What is the most magical spot you’ve ever experienced in either real or literary life?
Narnia? The Emerald City? The Middle Kingdom? Wonderland? Disneyworld?
After a trip to Turkey the answer is crystalline clear for me – Cappadocia. It’s a place more fantastical than any concocted from imagination.
Geographically, it’s sublime. Rose-rock canyons snake across the landscape. Sheer cliffs banded in yellow, red, and orange rise from the valleys to scrape the sky. Elsewhere, curious rocky spikes spring from the arid terrain like sea anemone spines.
Over millennium, humans have used this land as a medium into which they’ve carved homes, churches, and art. In their hands, the spikes became multi-story homes and the cliffs were carved into entire villages. Even the soft stone beneath their feet yielded to human carving, resulting in vast subterranean cities.
And the modern era has added another phantasmagoric layer. For every morning, above it all, enormous multi-color balloons bob across the blue sky bearing visitors eager to gaze at the sights below.
This was our final destination in Turkey and a glorious finale to a magical trip.
Our introduction to Cappadocia began when the small plane we’d taken from Ephesus in western Turkey landed in Keyseri , a city in the center of Turkey. We found ourselves in a flat unremarkable metropolis of 1.4 million people, the horizon clouded by yellowish clouds of dust. Certainly not what we’d expected.
But as we set out via van westward toward our destination an hour away, we began to slowly catch glimpses of the Cappadocia we’d hoped to see. Here and there, the flat, arid land gave way to arid land marked by rocky protuberances that poked from the ground.
Soon, those protuberances became rolling hills then deep canyons and cliffs. The sun setting behind the mountains cast its oblique light on the cliff faces opposite and suddenly dark open doorways and windows were illuminated. Evidence of Cappadocia’s cliff-carving people. It was thrilling.
Before long we entered the village of Goreme, home to some 2,000 people and the heart of Cappadocia. More modern shops and restaurants spanned the central street but above and behind them loomed jutting rocks and spires, many with the same carved cavities we’d already seen.
As we came to learn, Goreme is the nexus of a series of canyons where people have made cave homes since the Middle Ages. Over the years as Cappadocia has grown in importance as a tourist hub, the village changed from a center of agriculture to a Mecca for visitors. And today, many of the cave homes that were deserted 50 to 60 years ago have been turned into posh private residences and hotels.
The van dropped us off in front of what Tyler had promised was a cave hotel he’d booked. A cobblestone street led us to a wrought iron gate that opened into a spacious rock courtyard. As it turned out, Tyler had been assigned the room fashioned out of a cave in a rock spire. No matter. I soon was ushered to my room – spacious with walls constructed of giant stone slabs, a bedroom straight out of a medieval castle. The magic was just beginning.
Although we were tired, we set our alarms to arise at the crack of dawn for the next promised spectacle – the ascent of hundreds of hot-air balloons as the sun rose over the nearby Taurus Mountains. It was still dark when we hauled ourselves out of bed, wrapped our bodies in blankets, to stand shivering in the cold Turkish dawn on the roof of our hotel.
We were soon rewarded as we saw the flame of a burner beginning to fill a shadowy balloon. It was joined by scores of other flaming burners, each urging bright balloon skyward. Soon, inflated balloons climbed over the tops of nearby mountains. More rose from surrounding valleys. Within a short time, over a hundred floated majestically overhead.
Then and there Tyler and I decided this was something we must do. But first, a tasty breakfast buffet of olives, breads, cheeses, eggs, fruit, and, of course, Turkish coffee awaited.
After breakfast, it was off to get an up-close look at some of the remarkable rock structures that define Cappadocia. Luckily for us, one of the best places to see that was right in the village at the Goreme Historical National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a 39-square-mile park that consists of plateaus and high cliffs, valleys eroded by rivers, and rock outcroppings shaped by wind.
This open-air museum’s distinct topography was formed millions of years ago during volcanic activity when ash settled across the area. That ash eventually formed soft rock called tuff, also known as volcanic sandstone.
It was this soft tuff that made the area so attractive to early inhabitants. It was easy to carve with primitive tools, and settlers created thousands of cave homes. Today, the park preserves hundreds of the original cave residences and churches, the most dense collection of such structures in all of Cappadocia. Some of the caves housed single families, some were more complex units that brought together communities, while others were religious dwellings and sanctuaries.
Hiking through the park was like taking a step back in time. It was easy to imagine the hundreds of people who made these cliffs and spires home as well as the religious leaders who called their followers to services in ornately painted cave sanctuaries. Perhaps less easy to evoke were mental pictures of the many religious men who lived like hermits here, some with the doors to their homes far above head height to discourage visitors and maintain their privacy.
One day proved not enough to explore these ancient places. The following morning saw us at a place in another section of the national park, this one known as Love Valley. Its strange topography consisted of phallic-like spires of rock known as fairy chimneys or hoodoos. They’re of greatly varying heights but some stretch as much as 130 feet into the sky. It was like setting foot on another planet.
Like the carvable cliffs in other parts of the park, these surreal chimneys also are composed of tuff. Because the width of most chimneys made it difficult to construct one-story dwellings, these fairy chimney homes were composed of multiple stories carved one atop another.
