The sun rises across the semi-arid Anatolian plains in the heart of Turkey. Below, curiously shaped rock formations known as ‘fairy chimneys’ cast odd shadows, while the striking lunar landscapes slowly change colour. Above, hot-air balloons fill the sky, as fascinated tourists glide silently by. Welcome to Cappadocia.
730km from Istanbul, Cappadocia is a vast region which incorporates the provinces and cities of Aksaray, Nevsehir, Nigde, Kayseri and Kirsehir. In addition to its other-worldly topography, Cappadocia is famous for its underground cities – which were capable of housing about 10,000 people each and which stretch as far as ten levels below the earth – and cavern architecture, some of which dates back as far as the 10th century.
The town of Göreme is a highlight, popular for its hot-air ballooning, as well as its open-air museum. Here, visitors can explore what was once a Byzantine monastic settlement, which used to house around 20 monks. In the 17th century it became a pilgrimage site, and today it’s protected by UNESCO. It boasts churches, monasteries and chapels carved from stone, created between the 10th and 12th centuries. The Dark Church, so called because of its lack of sunlight, has the best preserved examples of Byzantine frescoes. Its vaulted ceilings and pillars are adorned with colourful angels and vivid depictions of scenes like Jesus’ birth and crucifixion.
Cappadocia is well-known for its fairy chimneys, which are basalt-stone towers with a mushroom-shaped top. Formed naturally over thousands of years, they are a result of volcanic activity and years of erosion from wind and rain – some stand as tall as 39 metres. The Christians built homes and churches inside the chimneys, carving dwellings into the stone. They later moved on to create their secret underground cities, built to protect them from Roman and later Muslim persecution.
Life in subterranean quarters was once tough, but these days many have been converted into luxurious boutique hotels, as have the fairy chimneys. Plush Turkish carpets, antique timber furniture and decadent breakfasts add a welcome softness to the unforgiving stone interiors. Urgup, Göreme, Guzelyurt and Uchisar offer the best cave houses and historic mansions for visitors to stay in.
While Cappadocia is breathtaking to take in from the air, it’s worth exploring some areas on foot too. Even inexperienced walkers can hike through the Güllüdere (Rose) Valley, which will take you past rock-cut churches and charming fairy chimneys.
Cappadocia is a remarkable, inspiring place, a testament to the wonder of nature and the tenacity of the human spirit.