I imagined that the colossal rock formations of Cappadocia—one of Turkey’s most unique draws—were sculptures molded into the shapes of pointy hats by an ancient race of giant gnomes.
There is a distinct fairy tale quality about this place. Something magical and otherworldly. As if it belonged not on the European continent, but somewhere near the center of the Earth, accessible exclusively via looking glasses, rabbit holes, or the swallowing of mysterious blue pills. I had never seen anything like it in the real world.
I was to learn that, in all the world, these volcanic formations occur only here—and my experience in this unique fairy land would be similarly one of a kind.
I had come here with Rudy, one of my very best friends from back home in San Francisco, to spend the last few days of his Turkish vacation exploring this strange landscape. We also planned to do the one thing that every Cappadocia-related book, online article, travel website, Google search, and friend who had visited before us necessarily prescribed: a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the entire area.
That icing on our Turkish adventure cake, we would save for the very end.
On a map, you can see that Cappadocia is located more or less smack in the middle of the country, encompassed by a whole lot of empty space. Its remoteness means it’s complicated to get to by means other than airplane, which became our transportation of (very little) choice. Arriving to Nevsehir Airport from Istanbul following a swift 50-minute flight, Rudy and I hopped in a taxi and zipped 40 kilometers east to the village of Goreme— Cappadocia’s slightly more developed and tourist-friendly neighbor.
Like a geeky teenager who unexpectedly finds himself inducted into the high school ‘in’ crowd after a summer spent tanning and pumping iron, Goreme has the feel of a place scrambling (albeit enthusiastically) to ride the wave of its newfound popularity. While the area has been famous since the 60s for its “cave hotels” featuring rough-walled rooms carved straight into the volcanic rock formations, there are only so many remaining spots in town where those type of lodgings are possible. As a result of space scarcity and rising tourism, the prices of cave hotels have been driven up, leaving a gap in the local market for “stone hotels” which offer rooms with equally hard, cold walls (minus the authenticity but hey, it’s close!) at a much more reasonable cost.
More of these hotels, plus a number of ‘stone’ restaurants and spas were under loud daily construction all over the small town. It gave me the sense that I was observing something of purity and innocence before it morphed into a beast.
My meager budget decreed that Rudy and I skip the ‘real’ cave hotels. However, the stone hotel we booked, called Goreme House, was was a solid (pun intended) alternative. A three-story structure near the main drag, it boasted a terrace and breakfast room with an almost 360-degree panoramic view. To our pleasant surprise, we were even upgraded for free to a suite that came complete with lounge area and gorgeous jewel-toned traditional Turkish-patterned textiles, which I was instantly enamored with.
It was an ideal home base to begin exploring the Cappadocian rockscapes and gorgeous local crafts.
At a glance, from afar, one might reason that the shadowed pocks and openings that define the exterior of Uchisar Castle must have been somehow fashioned by the eroding effects of wind and water. However, one would be wrong.
The funny-looking spires themselves, consisting of petrified volcanic ash topped by a layer of volcanic rock, were indeed crafted by weather over millions of years. But the gaping holes that dot the surface? Man made. Each serves as a window or doorway leading to cave houses, fortresses, tunnels, churches, schools, underground farms, wineries, and more—all carved out by hand and used by the ancient Hittites beginning 4,000 years ago.
Our tour guide for the first two days was Salim, a thin, friendly-faced native of nearby Avanos with a hooked nose and an easy laugh. I imagined that at 40+ years old, he’d done these tours so many times that the same old factoids must virtually seep from his pores, and I prepared for him to launch into ‘robo-guide’ mode. But as he loaded us and a gaggle of other tourists into a 16-seater white van, Salim surprised me with his sincere love for his job of introducing strangers to this, the place where he grew up. As we drove around the quixotic landscape, we listened to Salim’s stories of Cappadocia’s enchanting history.
I would soon witness what the perfect combination of nature, as well as ancient human ingenuity, could create.
We explored above-ground caves in the Open Air Museum, which offers glimpses into millennia of Hittite culture and life style. Kitchens, bedrooms, school rooms, and religious cathedrals with their own niches and storage compartments were present, hollowed out from the soft volcanic ash.
In one of the many underground cave systems, which extended as far as seven levels down, we were led through impossibly narrow passages and low doorways, into rooms of uneven ceilings and floors. One had to be careful not to break an ankle in the various holes and depressions the Hittites used for storage.
Back above ground, we were taken to gawk at the famous “Fairy Chimneys” as well as a trio of “Mushrooms”—legend tells of three sisters whose unrequited love for the same man turned them forever to stone.
On the second day, after a lengthy drive past scattered farms, herds of sheep and goats, and cobbled-together cinder block houses, we reached what resembled a gargantuan tear in the earth. It widened before us, then disappeared on the distant horizon, lost to gentle hills. This was Ihlara Gorge. If that name doesn’t ring a bell (it didn’t for me), you might be surprised to learn that it is just about the largest gorge on the planet—second only to the Grand Canyon.
We descended stairs that zig-zagged us down into its lushly forested, craggy-sided depths. Once at the floor of the gorge, we followed a path along a quiet stream that after a couple of kilometers had evolved into a great rushing river. The trail lead us to a series of cliffside Hittite cave dwellings, including an impressive dome-ceilinged monastery which has managed to retain its original colorful religious paintings, now thousands of years old.
