Going underground in Turkey

by Clare.Jones

Fancy a boutique retreat to a cave hotel or heading underground to discover subterranean cities only recently abandoned? Turkey’s Capppadocia is full of hidden surprises

Folds of soft rock pour across the valley like gentle waves. Surreal honeycomb pillars and clusters of conical formations rise upwards. Cave dwellings cling to the sides and subterranean cities lie below. The bizarre and beguiling landscape of Cappadocia is a geological masterpiece carved and sculpted by the ravages of wind, rain and time.
At the heart of this lunar landscape in the central Anatolian Plateau is the town of Göreme. Here, rock-hewn houses and the ubiquitous fairy chimney columns are still inhabited and you can sip traditional apple tea from the terrace of a café carved into the rock.
The town is located in the heart of the Pasa Bagi or Fairy Chimneys Valley, where you can wander through a surrealist moonscape of giant-size chess pawns. Eerie formations tower and corrugated hills pour like cascading whipped marshmallow pockmarked with magical chimneys resembling lofty flat-capped mushrooms. Adding to the extraterrestrial feel of the place is the kaleidoscope of dreamy colours, which come to life as the sun sets and rises.
In the nearby Derbent, or Pink Valley, massive pastel pink and honey-coloured boulders sit beneath yet more fairy chimneys. Legend has it that during one full moon locals saw magical beings in the conical pillars, and so named them the Fairy Chimneys. Silhouetted in the moonlight this vast sea of softly curving hills and clustered conical pillars can seem magically surreal.
This otherworldly-looking landscape looks every bit a place of fantasy. It seems almost unreal that anyone should live here. But for centuries people took refuge in the rocks, digging troglodyte cave homes and finding sanctuary by burrowing deep into its folds.
The Göreme open-air museum, about 2km from town, reveals the extent of these excavations. A monastic network of more than 30 rock-hewn churches and chapels, carved by early Christians fleeing Roman persecution, lies behind inconspicuous openings in the rock.
What seem like scarred gouges lead into an intricate complex of dimly lit passages. Some are just high enough to stand in whilst others require you to scramble, stoop and crawl. Huge millstones remain at the doorways once used to block the passage in times of danger. Inside this extensive religious campus beautiful Byzantine frescoes from the 9th to the 13th century adorn the church walls, depicting biblical scenes as well as primitive pagan imagery.
Many of the best cave dwellings can be found within a triangle formed by the villages of Göreme, Urgup and the hilltop fortress town of Uchisar. This natural rocky citadel is built around a dramatic jutting promontory, a crumbling volcanic outcrop providing far-reaching views across the park. From up here this improbable landscape looks like it could belong to another planet.
Although this volcanic landscape can seem inhospitable, its mineral-rich soil is excellent for growing fruit and vegetables. Close to Göreme is Pigeon Valley, where thousands of dovecotes have been carved in the soft folds of rock in whatever space allowed, including abandoned caves and the walls of collapsed churches. Their sheer numbers are astonishing but some farmers vigilantly maintain their lofts insisting that the reputation of Cappadocian fruits as the sweetest in Turkey is entirely down to the fertilizing pigeon droppings.
If you don't fancy going underground, or staying in one of the cave hotels, then you can go to the other extreme and float above on a sunrise hot air balloon flight. Going whichever way the wind dictates, you hover in the canyons, sidle up to the rocky pillars for closer inspection and float sedately upwards for awesome 360° panoramic views. Below, arcing birds ride the thermals and the faint cry of the muezzin provides a dawn wake-up call for the rest of the world.

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Getting there: Flights to Cappadocia's Kayseri airport are available from Turkish Airlines




Clare Jones is a travel writer and photographer who loves a good adventure and has been lucky enough to make this her work travelling across the globe for a variety of magazines and newspapers. She is co-author and photographer of the international best-selling BBC books Unforgettable Things to do before you die, Unforgettable Journeys to take before you die and the recently published Unforgettable Walks to take before you die. She has also co-authored the AA titles, Extreme Places and the flagship Key Guide to Spain. She has been on assignment in over 50 countries and five continents exploring them on foot, by kayak, under sail, by mountain bike as well as skiing and climbing. One of her most testing adventures was a three-month sea-kayaking expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, as part of the first British all-female team to undertake this 1000-mile epic journey. She is a Winston Churchill Fellow and was honoured with the Mike Jones Award for accomplishing this journey. She is also sponsored by Salomon. Her work has been featured by a variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, The Scotsman, and The Herald, USA Today, Geographical, Health & Fitness and Traveller. Clare is also an assistant television producer and has worked on several BBC documentaries.