Written by Vanessa H. Larson
Just four hours’ drive southeast of Ankara – Qatar Airways’ 88th destination – lies Turkey’s Cappadocia region: a magical place with an incredible panorama of valleys and pinnacles created by nature and further shaped by humans.
Floating through the air in a hot-air balloon with a bird’s-eye view of Cappadocia’s scenery is an experience nothing short of spectacular. The topography is a geological masterpiece, formed after three volcanoes in the region erupted millions of years ago and covered the earth with lava and ash, which eventually turned into a soft rock called ‘tuff’ (or tufa). Over time, wind and water sculpted the tuff into stunning, multi-hued canyons, leaving behind unusual formations known as ‘fairy chimneys’, made of harder sections of rock that resisted erosion.
As you drift along in the breeze, the valleys below look like cloth that’s been draped, folded, and wrinkled into a million peaks and crevices. In some places the rock is smooth and rounded like sand dunes; in other places it bears the traces of countless rivulets of water that have run down it through the millennia. The layers of colour vary from off-white and shades of grey to pale yellow, even orange, and change according to the weather and the light.
Ranging in shape from pillars to cones to elongated mounds, the fairy chimneys seem much more surreal, even other-worldly. Over the centuries, humans have carved rooms out of their porous rock and used them for dwellings and other purposes. As your balloon makes its way through a valley, you may find yourself eye-to-eye with a fairy chimney, peering through the windows of an ancient home.
While suspended in the air, you lose your sense of distance and therefore of size. Passing over rock formations covered with vegetation, you can’t tell how large they really are, and it seems as if you could reach down and touch the rock, or run your fingers through the grass. The balloon ascends to an altitude of several hundred metres, and suddenly you have breathtaking views of the whole area. The huge outcropping of Uçhisar Castle looks like a distant anthill, the valleys and myriad rock formations appear as an intricate mosaic, and even the plateaux are way below. Farther away, neatly ploughed swaths of farmland stretch on toward the mountains in the distance.
Nature Carved by Humans
Cappadocia’s topography is a feast for the eyes, but what humans have done with the natural environment is even more amazing. Although the region has been inhabited since at least the Hittite era (1800-1200 BC), the Byzantine period has left the greatest mark. Between the 4th and 11th centuries, Cappadocia was an important centre of monastic Christianity. Early Christians flocked to the area, attracted by its remote, inaccessible terrain, which allowed them to practise their religion undisturbed. Besides turning fairy chimneys into homes, they also carved numerous churches and chapels out of the rock.
Some of the best-preserved and most beautifully decorated of these churches, most dating to the later part of the Byzantine period, comprise the Göreme Open-Air Museum, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each church is unique, and their elaborate frescoes are striking in their artistry, no matter what one’s religious background. The site once housed an entire monastic complex, and in addition to the remarkable chapels, there are monks’ and nuns’ quarters, a refectory and other facilities, all hewn out of the rock. It’s helpful to hire a guide or join a tour to better understand the context of what you’re seeing.
Although Göreme’s Open-Air Museum boasts one of Cappadocia’s largest concentrations of churches, hundreds more dot the region, ranging from frescoed gems to basic chapels with only a primitive altar to indicate their purpose. Adding to the mystique, many are all but hidden from view; indeed, one of the pleasures of wandering around in Cappadocia is the possibility of stumbling upon places unexpectedly.
Uçhisar Castle, at 1,400 metres the highest point in Cappadocia, offers the best views to be had from the ground, and is a wonderful spot from which to watch the sun set. The ‘castle’ is in fact a huge natural rock outcropping that was turned into a defensive structure during the Byzantine period. The top offers a 360° view of the amazing landscape spread out before you. Numerous rooms are carved into the south face of the castle, and below it is a group of smaller fairy chimneys with several rooms carved out, which are also interesting to explore.
Though increasingly affected by tourism, Cappadocia is a place where people carry on with traditional ways of life, and many ancient cave houses are still inhabited today. Villagers continue to grow crops in the region’s fertile volcanic soil; walking through the valleys, you’ll often come across carefully tended orchards. Viticulture has also been practised in the area for thousands of years, and you may wish to try the local wines made from native varieties of grapes.
Cappadocia is an ideal setting for ballooning thanks not only to its beautiful vistas but also to the local atmospheric conditions, which provide very safe conditions and a high number of flying days per year. Flights take place only in the early morning, before the wind picks up speed. With the increased popularity of ballooning in recent years, the number of balloon companies in Cappadocia has proliferated at an astounding rate. Not all ballooning companies are the same, so it’s important to ask about a company’s credentials and safety record before you make a booking. Kapadokya Balloons (www.kapadokyaballoons.com), the oldest and most highly regarded of Cappadocia’s ballooning companies, is also the only company to use different launch sites, allowing its pilots to take advantage of each day’s weather conditions and provide the best possible flights.
Cappadocia is famous for its underground cities: extensive subterranean systems of interconnected rooms and passageways carved out of the rock where people sought refuge during times of danger. They were begun in ancient times, probably by the Hittites, and expanded by the monastic Christians who lived in the area during the Byzantine period. The largest go as deep as eight storeys into the ground and include not only dwellings but also stables, chapels, wine presses, ventilation shafts, and defence systems. Though dozens of underground cities were built, only a handful are open to the public today; the most impressive are in Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu.
Fight your way through Ankara traffic to the E-90 highway south, following signs for Aksaray, 219km (136 miles, 3 hours), then turn left (east) for Nevsehir, 73km (45 miles, 1 hour).
Nevtur buses leaves Ankara’s ASTI main bus terminal about every two hours for Nevsehir, where you’re transferred to a shuttle minibus to Göreme, Uçhisar, or Ürgüp.
Express trains take about seven hours to cover the distance between Ankara and Kayseri, where the line splits to the east for Sivas, and to the south for Nigde, Karaman, and Adana.