“Why Turkey?” asked almost everybody when we told them of our vacation plans.
For historical and cultural interest, natural and architectural beauty, and cuisine, Turkey is every bit as interesting and wonderful a place as the European destinations American tourists more commonly visit – France, Italy, Greece, etc. But it seems most Americans just don’t know much about Turkey. And that’s a shame.
Family members were nervous about us traveling to Turkey, mostly because the nation borders on the chaos that is Syria. The Ankara bombing took place during our trip, and subsequently the country has erupted into the international news: as the conduit for the flood of refugees headed for Europe; because of political and ethnic unrest; and as the scene of increasing autocracy, with suppression of dissent and the free press, especially as voters just gave president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP a fresh majority.
Yet the vast majority of the people of Turkey, as we learned, want peace and democracy. There is little aggressive Islamic fundamentalism. And there are predominantly warm relations – among the masses, at least – between the ethnic Turkish majority and the 20% Kurdish population.
We began our 11-day trip in Cappadocia, a central region famed for its unique terrain, cave dwellings, underground cities, hot-air balloon rides, and ancient former monasteries and churches bearing witness to the history of early Christianity.
We flew Turkish Airlines from JFK to Istanbul Airport and caught a connecting flight to Nevşehir (pronounced “Nev-she-heer”), a small city in the Cappadocia region that has one of the two area airports. There, a van service drove us to the town of Göreme (pronounced “Gurr-ay-may”) where we were staying. The layover time had been so short that our suitcases, unlike our bodies, failed to make the connection, but the airline located them and sent them out to us later that same night. I struggled in the throes of jet lag to stay awake late enough for their 9 PM arrival.
By that time, we had had had a few hours to begin to familiarize ourselves with our bizarrely beautiful surroundings.
Göreme is one of a small cluster of towns in the central part of the Cappadocia region where most tourists visit. Pillars of rock left by aeons of erosion of volcanic deposits define the terrain.
Long-ago volcanic activity made the region more fertile than you’d guess from the dry-looking terrain. (The region’s volcanos are long extinct.)
Our first daylong tour took us to the Devrent Valley, the Göreme Open Air Museum (a former monastery), and the town of Avanos for a river walk and a pottery demonstration.
The Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a thousand-year-old former monastery from when the region was heavily populated by Orthodox Christians. It comprises multiple rock-cut churches, refectories, and other “buildings” the monks used and lived in. The churches contain many frescoes, still beautiful in spite of most of the faces having been rubbed out because of changes in religious doctrine.
They didn’t even need furniture – the monks carved their benches and tables right out of the rock.
The rock itself also provided their storage spaces and tandoor ovens, good places for delicious food, and a quick language digression:
In the West we know “tandoori chicken” as an Indian dish. But the word is an ancient one used in many Asian cultures, likely derived from Akkadian-via-Semitic roots meaning “mud” and “fire.”
The modern Turkish form is “tandır,” which is as good a place as any to introduce the “i without a dot,” a letter introduced at the creation of the Turkish Republic after World War One when the Turkish language was transitioned from Arabic to Roman script. Needing a few more letters to signify Turkish sounds, Ataturk’s language honchos designated an “i without a dot” for a schwa-like vowel that sounds more or less like the “e” in “counter,” the “u” in “put,” or something in between. For non-Turks, the most famous name with this letter is probably “Topkapı,” pronounced not “Tope-kap-ee” but “Tope-kap-uh.” (Similarly, the umlaut on the “o” in “Göreme” indicates a sound like the “u” in “curl,” much as it does in German.)
Orthography mavens will be delighted to read that the next stop on our tour was the town of Avanos on the Red River, whose Turkish name has not one but three “i’s without a dot”: Kızılırmak.
The Avanos excursion ended with a demonstration of local ceramic-making. Everyone thinks of rugs when they think about crafts from Turkey, but ceramics are a big traditional industry in Cappadocia.
As with rugs, there’s always a push to sell the local crafts to tourists. You have to accept that tours in Turkey will often include showrooms peopled with eager salesmen and crammed with beautiful items, some handmade and very expensive, others mass-produced and cheap. (Very often, though not always, you can bargain for a somewhat better price.)
