Balloons and Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia

There aren’t too many places I’ve been where I feel as though I’ve stepped onto another world. I feel that welcome unfamiliarity when I’m diving at times, but I can’t recall another time on land that I’ve felt that I was in a place so foreign as I did in Cappadocia. Although it is only a forty-five flight from Istanbul, and about an hours’ drive from the airport in Nevşehir to Göreme in the heart of Cappadocia, I felt as though I had stepped into a sci-fi movie scene. I had many expectations, but in some other ways, I had no idea what to expect. In the end, I can honestly say that my expectations weren’t high enough. Cappadocia is an enchanting, strange and surreal place, full of unique history, an alien landscape and the kind of people you come to Turkey for.
I went to Cappadocia with my mum, as it was her first trip to Turkey, we felt that this was a place that neither of us could leave Turkey without seeing. We wanted to get out of Istanbul and see something new together, and we definitely made the right choice. We stayed in Göreme while we were there, and I’m very glad we did, as it seems to have been the perfect place from which to see the valleys, museums and sites in the region. We decided to go with proper tours during our visit, as opposed to trying to see the sites alone, and trust me, it’s worth it. Without a vehicle, it’s simply impossible to get out of the area what you should, and the organization of the tours is something I certainly wouldn’t be able to match. Certainly if you’re only spending a few days, hiring a tour guide and paying for the organized tours is a much better and hassle free way to go. I loved the tours we did and feel like I saw all the things on my list and more this way.


So, here’s some history of the area for anyone interested … Like any place in Turkey, Cappadocia has a very long history. It is located in the central region of Anatolia, across the provinces of Nevşehir, Kayseri, Aksaray, Kirşehir, and Nigde. People have been occupying this area long before the common era, and the earliest mention of the name Cappadocia, or something like it, comes from the Persian for “the land of the beautiful horses.” During the Bronze Age, the Hittites lived in this area, until the decline and fall of the Hittites, after which it was eventually encorporated into the Persian Empire under Darius the Great. After the fall of the Persian Empire, and the invasion of Alexander the Great, Cappadocia became a kingdom unto itself. Cappadocia has been Persian, Greek, Byzantine, and eventually Turkish. There are so many cultural and historical layers in this place, which is made all the more unique by the otherworldly landscape here. The region happens to be sitting between three volcanoes; Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz Dağları.  Because of this placement, the plateau was covered equally on all sides by volcanic ash and mud during the eruptions millions of years ago. These layers were since buried under other sediment. Now, for millions of years, the layers have been slowly eroding naturally, but the different sediment in the various layers erodes at different rates. This difference in density of the layers is the reason for the strange formations we see throughout the region; some of the layers at the top remain while the softer ones below wear away faster, leaving the tall thin towers with heavy boulders perched precariously on top. So really, layered is the best way to describe this region; whether you’re talking about the history of the people, or the land itself.


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One of the first things we saw as we descended into the valley was Uçhisar Castle; a massive example of what was to come over the next few days. The castle is a crumbling mass of stone overlooking the valley that reminds me of an ant hill, with its little windows and doors and pigeon homes carved throughout. It, like so many other structures in the area, is comprised of an extensive network of caves; many of which are now unusable, leaving only a few intact for visitors to explore.
The actual town of Göreme is surrounded by the fairy chimneys that the region is known for – the tall towers of rock that jut up from the ground like icicles beginning to melt away. You’ll see them as you get closer to the town and all around the surrounding areas; I felt like I was on an alien planet walking among them. Throughout the town of Göreme there are cave hotels and restaurants and any manner of structures built into these strange towers. Göreme is a very small, quiet, touristy town, full of shops selling trinkets and carpets, over-priced clothes and tacky souvenirs. In and around Göreme there are a few nice walks around the town and into the surrounding hills and valleys, but aside from shopping for souvenirs and carpets, and eating, the town itself is small and charming, but relatively unexciting. When I was there, in May 2017, Göreme was even more quiet than it ought to have been. Although this is generally a good thing for me, having come from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, it did make me quite sad to see that it was so empty. This is of course due to the negative press Turkey has endured over the past year and the very real issues with terrorism and politics that we’ve been facing here. I don’t blame people for being wary, but can’t help but feel awful for the people living in such a small town which relies so entirely on tourism to survive. While we were walking through town on the first day we saw nobody in the streets that I’m told used to be full of visitors, and the majority of the tourists that were there, and there were very few, were Turkish. When we arrived and didn’t like our first hotel, we were able to just wander through and ask to see rooms in other hotels before settling on one. They were all empty, and there are so many! So on the one hand, it was nice to have our pick of the rooms and the restaurants and the rest of it, but it was upsetting to see how depressed the economy has become in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. You don’t notice it quite as much in a city like Istanbul, because its is already so populous; but in a small town like Göreme, you can see how hard Turkey has been hit this year. Having said that, regardless of how many tourists were there, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Göreme and found that it was the perfect base from which to see the sites around Cappadocia.