Trekking deeper into the gorge, we passed hijab-wearing women taking a pause from tending rows of verdant leafy sprigs, seemingly oblivious to the succession of foreign-tongued tourists parading by.
This part of Turkey is widely celebrated for its crafts, particularly pottery and rugs. Each town of the region, Salim explained as we were taken to view a demonstration, had its own craft of expertise, a tradition that goes back for generations. In Avanos, where he is from, every boy and girl attends rug school, learning in minute detail the ins and outs of weaving, so to speak. In neighboring towns, intricately decorated pottery is the art form the children must learn. This strict requirement helps ensure their practice lives on, gauranteeing an income source into the future.
Near the end of the second day of touring, Salim took us to a spot where the above-ground caves were plentiful, but the tourists and restrictions were not.
As if a pack of cooped-up dogs had just been released into the grandest of parks, we all made a break for freedom, bounding and scrambling up risky rock paths into open mouths of various caves. Rudy and I veered away from the crowd and began darting through narrow, ant farm-like passages, up barely-there stairways into the lofts of multistoried rock houses and cathedrals, and sliding down smooth boulders, all the while grinning and laughing deliriously like children.
A tiny grown-up voice inside of me expressed shock that this rather dangerous type of activity was allowed—no hand rails? No lights? No covers for the giant holes in the floor? But my carefree self intervened, instructing my inner worrier to stuff it and just have fun.
It conjured childhood memories of the hazardous and thrilling places my cousins and I would sneak into on our grandparents farm while the grown-ups were gathered indoors. Dilapidated grain silos where we’d test the strength of decaying, rusty nail-ridden planks of wood by bouncing on them. The big hay loft, light streaming dustily through spaces in the walls and floor as we leaped across mountains of hay bales. The tractor garage, a virtual jungle gym of giant tire treads to climb like ladders, buttons and gears to push while making motor noises from the driver’s seats, and seeing just how sharp the wheat-harvesting combine blades were by pressing our small pink fingers against them.
In truth, I had always been the follower—the only girl cousin among five trouble-making boys. I had been the timid and hesitant one, fearful of getting hurt or getting in trouble (both were regular occurrences among us kids).
However. I’m slowing beginning to realize how good it feels to ignore that part of me that shouts words of caution and hesitation into my subconscious.
As I climbed and leaped and skidded and slid my way through the towering caves that day, I seemed to feel just a smidgeon of the fear that had always been lodged somewhere in the depths of my mind quietly vanish.
Oooomagod! Ok, just breathe…just breathe normally!
I commanded my lungs to disobey the ‘we’re gonna die – time to freak out’ orders given by my racing pulse as the suddenly frail-looking basked to which I clung, several thousand feet above the ground, was jostled by an overtly exuberant group of Chinese tourists waving selfie sticks. I was reminded again of how much I hated heights.
“You ok?” Rudy asked, noticing my barely concealed terror. He seemed unfazed by the aerial quaking.
“Yeah! I’m good,” I lied, forming a plastic smile of my lips and teeth.
“You sure?” my friend saw right through my pathetic pasted-on smile.
I exhaled the breath I’d been holding, “I’m a little nervous. I’ll be ok though.”
The fear had taken me by surprise. So far in Cappadocia I had successfully avoided worrying about the heights part of all of this. I hadn’t been afraid at 3:50am when the hot air balloon tour company showed up at Goreme House to pick us up, in all our grogginess. And I hadn’t been worried as I watched the balloon crew work in the pre-dawn dimness to fill the massive fabric pouch with fire-fueled air. In fact, it made me more excited than ever.
I hadn’t even been all that alarmed when the balloon lifted gently from the soil, making it appear as if it were the Earth moving quietly away while we stayed still. We peacefully rose, joining other balloons above the undulating bouldered landscape.
The nervousness had begun to kick in when the balloon pilot, wearing a huge grin, blasted loud bursts of flame into the balloon. It seemed a little too close to my head and caused me to duck just a touch, though it was obviously totally unnecessary. It felt like we were torpedoing upward, away from the perceived collective safety of the other balloons.
This sudden display of boldness made our basket mates go wild, cheering the pilot on, and whooping fearlessly while I gripped the side and watched as objects on the ground grew smaller and smaller. It felt as if they were nearly having a dance party all around me, jumping up and down, chattering happily and taking selfie after selfie with each other. I tried to look outward and focus on snapping photos instead of looking straight down, looking down, I realized quickly, was a bad idea.
The picture around me had been growing incrementally lighter, brightening from behind the distant mountains. And then, the pilot rotated the basket and all at once, I absolutely forgot about my fear.
A blazing shot of translucent gold light pierced the air from the horizon. My jaw dropped and my heart rate seemed to instantly slow as if the adrenaline flowing only seconds before had somehow sputtered out and was gone.
Every sound stopped and in that moment there was only calm, and all you could do was gaze as it gilded the entire world.
The fear did not return; in its place was a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for that moment. Gratitude for life. This incredible place of gnome hats and fairy chimneys. My friend beside me, my friends back home, my family—including my cousins, those wonderful daring trouble makers that they were, all those years ago. All of it.
“Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.” – Dorothy Thompson
Next stop: Athens, Greece and the gorgeous Greek Islands!