From Egirdir, we were off to Cappadocia, a region of central Turkey famous for crazy rock formations, hot air ballooning, great hiking, and churches, monasteries, and homes cut into rocks. It’s a place we’ve wanted to go for many years, so we were pretty excited to finally be off.First, though, we made a one-night stop in Konya, a city of a little over a million people; the goal was both to break up the long journey to Cappadocia and perhaps to see the famous Whirling Dervishes. We succeeded at the first – two three- to four-hour bus rides beats one seven-hour day – but not so much at the second.
For the record, the Whirling Dervishes are part of the Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam. The Dervishes are ascetics who use “spinning” as a form of active or physical meditation in their effort to reach what the Buddhists would call enlightenment. It’s not a tourist thing; these are serious worshippers and Konya, their home, is kind of the Bible Belt of Turkey.
Well, our hotel was a little less central than we’d hoped or expected, and one afternoon and evening before catching our morning bus out just wasn’t enough time to figure out the town or where to see these Dervishes. We did, though, have one of those moments when you appreciate the kindness of strangers. Being in the Bible Belt, most of the restaurants don’t serve wine or liquor, but we found a well-rated restaurant that seemed as though it would work for us. It was, though, a 20-minute cab ride away. Fine; we’ll get a taxi. Except for whatever reason, there just weren’t any. Our hotel called a few times and none came. To make matters worse, there was another hotel guest – a Turkish businessman – waiting in front of us, and after 15 or 20 minutes waiting we were getting desperate.
Finally his taxi pulled up, he drove away, and then came back a few minutes later. The driver had explained why there were no cabs and so he had the cab come back to pick us up. He had the driver drop him off first, as his destination was closer, told the driver where we were going, and paid for the whole fare upfront. What a nice guy!
The next morning it was off to Ürgüp, the little town next to Göreme National Park, one of the prime destinations in Cappadocia. How do you describe Cappadocia? It’s an other-worldly landscape of towers and valleys cliffs, the result of millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion; in places where harder rocks sat atop softer volcanic ash, everything would wash away (over many years, of course), except the part under the rock. Voilá, fairy chimneys. This is going to be one of the most photographed stops on this epic adventure.And then there’s the strange human history, how this part of Turkey became a refuge for early Christians escaping Roman oppression starting around the 4th century. Discovering that the rock formations were relatively easy to dig into, they dug out churches, cathedrals, monasteries, homes, villages – entire underground cities. And so today as you hike through the valleys of Cappadocia you encounter untold numbers of Byzantine-era churches cut into the rocks, in some of which you can still see the old art. It’s truly awe inspiring.
Day One in Ürgüp was a big one: up 4:15 AM to go ballooning at daybreak. Ballooning is a big deal in Cappadocia. Back in late 2013 Mark & I went ballooning for the first time in Bagan, Myanmar, and I asked the pilot, an American who had flown in many parts of the world, what his favorite place was. Without hesitation he answered Cappadocia. So we had to try it again, right? Well, maybe not. The first time in Bagan was super exciting and interesting and unique. The second time was … less so. Still beautiful with wonderful views. Watching the other balloons floating through the air and sailing over some of the rock formations and so on was very cool. But for us, at least, ballooning isn’t something we have to do that often.
By 8:00 AM we were back at the hotel for breakfast, and by 9:00 we had a car and driver to take us to Idhara Valley, a drive about an hour a way, to hike the valley and have our first experience with all these rock-cut churches and dwellings we’d heard of. It lived up to its hype. It seemed like every hundred or two hundred meters there was another sign pointing to another church cut into the side of a cliff. It didn’t take too long to figure out we didn’t have to see all of them, but several of them were worth the climb.
Two things about the valley stood out in particular. First, we discovered something we would come to love about hiking in the region. Scattered about on these hikes, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a little café will pop up. Just a little place to stop, take a break, maybe sit on some comfortable couch, and have a cup of tea. The first one we saw had platforms built over the little river cutting through the valley along with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Over our five days in the area we saw some that were more basic, some more elaborate. But all welcome. You just wonder how many 30-cent cups of tea you have to sell to make a living, particularly when, just a short distance from any trail head, we saw very few hikers.
The other was our first big underground cathedral, Selime Cathedral at the end of the valley. Wow. It’s hard to describe what an impressive architectural phenomenon some of these underground structures are. Instead of cutting rock somewhere, carrying it to a building site, and then building a big cathedral, these early Christians just dug out the rock and left in columns and tables and chairs and pulpits – everything you would need to live there. While the vast majority are fairly simple structures, some are very elaborate and complex. And this was all done with the tools available to people over a thousand years ago. Stunning.
Over the next few days, then, we did a lot more hiking. One day we took a taxi to the neighboring town of Göreme, home of a UNESCO World Heritage Site “open air museum,” a remarkable area of more of these underground churches and homes. One day we wandered through the local Sunday market before the owner of our little eight-room hotel drove us to a trailhead where tour busses can’t go, meaning we would largely have the valley to ourselves. (Speaking of the kindness of strangers, he also offered to do our laundry for free so long as we didn’t need anything ironed. Traveling as we do, offers of free laundry are about as good as life gets.) Yet another day and we’re off to another great hike through the Göreme National Park, along the beautiful Rose Valley trail. This was the good life.
We had five days in Cappadocia, at the end of which I’ll admit I was genuinely tired; we covered a lot of miles by foot. Still, though, there’s a ton we didn’t see, including entire areas of the region south of Ürgüp. So we’ll have to come back, but we keep saying that about just about everywhere we go in Turkey. Except maybe Konya.
From Ürgüp we’re making a quick two-day stop in Ankara, the capital, where old graduate school classmates of ours work at the U.S. Embassy. Then it’s off to Istanbul for our final five nights in Turkey.