It’s a landscape you would expect to find on Mars. A high Anatolian plateau, guarded at its reaches by a series of extinct volcanoes. A collection of rose-colored valleys and pinnacles of stone, carved by water and wind over millions of years. And entire cities built directly into—and underneath—soft deposits of volcanic rock.
Welcome to Cappadocia, the volcanic region of central Turkey formed over eons by the power of erosion. First inhabited by the Hatti and Hittite civilizations of ancient Anatolia, Cappadocia was later claimed by Tiberius as a province of Rome in 17 A.D. But it was the early Christians, fleeing both persecution and advancing Arab raiders between the sixth and 12th centuries, who left the greatest mark on the region—by building an intricate series of frescoed churches and sprawling cities, all tunneled beneath the mysterious landscape.
Thanks to its unusual valleys, beautiful hiking paths and subterranean settlements, Cappadocia remains a destination for trailblazers—a natural wonderland only one hour by plane from Istanbul. And with one of the calmest microclimates in the region, there are few better (or safer) places in the world to take in the view from the basket of a hot air balloon.
So strap on your hiking boots and don’t forget your camera. We’re going to central Turkey for the next three days.
Although Cappadocia is littered with historic towns—Ürgüp, Uçhisar, and Avanos to name a few—consider making your home base in beautiful Göreme, a village of 2,500 people scenically situated at the mouth of Pigeon Valley. It’s the perfect place for long weekenders without wheels, offering easy walking access to breathtaking trails, charming restaurants, and the unmissable Göreme Open Air Museum.
Countless boutique hotels adorn the hillsides of Göreme, but few come close to the Kelebek Cave Hotel’s exemplary level of service, beauty, and value. Whether you opt for a fairy chimney cave room or an arched stone suite, you’ll enjoy four-star facilities (and a wonderfully friendly staff) at one-star prices.
Red Is The Rose That In Yonder Garden Grows
Get acquainted with your surroundings a short walk northeast of town, where some of Cappadocia’s most interesting hiking trails await you in the Red and Rose Valleys. Dotted with cave dwellings and elaborately eroded rock formations, these two adjacent valleys—named for their colorfully oxidized rock—offer a fascinating introduction to Cappadocia’s unique landscape. And with a picnic and plenty of water, it’s the perfect place to explore the day away.
The Great Seten
As the sun begins to lower over Göreme, enjoy the vista with a glass of black tea on the terrace back at Kelebek Cave Hotel. An added bonus? You’re only steps away from dinner on another stunning terrace—if you were wise enough to reserve a table at Seten Restaurant. The setting is enchanting, but it’s the traditional Anatolian cuisine that takes center stage. Just don’t have too many meze before the brick oven-baked eggplant and lamb kebab arrives (Aydinli Sokak 42).
In my book, there are few valid reasons for a 4:15 a.m. wake up call. A life-threatening emergency perhaps, or an early flight for an all-expense-paid trip around the world. Well, add one more reason to the list: a sunrise hot air balloon flight over Cappadocia.
There are an astounding number of ballooning companies in and around Göreme, but do yourself a favor by choosing the exceptionally friendly and well-qualified pilots of Butterfly Balloons. If the weather’s not perfect for launching, they take no chances. But if the winds cooperate, as they often do, you and no more than 15 basketmates will enjoy the next blissful hour soaring over Cappadocia’s sun-kissed canyons, vineyards, and fairy chimneys (Uzundere Caddesi 29).
A Place In The Shade
If you’ve managed to stay awake through lunchtime, a charming canal-side table awaits you at Nazar Börek, a long-standing favorite among locals and visitors alike. This friendly café is known for its tasty Turkish classics, namely the sosyete böreği (stuffed pastries served with yogurt and tomato sauce). Add in a delightful owner and a perfectly shaded perch for people-watching, and you may just linger all afternoon (Müze Caddesi 30).
Subterranean Homesick Blues
In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great, bishop of nearby Kayseri, laid the foundations for the Orthodox monastic system – encouraging men to live self-sufficiently with an emphasis on poverty, obedience, labor and religious devotion. St. Basil’s teachings took hold in Cappadocia, where many followers began carving simple and secluded dwellings into the soft volcanic tuff. By the 12th century, the region was home to hundreds of subterranean Byzantine churches, the most intricate of which are preserved in the Göreme Open Air Museum.
As you gaze in wonder at the churches’ vibrant frescoes, take note of the damage to many of the figures’ eyes. During the iconoclastic period of the eighth and ninth centuries, many were scratched out by local Turks who were superstitious of the “evil eye.”
The Velvet Underground
Although the hotel’s serene pool terrace beckons, consider getting out of town for the day with Turkish Heritage Travel, the stellar tour operator (and owner of Butterfly Balloons). You may opt for an excursion through Ihlara Valley to the south, a ten-mile-long gorge honeycombed with hundreds of caves and frescoed chapels. Or you might explore the deepest of the known underground cities at Derinkuyu, which was capable of housing as many as 20,000 people in its eight subterranean levels (Yavuz Sokak 1).
Not in the mood for a day on the road? Take in a factory tour and tasting at Ürgüp’s Turasan Winery, one of the largest producers of Cappadocian wine since 1943 (Çimenli Mevkii, Ürgüp).
View From The Topdeck
Bring the weekend to an atmospheric close at Topdeck Cave Restaurant, an intimate family-run bistro home to Göreme’s most delectable slow-cooked specialties. Chef Mustafa and his family are exceedingly kind and gracious, but the food is the real attraction. The tender, melt-in-your-mouth lamb and chicken dishes are the perfect ending to another unforgettable long weekend (Hafiz Abdullah Efendi Sokak 15).
A Few Notes
First and foremost: Who knew that Cappadocia was pronounced cappa-doe-kia? Well, now you do. Don’t make a fool of yourself like I did.
Second, if you’re visiting the Göreme Open Air Museum in peak season, be sure to go in the late afternoon to avoid crushing midday crowds and the resulting claustrophobia.
TITLE: Hot air balloons over Cappadocia | FRIDAY: The town of Göreme; the view from Kelebek Cave Hotel; the trail through the Red and Rose Valleys | SATURDAY: Butterfly Balloons prepares for a sunrise flight; a balloon in flight; the Rose Valley; balloons in flight; Mt. Erciyes; Göreme’s neighbor, Uçhisar | SUNDAY: The vineyards of Cappadocia.