Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2011
Issue No. 1074
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fantastic visions

Sherif Sonbol shares his adventure in the land of fairy chimneys, delicious food and safe air-balloon rides

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Clockwise from top: a picturesque view of the Ortahisar Fortress; watching the open museum of Capadocia from a hot-air balloon; the Dark Church which is the most famous in Capadocia; pigeon lofts cut into rocks known as the pigeon Valley; naturally carved rock formations

To speak of Cappadocia is to conjure up a repertoire of fantastic visions - of fairy chimneys, pigeon valleys, underground cities, and hidden Churches. Not to mention a sprinkling of fortresses, a strong line in, delicious meals, and the permanent possibility of a balloon flight. That is Cappadocia in one line, Sounds like a place out of this world.

It sounds out of this world. Indeed, some people would even say that Cappadocia looks more like the Moon than it does the rest of the earth. But there is no need to search so far afield for metaphors and similes -- all the comparisons you need are right here, only a couple of hours' drive from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

In Cappadocia, the beautiful and beautifully-named fairy chimneys are everywhere. Indeed, each rock formation has its own unique and inspiring name. Geologists have written countless books to explain how they think these miracles of nature came to be formed. But, I would suggest that you just enjoy the view, and don't let the scientists destroy the dreams of beauty that these unique landscapes may inspire in you.

Pigeon lofts cut into the rock are another beautiful feature of this landscape. Though they can be found throughout Cappadocia, the best place to enjoy them is the well-named Pigeon Valley, which runs between Goreme and Uchisar Castle, the highest fortress in the region.

Another extraordinary kind of site, and one which many tourists miss, is the amazing underground cities. For security reasons, Cappadocians built their houses within the rock of the landscape itself, including within the fairy chimneys. One huge rock is even home to a convent which extends over six floors. But the most amazing structures are the underground cities. The largest have six or even eight levels, and include not only accommodation for human beings with spacious bedroom and reception areas, but also paddock areas for animals, churches and even temporary graveyards.

The nature of the Cappadocian rock helped the residents a lot in their endeavour. While very soft by nature, once it is exposed to the air it hardens quickly, thus making it ideal for excavating and sculpting into permanently new forms.

No visitor will miss the Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site which consists of a valley containing more than 30 churches cut into the rock. The most important of these churches are the "Dark Church", so called because it has one only small window which has helped protect the vivid colours of the frescos on the walls inside, and the "Apple Church". Nobody knows for sure why it was called the Apple Church, though some scholars have proposed that there may once have been an apple tree that grew inside.

During our visit, we were lucky to be accompanied by the very knowledgeable Mr. Memduh Guzelgoz, who is better than any guide. We found him standing at the gates of one of the churches, which he watches over. From Goreme we went on to the Ortahisar Fortress. I am sure that if I did not tell you it was a fortress, you would never have guessed just by looking at it. For in essence, it is just another huge rock, much larger even than the six-floor nunnery. Standing 90 metres high, it is a prominent landmark in the region, and at a distance, you would never guess that people had once lived inside it. Just like the rest of the region, Ortahisar is full of invisibles.

Now comes the delicious part. Whenever you visit Turkey, you always expect great (but heavy) food. It is always difficult to find light food, with the exception of the ubiquitous green salad. In short, before travelling you need to get permission from your doctor to eat something substantial for a week or two.

The restaurants of Cappadocia are a great experience, and the restaurant owners are even better. The Kavi restaurant was suggested by Bilgin Solmaz, our driver. It turned out to be a beautiful, peaceful place, situated beside a calm river. I chose the traditional "Testi Kebabi ", which was cooked and served in a sealed clay pot. It was so original, highly delicious and ... too heavy. From now on, when we say the food was good, please understand that we mean that it was good, and rich in fat.

The owner of the Kavi was a very nice man who came and said hello to us, and who seemed to be in rather good shape. Probably, he didn't eat his own "good" food.

