Turkey’s fairytale realm of weird rock, cave dwellings and frescoed churches has to be seen to be believed. Terry Richardson guides you into, up and over it
Freed from its restraining rope shackles and engorged with an altitude-busting surfeit of hot air, our balloon soared effortlessly upwards. Gripping my fingers around the reassuringly thick natural wicker rim of the basket, I watched the rosy dawn creep over an imposing tabletop mesa.
Beyond it, the eternal snows draped around the flanks of 3,916m Mt Erciyes glowed a soft pink. Beneath us the bizarrely beautiful landscape of central Turkey’s Cappadocia region emerged from the purple night shadows – a sight that sent my ‘basket-buddies’ into camera-clicking raptures.
“Hey, take a look down there!” called out an American passenger. A grey fox was trotting nonchalantly along the edge of a carefully tended vineyard. Calmly, our pilot tweaked a cord to release some heat and, stealthily, we sank.
Then the shadow trailed by our balloon slid across our prey. Startled, it slipped down into a steep ravine bordering the vineyard. Now lost amid a forest of weird, conical rock pillars sprouting, mushroom-like, from the floor of the valley, the fox was soon forgotten and geology and history took over.
We glided past cliffs riddled with the rock-cut houses and churches of early Christian communities, around a pinnacle hewn into a citadel and skimmed the tops of rocks eroded into forms so startling you feel you’re tripping. Cliché it may be, but there’s no better way to view one of the world’s most iconic topographies than from a balloon – and we still had a celebratory champagne breakfast to look forward to on touchdown.
Bang in the centre of the Anatolian plateau, Cappadocia’s relative remoteness (Istanbul lies 670km north-west; the resorts of the Aegean coast 750km west) and severe winters have preserved it from the worst excesses of tourism.
Geographically, it is separated from its surroundings by the formidable Taurus range to the south, Mt Erciyes and outliers to the east and, on the north, by a lazy loop of Turkey’s longest river: the Kizilirmak.
Only to the west, where it merges gently into the Konya Plain, does Cappadocia lack a distinctive boundary. Arriving by air, the obvious gateway town is the old Silk Route city of Kayseri, which rests in the shadow of Mt Erciyes. On the west, with good coach links to the rest of Turkey, is the prosperous agricultural town of Nevs¸ehir, close to the attractive, tourist-friendly villages of Göreme and Ürgüp.
Ballooning aside, there are many ways to make the most of Cappadocia. Riven by weird and wonderful valleys punctuated by tablelands and high peaks, perhaps the most obvious way to explore Cappadocia is on foot. In places reminiscent of the American West, horseriding is a great option for the equestrian-minded, while the undulating plateau and empty roads make mountain biking an attractive proposition.
In winter the glorious white stuff smothers the region, lending a fairytale air – at this time, snowshoeing comes into its own. More specialist activities include microlighting (for amazing views), abseiling, winter climbing and ski mountaineering. Add to these more mainstream options such as downhill skiing and plain, old-fashioned sightseeing and exploration, and it’s easy to see why Cappadocia lures visitors back – time and again.
The responsibility for Cappadocia’s unique terrain can be laid, geologically speaking, at the feet of three mighty volcanoes rising imperiously on its fringes.
Around 30 million years ago Mt Erciyes and its smaller brethren to the south-west, Hasan and Melendiz, erupted in spectacular fashion, carpeting swathes of the Anatolian plateau with ash and lava. Compressed, the ash morphed into a pale-hued, friable rock known as tuff, while the lava cooled to become basalt. Over the millennia these bands of soft tuff and hard basalt have been worked on by the elements to produce plunging valleys, mesas and strange rock pinnacles dubbed ‘fairy chimneys’ by the local people.
But this is far more than a geological wonderland. Attracted by its wonderfully fertile volcanic soil, the Hittites, Lydians, Phrygians and Urartians all laid claim to the region. Alexander the Great ousted the Persians, then later it was absorbed into the Roman Empire.
Most travellers, though, find Cappadocia’s Christian heritage the most impressive, especially from the 7th century onwards: when threatened by Arab incursions, early Christian communities took refuge in remote valleys. Taking advantage of the soft tuff, they carved out the exquisite churches and monasteries (many still vibrant with frescoes), houses and pigeon-lofts that adorn today’s Cappadocia.
Two feet, wicker basket or horse? Whatever your choice, here are the best places to start
Despite alternating between scraping the treetops to pick a plump, ripe apricot and soaring up to 600m, ballooning is, paradoxically, the safest of adventure activities. For most participants, the pre-dawn alarm call is the toughest part of the experience, with an early start essential to take advantage of the modest winds and stunning light conditions.
Watching the beautiful patchwork of canyons, mesas, fairy chimneys, vineyards and timeless villages unfurling beneath your basket is the ‘meat’ of the ride, but the silhouettes
of other balloons bobbing lazily around you in the sunrise brings to mind the iconic helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, with eerily silent hot-air balloons in place of clattering choppers.
The laidback village of Göreme is Cappadocia’s ballooning capital, with pioneers Kapadokya Balloons offering flights for €250 (£225).
Fortunately, many of Cappadocia’s captivating valleys lack vehicle access, meaning the only way to explore them is on foot. There are several well-trodden routes that even novice walkers can chance on their own – the valley linking the two honeypot-villages of Uçhisar and Göreme, for example.
