Monday, 25 November 2013

Cappadocia - a Magical, Ancient Land

Salt lake -Toz Golu
Whenever I mentioned I was going to Turkey to someone who had been there, their first question was always "Are you going to Cappadocia?" It was obvious that this was a special place so not only were my expectations high but a buzz of excitement was building in our whole group as we journeyed there from Ankara.   Most of the four hour trip was through flat, brown, dusty countryside which looked barren but nevertheless boasted extensive crops of sunflowers, squash and grapes interspersed with very occasional small herds of cows and even smaller flocks of goats and sheep.  We had a brief stop for lunch at the vast salt lake, Tuz Golu, dazzling in the sun,  where you can dig a small hole and bathe your feet in damp salt.  It is thought to be highly therapeutic. Then it was on to Cappadocia arriving  late in the day.


Well, once I was there I knew what those previous visitors had been talking about.  This magical and surreal landscape is the result of major volcanic activity 30 million years ago.  The vast deposits of ash covered 4000square kilometres and formed into tufa, a soft rock, which has gradually eroded  to create strange, sometimes phallic, shapes which are more politely called "fairy chimneys".  Over the centuries people have carved and shaped them into dwellings, churches and even underground cities.   Cappadocia is, quite simply, spectacular,  the stuff of fairy tales and legends and I was thrilled by it and looking forward to exploring it.

Drinks on the terrace overlooked by cave dwellings

Our accommodation was in Surban Hotel, a lovely stone building, lavishly decorated with Turkish rugs and antique artifacts  in the village of Urgup.  Pre-dinner drinks on the roof terrace in a golden setting sun, overlooked by cave dwellings and interesting rock formations was spell-binding.

 Breakfast was memorable too.  Served in the cave-like basement of the hotel the buffet boasted large bowls of thick syrupy plums, cherries, liquid golden honey and yogurt.  Absolutely delicious - so good that now just writing about it makes me drool.

Koray - guide par excellence

 After breakfast we met Koray, our guide for the next couple of days,  a flamboyant, happy, hippy character with flaming red hair.  He was brilliant, full of knowledge, passion, enthusiasm and bubbling with joie de vivre.  He took us off to explore the wonders of Cappadocia, stopping at vantage points and climbing up one of the highest formations known as The Castle to get panoramic views of the whole region.

Cappadocia - view from The Castle, the highest rock formation
  A leisurely stroll down through the nearby village took us to the Pigeon Valley for a hike along the valley floor. It is a narrow chasm winding between dramatic cliffs with cave dwellings and pigeon houses carved into them. It is also lush and fertile with abundant crops of fruit and nut trees and vegetables growing in every nook and cranny. 
Hasan makes tea for us, Pigeon Valley

About half way through the walk we came upon a humble tea house belonging to Hasan an extroverted, and welcoming elderly man who offered us tea  for a tip.  He entertained us with a quiz and awarded everyone a prize, giving the best prize to my friend Hilary who guessed his age as 24....he looked to be mid 70s.  Fun, laughter and a pleasant respite from the heat.

A comical looking cave dwelling

In the Pigeon Valley

Lunch in Goreme at a 400 year old family run restaurant (it has belonged to the same family all that time) was healthy, tasty  mezze and then it was on to the Outdoor Museum.
Mezze for lunch

Inside a Byzantine cave church at the Outdoor Museum

Byzantine frescoes

This was an important Byzantine monastic settlement carved into the tufa and reaching up the side of a hill. Although there are scores of refectory monasteries in the region the Outdoor Museum contains eleven dating from the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. The cool cave dwellings contain long tables and seats carved from the tufa and adjoin the chapels, some of which still bear their original frescoes.  The two best, and most complete, examples are the Dark Chapel and the Blue Chapel. It is interesting to note that St Paul set up the first Christian colony in Cappadocia after his expulsion from Jerusalem.  The Outdoor Museum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is fascinating and  deserving of  a 2 hour visit, at least.

View from a cave church - Outdoor Museum

With my rug purchase

 It was a big day but there was more to come.  Firstly we visited a carpet studio where we saw a demonstration of Turkish dyeing and weaving techniques and had the opportunity to buy rugs woven there.  I had decided I would not buy a rug in Turkey but when I saw them my resolve crumbled and I came away with a small but beautiful rug, a perfect souvenir of Cappadocia .

Whirling Dervish dance

In the evening we were taken to a very touristy dance performance.  This is the type of thing I hate - bus loads of tourists packed into a venue, great platters of food placed in front of you and self conscious "traditional dances" performed before the hordes troop back to their buses and home. All far too contrived and commercial for my liking and this was precisely that but it had two redeeming features.  Firstly we got to see the Whirling Dervish performance.  This was interesting in that the whirling is actually only a small part of the ritual.  Most of the time is taken up with slow meditative walking and much bowing to one another.  The whirling, though, was really something to see.  The other good part of the night was unseen by most of the guests but something I was lucky enough to participate in.  The dancers performed a mock wedding ceremony and as part of that led a congo line of guests, a la the Pied Piper of Hamlin,  me included, right out of the restaurant and into a courtyard where there was a huge bonfire.  There they performed traditional village dances around the  blazing fire while we joined in.  It was joyous and I loved it.  Eventually we returned to the restaurant to re-join all the other rather bemused guests who had been wondering where we had gone. 

So what did I think of Cappadocia so far?  It was everything that I'd hoped for and more.  This ancient, unique, biblical land is indeed magical.