There are places around the world that almost mystically acquire ‘must visit’ status without you really knowing much about them. The Turkish region of Cappadocia is one of these. Other than knowing that the landscape was bizarre, we really hadn’t done any research before we went.
First thing worth knowing – how to pronounce it. It’s NOT Cappadosha or Cappadocha – both of which I’d heard used before going. Turks are very tolerant of visitors mangling their language, but if you want to get it right read on. Cs are hard in Turkish so it sounds like Kappa – doe – kya.
Where is Cappadocia?
The simple answer to that is slap bang in the middle of Turkey. It's in the central Anatolian Plane, a long way from the seaside, a long way from the borders with Iraq or Syria, and a long way from Van province where the bird flu problems were concentrated in 2004 when we visited.
My husband and I booked a one week trip with an "adventure travel" company called Explore in March this year. After landing in Istanbul we spent one night there then took the night train to Konya then from Konya it was another 4-5 hours by bus to the town of Goreme in the heart of Cappadocia.
~Why would I want to go to Cappadocia?~
Well, that's pretty much what my parents asked me. Why go to Turkey and not go to the seaside? If you want a beach holiday or a lazing around the pool trip, this isn't for you. However, Cappadocia has some of the most spectacular and eerie scenery in the world and it's perfect for an easy-to-moderate walking holiday especially if you like a combination of history and topography.
Now for some dumbed-down geology. Millions of years ago - some estimates say about 10 million so geologically speaking, that's the week before last - volcanoes erupted in the region covering the land with thick layers of volcanic ash and debris. These compacted to form tufa - a soft and crumbly rock that erodes very easily. Later volcanic activity covered the soft tufa with a thick layer of basalt - a much harder rock. As the rock weathered over millions of years, the land formed itself into a unique and distinctive landscape with tall columns of soft tufa, topped by blocks of basalt. Fortunately, the folk who saw these towers and named them Fairy Chimneys were less smutty than most of my friends who think they look like giant phalluses and are my Attraction # 1 - the Fairy Chimneys
The rock is soft and crumbly so it's not much cop for building houses. There's not a lot of good mud for making bricks either. Many centuries ago the local folks discovered that the easiest way to make a dwelling was to hollow out the rocks and live inside. They built complex 'cave' dwellings that were relatively warm in winter and cool in summer. People still live in these cave buildings today and give us Attraction # 2 – troglodyte villages.
Cappadocia was part of the ancient eastern Roman Empire and became an area much inhabited by Christians from what we'd today call the Greek Orthodox church. They built fabulous chapels, churches and monasteries by burrowing into the rocks. They decorated them with gouache and frescos illustrating the Bible stories. Then, in the 1920s when the Greeks and Turks fell out big style, all the Christians headed back to Greece abandoning their chapels and leaving us Attraction # 3 - fabulously decorated rock cave churches
Cappadocia lies in a strategically important area on the east-west route through the Middle East and so has been the sort of place that, whilst quite fun to live in, tended to get fought over a lot over the centuries. The locals responded to this by building complex underground cities - with hundreds of interlinked rooms like giant human termite mounds. Allegedly there are about 200 of these underground towns in the Cappadocia region. Each time the enemy came rolling through, the entire town or village took to the underground homes and hid - sometimes for months at a time, often in relative comfort. These cities (some of which are open to the public) must have been like giant nuclear bunkers filled with water, food and wine. Today the locals still use some of these underground complexes and even create new ones to store their crops. Thankfully, they don't have to go and hide any more but these still make up Attraction # 4 - underground cities.
Not surprisingly, whilst some like to run and hide, others will always stay and fight. The rock fortress of Uchisar is a spectacular site - carved out of a large rock, it gives views for tens of miles all around and is well worth the climb. We arrived just minutes after a delegation of the South Korean Ministry of Defence and were amazed to be allowed to go in to the fortress with them. There are a few other 'hisars' (fortresses) in the area, but Uchisar is hard to beat and forms my Attraction # 5 - fantastic fortress.
Cappadocia has some of the best conditions for hot air ballooning in the world. Each morning as the air in the valleys warms up, it travels along the valley and rises. Balloonists ride the air current up the valley sometimes hovering no more than a few feet above the apricot trees, almost close enough to touch the chimneys. I had wanted to go in a hot air balloon for as long as I can remember so doing this trip was non-negotiable. For just a shade over £100 each, we had an hour and a half in a big balloon travelling through the valleys, between the chimneys, breaking a couple of trees and then finally whizzing off over the plane at about 40km per hour. Magic. If you book a balloon trip in the UK, I'm told that you can wait weeks for the right conditions so if you always wanted to try it, this is a great opportunity for Attraction # 6 – world-class ballooning
This is one of the best walking holidays we've done. Yes, there's a lot of up and down and the ground underfoot is quite crumbly. It won't suit you if you don't like hopping across rivers and scrambling up hills but it's superbly peaceful and very beautiful. If you like a walking trip combining history and natural beauty, it's a great place to go. Mid-March was the very beginning of the season and it was a touch on the chilly side - April to mid May should be excellent and October to mid November is also apparently very good for Attraction # 7 - great peaceful walking
Most of the food is very cheap in Cappadocia - we were spending around £2-3 for lunch and £5 - 8 for dinner most days. The drink is relatively expensive - well it's a predominantly Moslem country so that's fair enough. Specialities include fabulous lentil soups, lots of meaty kebab-type things for the meat eaters and for me, my favourite is the Turkish Pizza - a boat shaped pizza that beats the Italian version by a mile. There's also an odd local speciality where the meat and sauce is cooked up in a sealed pot which is then smashed open at the table - a bit of a gimmick but I'm told it's quite tasty.
In Goreme there are lots of excellent restaurants - from a few pounds up to tens of pounds. Check the menu outside and look out for great value set meals. Turkish restaurants tend to give a lot of extra free food - fabulous bread, sometimes salads and often free fruit for desert. Even free coffees sometimes so if the café owner says he wants to 'offer' you something, don't say no - you might offend him and miss out on some real goodies. So my
Attraction # 8 is the Turkish Pizza
So that's my summary of what to see and do in Cappadocia. Every year there seems to be another reason NOT to go to Turkey – war with Iraq, bird flu and terrorist bombings have all hit the tourist trade in the past few years and the locals are really glad to see tourists. Cappadocia has been unaffected by all of those factors and is an excellent place full of friendly people and great things to do. I can’t recommend it highly enough.