An outing of a quite different nature, on the southern rim of Cappadocia sits the gorgeous Ihlara Valley, a 15km classic day-walk along a red-walled gorge cut by the sparkling Melendiz River. With its precipitous cliffs alive with wheeling swifts and falcons, frogs croaking in crystal-clear pools, dippers doing their thing in the rapids, butterflies on every flower and a series of remarkable early churches fashioned from the soft rock, this is a sublime walk that anyone with a modicum of experience can do without a guide.
But it’s easy to get lost in the region’s twisting maze of valleys, ravines and gullies and, classified military versions aside, there are no adequate walking-scale maps available. So to explore the lesser-known areas or have a crack at the peaks of Erciyes (2,419m) or Hasan (3,268m) it makes sense to hire a guide or join a locally organised trek.
Göreme-based Middle Earth Travel has a good reputation, as does larger-than-life local character ‘Walking Mehmet’ (+90 532 382 2069), a guide also based in Göreme.
The two lofty volcanic cones of Erciyes and Hasan come into their own in winter, when their brittle, shattered and unstable basalt rock is consolidated under a mantle of snow and ice. Both are two-day expeditions and have non-technical routes to their summits. You will, of course, need to be experienced and well equipped to tackle either – these (especially Erciyes) are serious mountains and temperatures drop to -25°C and lower at night.
Helmets, crampons and an ice axe (and knowing how to use it to arrest a fall) are mandatory. The rewards of a successful summit attempt, though, are immense, with 360°, 200km views over snow-blanketed central Anatolia. The approach to Erciyes is from the ski-resort at Tekir Yaylası, a short drive above Kayseri; remoter Hasan is reached from Ihlara. Middle Earth Travel organises both climbs, plus snowshoeing tours.
You don’t have to hike, bike, balloon, ride or climb to see the majority of Cappadocia’s wonders – there are plenty of minibus tours and local transport options, easy to organise on the ground.
The most-visited Cappadocian sight is Göreme Open-Air Museum (YTL15/£6), situated on the edge of its namesake village (a 15-minute walk away). It is a fascinating cluster of restored rock-cut churches and monasteries dating mainly from the ninth to the 11th centuries, with some of the region’s most beautiful frescos. Arrive early to avoid the crowds and midday heat; you may want to bring a torch to better see inside the caves.
Your next stop should be the underground city of Derinkuyu, a fabulous warren of underground tunnels, chambers and shafts once used by the local Christian communities to evade attackers.
The villages of Uçhisar and Ortahisar both boast towering natural rock pinnacles carved into natural citadels, while Mustafapas¸a is noted for its grand collection of beautifully built Greek houses. The curious rock spires (fairy chimneys) that have helped make Cappadocia famous are seen at their magical, mushroom-capped best at Pass¸abag˘ı, between Göreme and Avanos. But there are so many other geological and historical treasures in this region – all you need is the time (and a little perseverance) to uncover them.
‘Cappadocia’ derives from a Hittite word meaning ‘land of beautiful horses’, which shows how important these animals were in the region 3,500 years ago. In the 11th century AD Cappadocia’s current inhabitants, the Turks, swept into Central Anatolia from their ancestral homelands in Central Asia on horseback. Horses still play an important role here today, with several stables offering everything from half-day trots to ten-day camping expeditions.
Whether its galloping across open grasslands backed by high peaks, weaving more sedately through fairytale spires or following a branch of the Silk Route, there’s no more natural way to see Cappadocia. There are two good ranches outside Avanos, a quaint pottery-producing town on the Kızılırmak River: try the Akhal Teke Horseriding Centre, or Kirkit Voyage, which can arranges rides from two hours to 13 days.
May/June and September/October are delightfully warm, with spring edging autumn because of the riotous wildflowers and snow-streaked higher peaks. Even summer temperatures seldom exceed the upper 20s (°C). For winter action February and March are best – and the fantastical landscape is even more dramatic with a white mantle.
easyJet flies from Luton and Stansted to Istanbul; prices from £35 one-way. Turkish Airlines flies from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester via Istanbul to Kayseri (70km from Göreme) and Pegasus flies from Stansted to Kayseri via Istanbul. Prices from £235 return; flight time is around five hours.
More fun is the (much slower) train journey from Istanbul to Kayseri. Sleepers are available from YTL35 (£15); visit the Turkish State Railways website or www.seat61.com for more info. From Kayseri it’s around an hour by road to the northern Cappadocian villages. Alternatively, Nevs¸ehir and Aksaray (gateway for the Ihlara Valley) have good bus links with elsewhere in Turkey (11 hours from Istanbul; YTL45/£19).
Most travellers base themselves in one place (invariably Göreme, Ürgüp or Uçhisar) and take organised minibus trips out to the major sights. Try Ötöken Voyage (www.otukentravel.8m.com) or Middle Earth.
It’s also quite possible to travel around Cappadocia using the buses/minibuses many locals still rely on, though you’ll need longer to see all the sights and some foot-slogging is inevitable.
At the top end, Esbelli Evi’s (Ürgüp) rock-cut rooms are chilled and tasteful; doubles from €120 (£110). For a more moderate price the Old Greek House (Mustafapas¸a) has frescoed walls, atmosphere and a good restaurant in a charming ex-Greek village; doubles from €55 (£50) with breakfast. A good budget option is Köse Pension, a well-run travellers place with a pleasant pool, mix of dorms and private rooms; doubles from €15 (£14).