Turkey: Awesome trip back in time

By Bridget Stott

Blue and red hot air balloons float above Uchisar. Photo / Thinkstock
Blue and red hot air balloons float above Uchisar. Photo / Thinkstock

It's 2am and outside it looks like Mars. I've just been jolted awake from an airport transfer doze. A huge full moon hangs low, illuminating the white, softly curving hills, pockmarked by abandoned cave dwellings.

Vast conical pillar formations cluster in the lee of a hillside, as surreal shapes, blasted by wind and rain, are silhouetted against a narrow canyon of pink basalt.

The taxi lurches up a steep road to our cave hotel, the House of Wishes, built into the top of a huge craggy boulder - the highest point in the village of Urgup.

I head bedward and gaze up to admire my cave room with its beautifully proportioned arched ceiling carved from the rock, supported by natural, rough hewn walls traced with fine lines of ochre yellow sulphur. Windows overlook a little patio out front, while a sleek bathroom of chrome, porcelain and stone is built into the rear of the cave.

The bizarre landscape of Cappadocia National Park in central Turkey was formed millions of years ago by three mighty volcanic eruptions.

Mineral-rich rock, lava and white ash spewed across 15,000 square miles and, when mixed with floodwaters, formed a hard, sunbaked hide known as tufa. This coating has gradually been eroded by the elements to create peculiar geological formations that now draw crowds to the central Anatolian plateau.

People have been carving cave homes out of the landscape here for 10,000 years. Gradually abandoned over the past century, many cave houses are now being bought by affluent Turks and foreign buyers who are painstakingly converting them into chic boutique hotels, second homes and self-catering properties. Many of the cave dwellings nestle within the villages of Urgup, Uchisar and Goreme, which form the points of a triangle containing the area's main tourist sites. The villages are about an hour's drive from the airport at Kayseri.

I'm always a bit earthquake-nervous when visiting Turkey or Greece, so was relieved to hear my cheery guide, Bunyamin, tell me that Cappadocia is built on solid foundations and has been untroubled by seismic activity for 9000 years, which explains why many of the troglodyte dwellings have endured.

First we visit the valley of Goreme - a geological freak show - which holds the most concentrated collection of cave dwellings and strange rock formations in the area. I wander through Pasa Bagi, meaning "Fairy Chimneys Valley", where there are 50 or more natural conical pillars topped with a flat cap of rock, resembling pawns on a giant chessboard.

Nearby, the Derbent or "Pink" Valley has its own collection of fairy chimneys, set alongside huge, pastel pink and toffee-coloured boulders.

We drive to Goreme open air museum, a monastic complex carved out of the tufa by early Christians fleeing Roman persecution. There are numerous rock-hewn churches and chapels whose interior walls are lined with exquisite Byzantine paintings dating from around AD1100, depicting a mix of scenes from the Bible with Greek inscriptions alongside primitive pagan, Catholic and Jewish imagery.

A few miles on is the hilltop town of Uchisar, built around a huge rocky outcrop with far-reaching views across the park. Sheer cliff walls drop into a narrow gorge, its floor traced with white pathways. We visit at sunset when the bulbous sun-bleached tufa formations, protruding like giant bubbles from between the rock, turn a soft, blush pink. Around us trained birds loop the loop on the thermals, while a muezzin calls through crackling speakers.

An even better way to marvel at the valley is on a sunrise balloon flight. Kapadokya Balloons escorted me into the heavens, dropping low into the canyons for close-ups of the rock formations, before gently floating up to around 650m for big sky panoramics.

From up here, it's easy to spot the snow-capped Mount Erciyes, one of the ancient volcanos that created this region. It rises high above Cappadocia's wheat-covered plains, valleys and tabletop mountains - a golden-hued landscape slashed with emerald green groves of poplars, acacia and walnut. It is up here that you discover how extensive the honeycomb effect of human excavation has been.

Post-flight, we celebrate with a champagne breakfast in a meadow knee-deep in blue cornflowers, red poppies and wild grasses.

But in Cappadocia the real surprises are below ground. It is not just the cave homes that are getting a makeover. Abandoned subterranean villages, once used to store crops and to escape marauding hordes, from the ancient Hittites to Mongols, Greeks and Romans, are also being unearthed and reopened.

The underground city of Kaymakli, first dug out by the Hittites in 1200BC, has been partially excavated. It's a labyrinth of interconnecting tunnels leading to stables, storage rooms, dining areas, a winery and a tiny chapel. About 33 metres deep, it was home to the local community during times of invasion; all exits would be sealed using millstones that rolled into carved crevices.

Today, bare lightbulbs are strung throughout the excavated areas, but the black waxy residue of linseed candles used before the advent of electricity scar every wall. Fortunately, you can stay in cave dwellings in considerably more style these days.

Best Boutique Caves

House of Wishes, Urgup

Stacked on top of each other and linked by hand-cut stone steps, patios and pathways, rooms are traditionally furnished with homespun touches such as embroidered bedspreads and hand-painted furniture. Among the underground chambers and corridors that radiate from the wine cellar is a long, narrow, winding passageway which leads to a small, romantic dining room for two. See hiddenturkey.com.

Les Maison de Cappadoce, Uchisar

French architect Jacques Avizou has already restored 12 houses and studios with stylish French/Ottoman touches and is doing up more ruins nearby. Tucked away off little cobbled lanes, these retreats with up to four beds are available to rent with hotel services such as breakfast delivered each day. See cappadoce.com.

Magari Evi, Esbelli, Urgup

Esbelli is the most exclusive neighbourhood in Cappadocia. Located near the top of a hill above the town of Urgup, this cute two-bed cave house retains many original features including an Ottoman-style bed occupying a recessed shelf cut from the rock. Stone steps connect the different levels and terracotta floors are softened with kelims. See hiddenturkey.com.

Kayadam Cave House Hotel, Esbelli, Urgup

This simple cave house B&B, dates from between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. A careful three-year restoration project has just been completed. Its six bedrooms contain evidence of the dwelling's past life, from the oven dug into the floor to carved stone loops for tethering animals. The rooms open on to a patio with breathtaking vistas from its gardens and sun terrace. Go to kayadam.com.

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