Kebab in Egypt always refers to grilled meat, but in Turkey it can mean any kind of grilled food. It may be fish, meat or -- even worse -- vegetables. I have witnessed a couple of problems with the vegetable kebab aspect, as people who expected meat ended up having to make do with a tomato.

The other restaurant that I would highly recommend is called the "Balkon Restaurant". Again it has a very nice owner and great food. What sets it apart, though, is the best view ever of the valley leading to the beautiful Ortahisar Fortress, which is dotted with pigeon lofts. Here, you can sit outside on the balcony and enjoy some delicious food, followed by a cup of Turkish tea and that unique speciality, baked Ice cream cake. The Balkon really is a great restaurant.

The same night, I went to the Ya°ar Baba Restaurant. They had lots of salads on offer, together with a big dish of sizzling lamb and huge jars of both red and white wine. And when I say 'huge', I mean really really big. The wine is very good and locally made from the great grapes they grow. Dinner was followed by a nice show of Sufi dancers, followed by a beautiful dancer who picked all the old men from the audience to dance with her in a hilarious kind of oriental dance class. The entertainment was completed by a nice comic folkloric show that everyone is invited to participate in. If you want to get the most out of it, you need to sit at the front. The only drawback is that the bill for the night is proportionate in size to the huge wine jars, of which you will never be able to drain more than 10 per cent.

How to get to Cappadocia?

The easy answer is: by bus or by plane. But although it is easy, there always seem somehow to be complications... Cappadocia, after all, is very famous. It is featured in all the guidebooks, and on posters in the travel agencies. Yet if you ask the staff of EgyptAir or Turkish Airlines in Egypt, they will tell you, "Sir, there is no such place in Turkey". So if you want to avoid that surprise, remember that the name of the airport you want to fly to is Kayseri Erkilet, in the city of Nev ° ehir. If you are coming from Cairo, passing through Istanbul, then try to pick up your bags in Ataturk airport and re-register them, instead of having them shipped straight through to Nev°ehir. From what we saw at the airport, lots of the luggage that was sent straight on was delayed till the next flight -- including mine. Clearly the Attaturk airport people are not entirely sure where Nev°ehir is, either.

There are many hotels to choose from in Cappadocia; some of them even have rooms carved into the rocks. Some stand right between the fairy chimneys, while others occupy more standard hotel-type buildings. But then, the Turkish people are great builders, and last year they were even named the 3rd best builders in the world....

I stayed in a hotel called Donir. It was very close to the town, with the shops and the night life, but not very close to the main sights. In Cappadocia, never depend on taxis. The distances are large, and no one in their right mind would use a taxi. Rent a car, or arrange transport through local tourist agents, who are usually very efficient.

Up, up and away

It would be a big mistake to go to Cappadocia and not get in a hot-air balloon. There are 85 balloons in the region, and they have very competent pilots who follow British safety regulations, thus ensuring a very safe flight. They collect their clients from the hotel around 5.00 am (as balloonists do all over the world) and take you first to a nice breakfast place, before embarking for your balloon ride. This consists of exciting one-hour tour aerial tour of the region, an opportunity to take some great pictures, a nice chat with your captain, and finishing up with a glass of champagne and a commemorative medal.

My only advice is that if you really care about your pictures; make sure the balloon will take off in a sunny area. Most of them prefer to start the trip in the shadow of a mountain, so as to benefit from the cool air. This will be ok for most photographers, and the ride itself is still a great experience. Our pilot, Captain Ercument from the Royal Balloons, was one of the best I have ever seen. Indeed, after a nice flight, and 15 extra minutes especially for me as a sun-obsessed photographer, we landed exactly on the balloon strip. Having seen other balloon captains land on temples, or house roofs, or get snagged on the edge of steep hills, I really appreciated this touch! Like the rest of Cappadocia, the balloon trip was a great adventure, made perfect by our extremely safe landing.

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