Cappadocia: Turkey's otherworldly treasure

by Kate DeBusschere

Cappadocia is a must-see-before-you-die kind of place. Hike among the fairy chimneys, explore the underground cities and stay in the cosy cave hotels of this bizarre landscape in central Turkey

There are so many things to do and see in Turkey that the choices can be overwhelming. But if you want to catch a glimpse of a particularly spectacular specimen of nature, do yourself a favour and head to Cappadocia, in the centre of the country. This peculiar landscape, created by 1,000 years of wind and history, is about eight hours from Istanbul, and easily accessible by a night train or bus.

Rock formations and fairy chimneys

When you arrive in Cappadocia at sunrise, you may not believe your eyes. I didn’t. The landscape is covered in bizarre rock formations known as fairy chimneys, which are 100 per cent naturally made by years of volcanic eruptions and wind. It is rumoured that George Lucas was inspired by this outlandish terrestrial backdrop while formulating the scenery for his extra-terrestrial Star Wars films.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the National Park and Open Air Museum in Goreme is a perfect place for you to explore the endless network of geological oddities, hidden homes and fresco-embellished churches that were carved out of volcanic rock as early as the 9th century. When I was in Goreme I just went on my own hike, free from entrance fees and tourist groups, and was able to wander around the troglodyte dwellings and temples alone.

Underground cities and the Silk Road

Your visit to Cappadocia wouldn’t be complete without visiting one of its many underground cities. These enormous subterranean networks give us some insight into the human experience of this historically sought-after land in central Turkey. The origins of the construction of the cities are somewhat muddled, but the Turkish Ministry of Culture indicates they were built as early as the 8th century BC, due to the many battles that plagued the region. It is agreed that the cities were most definitely expanded in the 5th century AD by early Christians hiding from the invading Roman Army. Luckily for us, they were rediscovered in the 1960s and are now open for our exploration.

I visited the hidden city of Derinkuyu, located about 29 kilometres from Nevsehir. With eight storeys open for public visitation, this is probably Cappadocia’s most extensive underground city and stretches for some 85 kilometres. Wow, that’s a lot of digging! Within its city limits are a Byzantine church, a school, a burial ground and, of course, most important of all: a wine cellar. Sealed off from the world by giant millstones, these clandestine metropolises had a system of flowing water and fresh air circulation, enabling the inhabitants to survive longer in their underground hiding places. As a visitor, you will be able to walk in their footsteps and understand how these ancient people survived.

After the battles ended and the Romans were long gone, Cappadocia became a popular resting spot for traders on the Silk Road. Today we get to visit their old five-star hotels. Caravanserais were places where merchants could tie up their camels, have a hot cup of salep, and get a good night’s sleep before loading up their wares and heading to their next destination.

I visited the beautifully preserved Agzikarahan Caravanserai on my way back to Goreme from Derinkuyu. Unfortunately, we can’t stay overnight, but we can walk the stables and imagine what the long journey was like for the thousands of traders on the Silk Road. Agzikarahan is a great place to take pictures. The carved stone is just as it was 800 years ago, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so you won’t have any of the pesky electric wires or cars that usually interfere with picture-taking.

Getting around

So, you might be asking yourself, 'Underground cities? Caravanserais in the middle of nowhere? How do I get to all of these places?' The answer is simple: you go to the main tourist office in the middle of Goreme and tell them you want to take a tour. These tours are great, because the maximum number of people they take at any one time is about eight. You get a private guide, a ride from your hotel to all the attractions, and access to the underground city for a reasonable price. Cappadocia is a big region, and unless you have a car and a good map it can be hard, if not impossible, to navigate on foot alone. Plus, these guides really know their history and culture and we can benefit from their expertise. So take the tour.

Where to stay

There are a few towns in Cappadocia that cater to tourists, but I suggest staying in Goreme. It seemed to be the most central location for visiting all the sites. It also had a lot of hotel and hostel offerings at affordable prices.

Maybe we can’t stay in the caravanserai, but we can live as the troglodytes did in their cave homes - Cappadocia is filled with traditionally carved rock hotels. I stayed at the Kelebek pension, which offers private rooms for one to three people at about €23 per person. Even though they are carved out of rock, the cavernous rooms are warm and cosy and offer super-comfortable beds and private marble bathrooms. The giant breakfast in the dining room is included in the price. I would recommend this place for the best value for your euro.

If you’re feeling rich and want to shell out some extra cash, the Kelebek doubles as a hotel, with luxurious suites that feature old Turkish-style fireplaces, satellite TV, and hamam-style bathrooms. If you like to live on a shoestring when travelling (like me), I suggest The Flintstones Cave Hotel. They offer private rooms at about €10 a person.

All-round appeal

Cappadocia is one of the most fascinating places I have ever experienced. Its rare and bizarre landscape make it the perfect terrain for hiking and exploration, while the luxury of the hotels and the open Turkish hospitality make it a great place for relaxation. Adventurous travellers may find themselves taking a balloon ride over the fairy chimney valley while others may enjoy touring the famous pottery houses of Avanos. Wherever your travels may take you in this region, one thing is for certain: Cappadocia will not disappoint.