Mark Nicholls visits Cappadocia in central Turkey for a stunning perspective of this magical landscape
The terrain below is shimmering, the view distorted by the heat-haze of roaring flames beneath dozens of hot air balloons as they inflate expanses of canopy and illuminate the mesmerising rock formations of Cappadocia.
The sun has barely risen as we gently lift off soon after 5:30am.
Within moments, the sky is filled with some 60 multi-coloured balloons; the only sound is the occasional burst of shooting flame from burners as the balloons seek altitude.
There is no better way of experiencing the wondrous landscape of Cappadocia than from above, floating slowly over the terrain of fascinating natural formations, cave homes, monasteries and churches carved out of the soft rock.
At times we reach an altitude of 250m and then dip close to ground level to hover into small gullies for close up views of cave homes or pigeonholes carved into the walls.
We float in the direction of the town of Uçhisar, where its castle hewn out of the volcanic rock rises as a monolithic watchtower.
Below it, an ancient village tumbles down the hillside and into the famous Pigeon Valley of white rock formations worn by wind and water into smooth conical patterns over thousands of years. Uçhisar is a museum community in the heart of the region where these abandoned dwellings – long-since vacated by residents – have now received a new lease of life.
Some have been rejuvenated and refurbished as the rooms and suites of “scattered hotels”, spread over the hillside and linked by historic tunnels and alleys. One I recall staying in is the Argos hotel – aptly describing itself as “an ancient village with a reception desk.”
With 50-plus rooms and suites retaining many of the original features of rough-hewn ceilings, the accommodation straddled several styles and ranges from standard rooms to suites set over two storeys and have their own private pools.
What distinguished them was the way they were situated in six restored “mansions” connected by tunnels, passages and secluded courtyards, in a design that pays tribute to the region’s architecture and heritage.
Nearby, gardens and terraces afford panoramic views from the foothills of Uçhisar Fortress to Güvercinlik Valley and Mount Erciyes in the distance.
I first visited this region in 1984; a rucksack on my back and an InterRail pass to anywhere in my pocket. It was a journey that had taken me from within the Arctic Circle at the top of Norway and Sweden, sweeping into Europe’s great capitals – and even through Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall into East Berlin – and on into Asia and the Anatolian plateau.
Even then, Cappadocia was a mystical, deserted region of amazing rock formations and underground cities, but its crumbling villages of homes carved out of rock were abandoned and forgotten.
Over the past four decades, several have been reclaimed and revived and converted into ‘scattered hotels’, with stylish rooms that breathe new life into these historic buildings yet retain the ancient ambience rather than leaving them to be absorbed by the elements.
It is a positive trend and similar in concept to that embraced in historic settlements such as Matera in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, where the abandoned 5,000-year-old stone homes carved into soft rock have also been re-born and converted into hotels.
In Matera, the 2019 European Capital of Culture and in Cappadocia, the ambience allows visitors to feel as one with the landscape and the culture that they find themselves in.
In the tumbling, cascading, village of Uçhisar, the views in late spring and summer are spectacular with the trees and flowers of the valley and gardens in bloom, while the chill of winter offers an additional perspective with a covering of snow enhancing the romantic ambience.
Dining here is a delight; as you eat, peer over the edge and enjoy a hotel garden with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees as it falls away on terraces below.
While the view from a balloon is unbeatable – with a range of companies offering balloon flights above Cappadocia from 150 euro/£130) – it is an incredible area to explore at ground level… or in some cases, below ground level. The landscape is bafflingly beautiful with an engrained essence of eastern mysticism.
Conical rock formations and fairy chimneys stand dominant amidst the central Turkish terrain of Cappadocia, which has been a crossroads for thousands of years, straddling the Silk Road to Asia and China and the trade routes from the Middle East into Europe.
Yet while some of the structures have been carved by nature, others are very clearly man-made. In addition to the cave homes, this is also a network of underground cities. Kaymakli is one of at least 37 subterranean settlements, dug out of rock formed of sandy volcanic ash, pumice and lava, where thousands of people once lived in a community burrowed eight storeys below ground.
With living and eating areas, churches, wineries and narrow passages that were easily defendable against intruders, some of the underground refuges date from 2000BC and were lived in until the 11th century AD. A number of them were still in use until the latter part of the 20th century for storage and animal shelters.
A few miles away, one of the major visitor sites in Cappadocia is the Goreme Open Air Museum where a nunnery, monastery and numerous 4th century churches – many with colourful and well-preserved wall paintings telling the story of Christ – are carved out of the rock face.
Food in Turkey is exquisite, drawing on the tastes and flavours of the Middle East and Asia, as you would expect from a country that sits on so many strategic trade routes.
Having paused for lunch in the town of Goreme, I saw one of my favourite local dishes on the menu – the regional and traditional ‘Potter Kebab’. Cooked in earthenware sealed pots with veal, pearl onion, green pepper, tomatoes and garlic, a wait chips the top off when it is ready, for you to eat the contents with bread and rice. Other dishes included Ev Makarnasi of homemade noodles with melted cheese, Haydari (yogurt, garlic and dried mint), and Sebze Musakka (vegetable musakka with layers or egg plants, potatoes, tomatoes, caramelised onion and Turkish kasari cheese.
Elsewhere, the so-called fairy chimneys are a symbol of Cappadocia, where the elements have shaped the rock formations into tall pillars leaving flat slabs incongruously balanced on top of them like little stone caps.
The best times to visit this region are April to June and September and October, with regular flights from flights from Istanbul to Nevsehir (25-minute drive) and Kayseri (one-hour drive) airports.
However, it is important to keep an eye on Foreign Office travel advice as parts of Turkey, particularly in the south-east of the country closer to the Syrian border, have seen increased tension in recent years. As a result, tourism in Turkey has inevitably suffered, initially with the ongoing volatility in the Middle East and now as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the lure of Cappadocia – a mesmerising landscape of mysterious ravines and canyons, incredible rock formations, fairy chimneys and rock-hewn communities – remains.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls