The otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia is one of the more famous and jaw-dropping examples of how the unwritten laws of nature can be bent, if not broken. My first glimpse of the multi-coloured rock formations that ebb, flow, plummet, and soar through the hills and valleys of the region was a truly uplifting moment; an affirmation that the world has the ceaseless ability to amaze those who seek to explore it.
The similies and metaphors to describe this remarkable place are endless. To me, it could almost be Mars as reimagined by a particularly demented chef, mixing crazy colours to go with all that red, and moulding the post-volcanic rock in to a medley of eerie and distinctive shapes.
Goreme is the place where most people base themselves and where many people start. Its Open Air Museum might not be free to enter, but it absolutely isn’t something you should scrounge on. As well as its own fine collection of finely carved rocks and caves, the museum’s churches have excellent frescoed interiors. Particularly well-preserved are those in Karalik Kilise, boasting detail and quality reminiscent of those found in the very best Orthodox churches.
The hilltop village of Uchisar is notable for its distinctive, weathered-looking slab of a castle. Fine views of Goreme and the valleys below can be enjoyed from the castle, as well as the snow covered Mt. Ereiyes. The village itself is nothing special, but the Pigeon valley is worth dipping in to, where the pathway is flanked by red and yellow hued boulders.
Exploring the Goreme region independently isn’t always so easy to do, as it’s not really practical to get a separate minibus to each location you want to go to. So while I tend to avoid organised day tours, opting for one of the colour-coded tours that are on offer from one of the many travel agency stores in Goreme is definitely recommended to help you reach those harder-to-find places.
I went on the Green Tour, and whilst it did end with a trip to an antiques shop that was specifically designed to empty tourists’ pockets, there was enough in the trip beforehand to recommend it. First up was the underground city of Derinkuyu. The cramped, overcrowded conditions do make it hard to fully appreciate it. But in the brief time we had there I still managed to get a sense of the ingenuity of the dwelling itself and of the communication network created by its inhabitants.
Next came the Ihlara Valley, which is sure to appeal to those with a taste for natural beauty. This 14km long valley cuts a dramatic swathe through the landscape. Walls of riven rock flank the dusty valley below, which is dotted with several varieties of fruit trees, stubbled by occasional patches of grass and relieved by the clear river running through it. Also of note are the churches carved in to the cliff faces, worth the steep climb to explore.
Last, but far from least, came Selime Monastery. The biggest ancient place of worship in Cappadocia, the towering rock-hewn façade that greets you on arrival is astonishing. In addition to great views, little nooks and crannies can be found in the corners of corridors that link each of the rooms (the Chapel and main Church are particularly impressive). This makes climbing over the ruins a fun activity in itself – I was a kid scrambling over Welsh castles all over again for a while there!
Wherever you are in Cappadocia, great photo opportunities jump out at you constantly, so my advice is to simply stand and stare as often as you can. It’s also worth remembering that the rocks – be they the phallic ‘fairy chimneys’, chunks of swiss-cheese honeycomb or giant, hole-poked menhirs – are as fascinating up close as they are in distant formation.
Generally speaking, the rocks can be enjoyed from just about everywhere, but the sunset views from hilltop vantage points are particular standouts. Better still are the early morning hot air balloon rides; this had to be the absolute highlight of my trip to Turkey and one of my all-time travel highlights too!
I’d contemplated not doing it on the basis of me being on a budget, and having to get up for a 5am start, but after everyone who’d done it at my Hostel had raved about it, I figured not doing it was not an option…and I was not to be disappointed.
Quite simply, this is a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The legions of other balloons dotting the sky around you actually enhance the experience. The flights tend to take off just as the sun is rising, and watching the rocky hills and valleys below brighten from pre-dawn gloom to sun-kissed colour is magical. The balloons soar as high as 2000 metres – so not one for vertigo sufferers, this – and the vast landscape that spreads beneath you is simply stunning.
The days I spent here were among the most memorable I have ever experienced on my travels, and few indeed will leave the region without lasting and unique memories, not to mention an overwhelming desire to return.