But Cappadocia possess not only unique geological history, it also showcases a diverse mix of cultures. Evidence of human inhabitation here dates from the Bronze Age (3300 B.C.). It was variously settled by the Hittites, the Persians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Armenians. Because of its diverse history, Cappadocia has supported people of various religious traditions, from Jewish to Muslim to Christian to Zoroastrianism.
Tyler and I certainly did our best to sample much of the cultural cuisine. And Tyler did his part by engaging a local in the much-loved game of backgammon. But I was also determined to experience a taste of an idiosyncratic ritual endemic to Turkey – the whirling dervish. For some strange reason ever since I’d heard about this religious ritual as a child I’d been fascinated. I’d seen grainy videos of these white-robed men whirling feverishly and I wasn’t going to miss my chance to see it in person.
The whirling dervish ceremony, as we found out, is a 700-year-old tradition performed by certain devout groups of Sufi Muslims to celebrate their mystical connection to God. Adherents engage in the whirling as a form of active meditation that includes silent prayer. Although the dervish ceremony is still performed in some places, occasionally in public, our performance that night was a reenactment of the tradition.
To experience the ceremony, we were transported to Saruhan Caravansarai , a castle-like structure built in 1249 to accommodate travelers on the Silk Road. The setting, with its towering finely hewn rock ceilings and walls, proved perfect for the performance. The enthralled audience watched silently as the performers sang and chanted then embarked on a prescribed liturgy that concluded with the famed whirling. It was nothing like the frenzied show I had imagined. These whirlers spun slowly and majestically to an exotic melody, their arms outstretched and their white robes swirling around them. I found it extraordinarily moving.
Our final full day in this beautiful spot was reserved for perhaps the most otherworldly adventure of all. Not only had tuff made it possible for early humans to create homes in rocks aboveground, the rock had also allowed people to create entire communities beneath the ground. Over years, they carved and dug layer upon layer of rooms and tunnels in no fewer than 200 subterranean cities, many connected by miles of underground tunnels.
These cities had been created during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE by Phrygians, ancient Turkish people who were related to the Greeks. They were later used by Christians during the 14th Century as protective refuges from the invading Mongolians.
The subterranean cities were completely abandoned in 1923 and then forgotten. They were not rediscovered until 1963 when a man renovating his house found the entrance to an underground megapolis now named Derinkuyu. This city consisted of 18 levels piled atop one another with the lowest nearly 300 feet beneath the surface. At its peak, it had housed 20,000 people.
Today Derinkuyu is one of two underground cities open for public tours. Tyler and I chose to visit the second, Kaymakli, known for its more winding and narrower tunnels. When it was fully inhabited, this city would have housed 5,000 people in its winding levels of dwellings, kitchens, storehouses, stables, and even wineries. Today only 5 percent is open to tour.
For us, Derinkuyu proved an extraordinary expedition deep into the earth to explore a fantastic maze of low-ceilinged twisting tunnels that emptied into into larger rooms. Multiple tunnels snaked off from each room, some lit and some not. All enticing. We spent hours exploring, creeping down tunnels lit only by the lights from our cell phones, and marveling at the sophistication of this primitive city.
But we still had one last thing to check off on our list. A balloon ride. However, that proved to be complicated.
The weather had been uncooperative since we’d arrived. We’d been trying to find two extra spots on a balloon for days but the adventures fill far in advance. Now the showers passing through the area were making it even more difficult. While balloons could fly in the rain, the accompanying wind was an entirely different matter.
We’d finally managed to secure two spots on a balloon rising the morning of the day we were to return to Istanbul. But as we went to our bedrooms the night before, the hotel owner warned us not to be disappointed if the day were to dawn too windy to fly.
We need not have worried. The morning air was still and quiet.
It was well before dawn when we arrived at the field from which our balloon was fly. As we watched, the burner quickly filled the sphere with hot air and we climbed – 14 of us – into the mammoth gondola beneath it.
The balloon slowly rose from the field after its mooring lines were finally released by the ground crew. All around, other balloons were also released skyward, burners illuminating the brilliant colors of the balloon’s skin. As we climbed, the sun behind the mountains made its appearance as well, spilling rivers of light down the cliffs and valleys.
It was only the beginning of a flight that took us across the top of Goreme. People standing on the rooftops of hotels and homes waved as we drifted over. A bride in a flowing white dress and her tuxedoed groom posed for pictures with a sky full of balloons as background.
But the most magical moments occurred as we bobbed through the winding canyons, mere feet above the bottom. The cliffs on either side of our gondola were pockmarked with cave homes. Instead of gazing up from the trails beneath, we could gaze directly into the doors and windows where people once dwelt.
Too soon it ended, although the entire adventure had spanned several hours. Tyler and I climbed from the gondola and our feet touched soil again. All around us people were celebrating, glasses of champagne clasped in their hands.
That afternoon we flew once again, but this time on an airliner bound for Istanbul. It marked the end of our Turkey visit – surely one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever taken. Until we meet again, Turkey. I hope to return.