After nearly 4 months of travel Cappadocia was the first place actually on my list of travel goals. It’s a magical area in Central Anatolia about 6 hours northwest of Syria. The unique volcanic landscape left geological formations that were easy enough to carve with tools but withstood erosion. This allowed the inhabitants to carve entire cities into the cliff faces and rocky protrusions, intricate multilevel homes, mosaic adored cathedrals, and fresco decorated tombs. Cappadocia (derived from the biblical name for the people) is a loose term for the region which is made up of many individual towns. The entire region is full of these structures, now mostly abandoned and simply empty and open to anyone who wants to visit them. This was somewhat surprising to me, to find such magical ancient sites with many rooms littered with empty bottles and human waste, crash pads for drifters and teenagers. These areas were inhabited primarily by Greek Orthodox Christians from the early 4th century until the beginning of the 1900’s when the Ottoman Empire and Turkish national movement began a genocide of non-Turkish inhabitants between 1914-1922 which killed upwards of 900,000 citizens. This genocide was formalized with the compulsory exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in which Greek and christian citizens of Turkey and Turkish and Muslim citizens of Greece were denationalized and expelled (or executed) and denied reentry of refugees. The ancient christian sites of Cappadocia were then repopulated with Greek muslims who set about defacing and destroying holy sites that once survived there, chiseling the faces off Byzantine era mosaics, and generally left unprotected and in ruins until small parts were protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites in the mid 1980’s.
The main industry there now is tourism, mostly involving these abandoned structures and the world famous hot air balloon rides at sunrise.
There are several towns you can stay within the region. The most touristy is Göreme, and where we chose to stay. It’s a tough call. Göreme is like a full on tourist enclave, that’s all there is. Which made me sad at first. But it was nice to be within walking distance of bars and restaurants and it was easy to bus out to more remote places and take the various colored tours. It was great for our first time. If we return I would research the neighboring towns a bit more and maybe rent a car to increase our mobility.
Sunrise hot air balloon ride
The weather in Istanbul had been abysmal for most of our stay there. And also in Cappadocia. We arrived just in time for things to clear up and the morning after our arrival was supposed to be a clear and low wind day. So we booked a sunrise balloon ride in the morning. Early morning. You are picked up at 5:45 pre-dawn, 19 degrees, and taken to a field busy with inflation of a flotilla of hotair balloons. A fire hastily made beside a folding table of smalled baked snacks and a thermos of hot water. It was a full moon that night and it would accompany us on our flight and light the way.
Each basket holds up to 24 passengers, 4 compartments with 6 people and a center area for the pilot and his assistant. An air traffic controller coordinates the group and we can hear the pilot respond to his queues over headphones. We start low, grazing the fairy chimneys surrounding Göreme, then high into the air just before the sun begins to peak over the horizon. You can see the early morning blanket of snow across the desert expanse. The tiny veins of roads and tiny dots of white trucks chasing down their respective balloon.
It was spectacular. Indescribably beautiful. I honestly thought the idea of a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia sounded a little cheesy and touristy but trust me, you have to do this. It was one of the highlights of our trip so far. Just check the weather and dress accordingly. You’re very high in the air with no wind protection at the coldest hour of the day.
The whole ride takes about an hour. The pilot then basically lands the balloon on a flat bed truck and you get cheap champagne and a participation trophy.
Hiking through the hills around Göreme.
Although Göreme is a bit tourist choked, a 5 minute walk out of town and you’re into the deserted surrounding mountains between town and the open air museum. There you pretty much have the place to yourself. Trails lead up and into the hillsides with endless deserted cliff dwellings to explore. I took one walk with Katy and another by myself while she was on a tour. I think this alone time with the ruins was my favorite exploring.
Climbing Uçhisar Castle
A short bus ride away from Göreme is the mountain city of Uçhisar. At the peak of the mountain is Uçhisar Castle, a complex cave dwelling poking up into the sky and around which the city has been built. For a small fee you can climb up to the top and have spectacular views of the area around the city and down into Pigeon Valley which runs from Uçhisar to Göreme and is thick with abandoned dwellings. I had tweaked my torn meniscus climbing stairs a couple of days earlier, but against better judgement I made it to the top.
Hiking through Pigeon Valley (Guvercinlik Vadisi)
Throughout the rock structures we had seen these small indentations carved in mass. I had thought maybe it was a religious thing but it turns out they were intended as pigeon roosts which were used for both food and communication. And this is where Pigeon Valley gets its name. It was supposed to be an easy hike and after my earlier climb I probably should have bowed out but I didn’t. The path was unexpectedly snowy and covered in deep loose mud which coated our shoes up over the toes. Half way through we ran into a couple of groups which had passed us earlier talking to an old man who had been hanging out on the trail as we hiked. The bridge ahead had been washed out and the signs for an alternative route were no where to be found. Conveniently this guy offered to be our guide. I see now that’s why he was there and I suspect he may have been the one to remove the signs. We followed the group following the old man up into the hills, through paths cut straight through the mountain, and down the other side. The route was considerably steeper than we had planned and the pace was much faster as we had to keep up with the group. The perfect storm to fuck my knee even more. But we made it through alive and it was definitely an adventure. The man then said we owed him 100 tl each but we followed the lead of the experienced hikers in the group, handed him a 20tl note and thanked him for the help, and quickly hike away.
Food in Cappadocia
Honestly the food in Cappadocia isn’t much worth writing about. It’s primarily your basic Turkish tourist food designed to be fast and cheap. There’s also an unusually high number of asian places, mostly run by Turkish guys and ironically a bunch of Turkish shops run by asian guys (go figure). We had some ok meals and I took photos but honestly this post is already so long I think I might just skip the details. Our best meal was at Topdeck Cave Restaurant which you should make a reservation for and if you’re feeling flexible you can request a table on the floor. And being right beside our hotel we spent a lot of time at Pasha Cafe which was a great place to have drinks but was the most expensive place we went for meh food. I was very impressed though that when I ordered my usual cappuccino with a glass of raki they brought out a full tray of fruit and a bowl of popcorn and a large slice of cheese with pickles and fresh tomatoes on top. It was basically a meal included with my drinks. Dibek also had nice food. We ate at the rooftop cafe. We also had a great lunch in Uçhisar for almost nothing at a hidden gem called Kadineli. If you’re looking for more details on food, feel free to hit me up.