That day’s tour ended with a walk through the Paşabağı Valley (Monk’s Valley) where we got our first look at the fantastical “fairy chimneys,” mushroom-like pillars formed from two kinds of stone.
The light-colored base or tower is made of soft rock formed from volcanic ash. The dark caps are harder rock formed from lava from a later eruption. Over millions of years the softer lower layer eroded more than the harder upper one, resulting in these incredible formations.
Over the centuries some were turned into churches and dwellings.
The next day we got a birds-eye view of Cappadocia’s unique terrain from a hot-air balloon.
This ride was one of the most thrilling experiences in all my travels. It’s expensive, relative to the other activities in the region, but if you’re going to Cappadocia, it would be a shame to miss this.
The balloon rides have gotten so popular that many companies run them. We went with Kapadokya Balloons, one of the longest-established outfits.
You’re advised to book your ride in advance, and then hope the weather is good on that morning. Rides are cancelled on windy or rainy days. We were lucky: for couple of days before our scheduled ride, the weather didn’t cooperate. But on our morning things looked to be calm.
You have to get up long before dawn – and long before your hotel’s breakfast hours – as the rides take place during the sunrise hour. A van took us from the hotel to the Kapadokya Balloons headquarters where we were fed a “breakfast” of coffee and tea, juice, and bland pastries and cookies. (I had anticipated this and eaten some of the nuts and raisins I’d brought for the plane ride.)
After sitting around for a while, we and 14 other people got our pilot assignment and marched out into the darkness for another brief bus ride to the launch site. There, we stood out in a field under the moon and planets and stars as the crew inflated the balloons, first with plain air to fill it, then with hot air to make it buoyant.
Finally the day began to dawn.
As the sun rose, so did the balloons – some 150 of them.
We got a different perspective on the fairy chimneys:
These hot-air balloons can ascend more than a mile, to about 6,000 feet. Seeing the ground from heights like this is one thing from an airplane. It’s quite another when you’re out in the open air, looking down over the side of a basket hanging from a balloon, nothing between you and the empty air but the wall of the basket.
The pilot explained that air currents affect where he can pilot the balloon on any given morning. But we were impressed by the fine control he does have, not only vertically but horizontally, descending and moving about within the valleys, bringing the basket so close to trees and rock walls we could just about reach out and touch them.
After an hour and 20 minutes we came in for a slow precision landing. The pilot was able to set the basket down right on the trailer that would pull it home later. We watched as another pilot was slightly less perfect, landing his basket on his trailer but needing his ground crew to keep it from tipping over in the breeze.
Cake and champagne cocktails awaited us when we landed – at 8:30 in the morning. It was a nice touch, but for the first time that morning I felt really cold, standing in the field shivering for a long time while they deflated and packed up the balloon and then put on a little show of horsing around, tossing each other (and some youthful, game passengers) onto the bundled balloon. During the ride, the on-and-off flame that gives the balloon its lift kept us warm. On the ground, not so much.
Without a doubt, the hot-air balloon ride in Cappadocia was one of the most memorable mornings of all our travels.
A few recommendations if you’re planning to go on this adventure:
- Book your balloon trip for the early part of your stay in the region. That way, if the weather is against you and your balloon excursion is cancelled (it happens frequently) you have a chance of re-booking for a subsequent day.
- You shouldn’t be too afraid of heights. (I’m not, but I was a little nervous for the first couple of minutes ascending, before the wonder of the experience and the obvious professionalism of the pilot smoothed out my anxieties.
- Wear warm layers of clothing if it’s spring or fall.
- Eat something first thing in the morning before your pickup. The breakfast served at the balloon office, at least at the company we went with (one of the longest-established in the region), is minimal, with no protein. A good tactic for early-morning touring when you’re too early for the hotel breakfast is to swipe rolls, cheese, hardboiled eggs (if you have a room fridge), fruit and nuts from the previous day’s breakfast spread and keep them in your hotel room for the next morning when you’re on your own.
Continued in Cappadocia: Part 2.
All photos © Jon Sobel and Elisa Peimer, Critical Lens Media[amazon template=iframe image&asin=3839156610][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1409358003][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0375706852]