Caves and painted chapels in unearthly paradise
As compact as Britain’s Lake District or Spain’s Picos de Europa, and a good deal more surreal-looking, this geological wonderland deep in Turkey’s vast interior is a paradise for walkers and for the culturally curious alike.
In the course of the massive eruptions which befell Cappadocia millions of years ago, volcanic matter spewed out over the land where the compacted ash solidified into a house-high layer of something called tufa. This soft stone has since weathered away to leave an array of arresting formations. Cappadocia’s geological signature is the ubiquitous cap-topped turret which the Turks know as the ‘fairy chimney’, though in truth it more insistently resembles the mushroom, the wigwam or the epic willy.
The highly erosive geology has also left the landscape conspicuously corrugated with numerous valleys, or gorges. Except in a few particular cases the winter waters that course along these valley bottoms exhaust themselves by early spring; for the rest of the year their beds act as dry, wide, flat tracks which make for exceptional walking, biking or horse-riding. These perfect pathways lead between the walls of high-sided gorges, sometimes via natural tunnels or arches, or are flanked by the vineyards, orchards or vegetable plots which flourish in the deep drifts of the famously fertile, gritty-grey tufa silt. Plucking an ambrosial Cappadocian apple from one of the boughs that overhang these lovely trails is an exquisite October pleasure.
For many centuries men have not only been cultivating these lands; for perhaps three thousand years they have also hewn homes and storerooms, and latterly churches, chapels and monasteries, from the pliant tufa. Their extensive legacy includes the multi-storey troglodytic warrens, or ‘underground cities’, where they once took refuge from the Saracens, Mongols or whoever was overrunning these lands at the time.
Cappadocian tourism has put on a growth spurt in recent years; one way of experiencing these surreal landscapes, no doubt welcome after visiting one poorly lit cave too many, is a highly touted dawn balloon flight. At about £150 a person, however, such a treat can dent the holiday budget, and many will judge that the best way to get about remains on foot, combining the best of the valleys with visits to some of the more far-flung rock-hewn churches (Pancarlık), monasteries (Keşlik) or cave complexes (Mazı(köy). What further commends this approach is that Cappadocia’s major sites – especially the cluster of rock-hewn churches at Göreme’s Open Air Museum, the Zelve Valley, and the underground cities at Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu – are often overrun with queuing visitors and coach tours. Nobody has yet thought to include the best of these walks-with-ruins into a dedicated guidebook, so visitors should ask for route suggestions at their accommodation or at any of the numerous tourist agencies in the main centres of Ürgüp or Göreme, or hire a day guide there; my whole-hearted agency recommendation is Ürgüp’s Travel Atelier. Those who prefer to find their own way should click through on the map below for details of a couple of personal favourite Cappadocian walks.
These established draws have been bolstered in the last decade by the spectacular transformation of Cappadocian lodgings. A brand of ‘cave hotel’ as distinctive as the landscape – the so-called ‘ev’ (house) or ‘konak’ (mansion) – has emerged, combining the ubiquitous rock-hewn dwellings with traditional free-standing and ornately carved ashlar buildings to create high-walled compound-style establishments long on bare stone, patios and terraces. These up-market B&Bs often have lavish reception rooms, libraries and snugs, with open fires in the winter months; they rarely run, however, to the range of services common in conventional hotels, so visitors should not expect all-day restaurants, permanently manned receptions or a concierge. My selected stays are scattered across the main settlements: Kale Konak in Üçhisar, Esbelli Evi in Ürgüp, Fairy Chimney Inn in Göreme, Hezen Cave Hotel in Ortahisar and Old Greek House in Mustafapaşa.