Balloon Tour

The balloon tour was no doubt the highlight of the trip for me. The tours generally only run early in the morning during the sunrise, as the daytimes are generally to windy for the balloons. It sounds exhausting, having to be up at 5 am for the tour, but trust me, going up with the sunrise is well worth the lack of sleep. I’d been on a balloon before, but if you haven’t, it really is a whole new experience. The silence is the thing that I am always awed by. Except for the sound of the operator releasing the propane valve, there is no sound to distract you from the incredible views than the people talking in the basket with you. The views of Cappadocia from above in the glow of the morning light were staggering. What is more incredible about the view though are the other balloons; I counted 78 when we were flying, but I’m told that at times there are hundreds. It really was amazing, and although the prices can seem steep to some, it is worth every penny.


The Red Tour

Our first tour of the trip was the Red Tour. I am not sure if there is a particular order in which you should do your tours, but we started with Red and it worked out just fine. The day started off with a stop opposite Uçhisar Castle at the Esentepe viewpoint, so we could take photos of the castle and wander through the valley below it. The tour doesn’t include Uçhisar Castle, but I’m told if you’re interested there are regular buses up the hill to the castle from Göreme. After this stop, we moved onto the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is large a monastic complex, built into the rocks as far back as the middle ages, made up of living quarters, kitchens, and various churches. The churches are the best part, as they are perhaps the most intact cave churches and they are home to dozens of beautiful frescoes. Unfortunately, though the majority of the frescoes remain, there are parts where they have been defaced and partially destroyed during occupation by Muslims after they conquered the area. After the Göreme Open Air Museum, we moved on to a view point over what our guide called Love Valley, between Göreme and Çavuşin. Looking out over the rock formations in the valley, one gets a sense of why it might be called Love Valley, as the immense stone towers jutting up from the ground happen to quite closely resemble a certain part of the male anatomy. After that, we headed to Paşabağ, or Monks Valley, to see the fairy chimneys there. This was probably my favorite example of the fair chimneys, as we had the chance to wander in and around them, surrounded by beautiful flowering trees. It was a beautiful sight to behold and perhaps the most memorable valley for me. We then headed to Avanos, a city that has been known for their pottery since Hittite times. We watched some pottery being made, and saw the most incredible examples of handmade and hand painted pottery that I’ve ever seen. After wandering through the giftshop for far too long, pondering how long it must take a person to master the skills it must take to create such works of art, we headed off once again to see Devrent Valley, which is known as Imagination Valley, because of the oddly shaped rock formations; in some you’ll see a camel, in others, an elephant; you could spent hours staring at the rocks and imagining different stories for them all. The last stop on the trip was to see the Three Graces in Ürgüp, or rather the three fairy chimneys you always see on the brochures and postcards for Cappadocia. There is nothing particularly remarkable about them, aside from the fact that there are many photos of them.




