even have fireplaces for a cozy night at ‘home’. Or try Anatolian Houses (90/384 271-2463) with suites at US$$$. Please note this hotel only allows kids 12 and up to stay, but only charges 50% of the room rate for ages 12 to 15-years. Phones, TV, minibar, heating, Jacuzzi, Turkish baths, sauna, wine cellar and fountain, laundry service, Spa, and Internet are available to guests.
For an authentic, rustic flavor with creature comforts, cave style ‘rooms’ at the popular Museum Hotel (866/978-1048 toll free from inside US or 90/384 219 2220) around US$$ for a standard room with breakfast. But unlike true caves, these accommodations come equipped with iron and ironing board, kettle, tea and coffee, minibar, wardrobe closet, Internet, hairdryer, TV set, and phones in the room and bathroom. The more simple Elkep Evi (90/384-341 6000) is US$ for a double ‘cave’ room and offers free airport transfer.
For information about travel to Turkey, call (877/FOR-TURKEY), contact the Turkish Culture and Tourism Offices in New York (212/687-2194), or call them in Washington D.C. (202/612-6800). Two good web resources are www.tourismturkey.org and www.kulturturizm.gov.tr.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.