The Green Tour

The Green Tour was the more active of the two tours, and made for a very full day. We started out with yet another stop at lookout point above Göreme, looking out over the valley of fairy chimneys. We then carried on to Derinkuyu Underground City, which was an incredible feat of human ingenuity and resilience. Although the exact first uses of the cave system are unknown, they were likely expanded upon and converted into a living space for the Byzantine Christians hiding from Muslim persecution during the Arab Byzantine Wars. The caves were a labyrinthine mass of tunnels and dark little rooms, long passages that are likely to make you claustrophobic, and steep staircases with very little headroom. How the people who lived there, and there were likely thousands, didn’t get lost or lose their minds living down in the dark, I don’t know. This was likely the highlight of the Green Tour for me; if you’re physically fit enough to handle the many stairs and not prone to being claustrophobic in narrow passages, I would suggest you not miss this incredible site. After Derinkuyu we headed to Ilhara Valley, for lunch and a hike through the valley. We were there in March, and at the time it was still quite cool, so the valley was not green like it is in the photos, but rather barren. I had been prepared for a proper hike, and being Canadian, perhaps my definition of a hike is something else. We were dropped at the edge of a sheer cliff face and walked down some steep stairs into the valley, but beyond this it was just a leisurely 5km walk through the valley and out to the pickup on the other side. The part of the tour that was somewhat taxing was the Selime Monastery visit that came after. This monastery was built around the 8th or 9th century, and it was quite a climb up through the structure built high into the rocks. This monastery, like Derinkuyu and many other structures in the region, was an incredible example of the resourcefulness and workmanship of the people; built so high up, carved entirely out of the rock itself, it was able to house thousands of people. There is a cathedral, a school, living quarters and many more things to see throughout the complex; full of beautiful frescoes, winding stairways and narrow passages. If you’re up for the climb and unafraid of heights, this monastery is worth the effort. After the monastery we stopped at an onyx factory, and the tour ended with a brief stop (brief because at this point the weather had turned and it was getting quite cold) at a look out over Pigeon Valley. It was a beautiful view over another valley full of tall pointy towers covered with little holes for the pigeons who used to live in them. The green tour was a long day, and at times, it seemed too long, but it is definitely worth doing if you’ve got the chance! In my opinion, Derinkuyu and Selime Monastery are worth the long day and sore feet.



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A few tips for your trip … 

TIP: There are a few restaurants worth checking out, my favorite being Dibek; although it is relatively touristy, with a very obvious Turkish feel, the cushions on the floor to sit, and only traditional Turkish food, it was without a doubt one of the highlights of my trip. The staff were wonderful, and very attentive, the food was to die for, and the wine was delicious. We had a traditional Testi Kebap, or pottery kebab, which is meat, or veggies if you prefer, cooked in a clay pot for a few hours, and served at the table by breaking the pot. I don’t generally go in for the touristy sorts of places, as I have lived in Turkey so long, and generally the touristy restaurants serve the worst and most expensive food. In this case however, I was happy to be wrong! Another restaurant worth mentioning is Seten, at which we enjoyed a wonderful meal with a great view and wonderful wine.


TIP: Online, all the cave hotels look the same – they all look cute and authentic and perfect; trust me, they aren’t all exactly how they look online. We checked out a whole bunch of hotels when we arrived and realized ours looked nothing like the photos, so with this in mind, I’ll suggest two different hotels, one that we considered and one we stayed in. We didn’t stay in it, but we loved Divan Cave House for authentic, but comfortable cave rooms at a reasonable price, as well as for the friendly staff. The hotel we settled on, Mithra Cave Hotel, was perfect; they have awesome cave rooms, but as opposed to the first hotel we stayed at, they are not stuffy and dark and hot. The rooms have all the amenities and more, proper ventilation and windows, and furnishings that are both luxurious, as well as traditional. As well, they have a beautiful


TIP: If you’re planning a balloon ride, always plan it early on in the trip, as sometimes they are cancelled due to weather conditions. The balloons only fly in the mornings, so they can’t simply be rescheduled for another time of the day. So, if you’ve planned it for the first day of your trip and it is cancelled, you will have other chances to book one. If you booked for the last day and they can’t fly, you’re simply out of luck.

TIP: Try the wine – the wine from this region is wonderful.


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Overall, the trip was incredible in so many ways, and I loved every minute of it. This was my first visit to Cappadocia after 2 years in Turkey, and I am somewhat ashamed to say it took me so long. I will always remember this trip because it was the first trip I’ve taken with my Mum in years, but no matter your reason for going, I’m sure this place will stick with you. There are a million and one things to see in this country, and while looking through a Turkey guidebook at all the cities and sites and beaches you should see can be overwhelming, you should definitely add this to the top of your list if it isn’t there already. I’m certain that you won’t find another place like it anywhere. You might find volcanic rock formations, and you might find balloons, but you won’t find all the wonders Cappadocia has to offer all in one place anywhere else.