Day 10-12: Cappadocia, Turkey

by - August 14, 2011

Day One: Goreme Open Air Museum

The overnight bus was pretty painful.  Don’t get me wrong, the company was pretty good and the bus was impressively comfortable, but coaches just aren’t designed to be slept on and neither of us got much sleep.  We arrived at the town of Nevsehir at about 7am and had to change buses to a ‘servis’ which took us to Goreme in Cappadocia where we would be staying.  The bus station at Goreme had a great system whereby you gave the information desk the phone number of your hotel and they would arrange a pick up.  We were staying at the Dream Cave Guesthouse and after the driver dropped us off and we had stored our luggage, we were invited to join in with the hearty breakfast that had been provided.

Goreme Open Air Museum
We couldn’t check in until 11, so despite our tiredness we decided to make the most of the morning and headed up to the 'Goreme Open Air Museum’.  While it doesn’t sound like much, this is one of the most recommended attractions in all of Turkey.  The site is home to lots of Byzantine monasteries carved into the rock formations.  I’m not too keyed up on the history of the area (we are doing a tour tomorrow which should fill us in a bit), but from what I have gathered it has been a hiding place for Christians over the years.  The paintings in many of the caves were fairly basic and the site was completely stuffed with package tour shutterbugs (it was one of those cases where the tourist authorities had shoved as many people in at once to make as much money as possible) but despite this there were a few real gems.  One of these, the Karanlik Kilise (Dark Church) required an extra 8 TL on top of the 15 TL entrance fee, but it was well worth the price as it put off the shutterbugs and the money was going towards the preservation of murals.  We weren’t able to get any photos of these to prevent damage, so the pictures of the insides of the monasteries are taken from the internet (I don’t know if there are any copyright issues with this, but if there are rest assured that I am not making loads of money by writing this).  The church is called the Dark Church because it doesn’t have many windows before you get the idea that it is home to some kind of cult.

Dark Church, Goreme Open Air Museum
After leaving the museum area and walking back down towards Goreme we found another little church, the Tokali Kilise.  This one was less crowded than the others at the Open Air Museum, despite it being part of the same ticket, and had some pretty impressive frescoes.  It consisted of two churches, an old and a new, which had been constructed one on top of the other.  By now it was pretty hot and our room was available, so we made our way through Goreme to our very own fairy chimney room - the fairy chimneys are the nicknames for the rock formations in these parts.  The name comes from when the first travellers arrived in the area and saw that the strange towers of rock were inhabited and were lit up by candlelight, giving the impression that the area was full of fairies.  You can see where they are coming from.

Our Fairy Chimney
For the rest of the day we took it easy to recover from the bus journey.  The town of Goreme is the central hub for travellers to Cappadocia and is the main location of fairy chimneys.  It is home to many shops and tour groups catering for the huge volume of tourists but has managed to retain a lot of its character.  After exploring the town a little bit we headed off to walk around one of the eight major valleys that converge at Goreme.  Probably the biggest issue that a traveller can have in the town is finding a good map, as trails our poorly marked and signposts in the countryside are pretty non-existant.  As Ellie and I hadn’t quite got our bearings yet, we only had a brief foray out of the town before realising that we didn’t know where we were going and didn’t fancy getting lost on our first day.  We ate out in town in the evening before bringing some drinks back to the hostel terrace, which overlooked a lot of the town.  Its definitely a pretty special place to come.

Day Two: 'The Green Tour’

View over Cappadocia
The tourist board in Cappadocia has divided the National Park (which is pretty vast) into two areas of interest, served by two tours - the red tour to the north, around Goreme and the green tour to the south.  Much of the red tour seemed to be within walking distance and it included a visit to the Goreme Open Air Museum - it seemed a waste of money to go in there twice.  We therefore decided to do the Green Tour, which left at 9.30am and cost 60TL.  It started by driving to a viewpoint south of Goreme with views down one of the valley and it was at this point that Ellie, who had been feeling ill but tried her best to come on the tour, decided that it would be sensible for her to travel back into town.  I agreed with this and we arranged for her to get a lift to the hostel, while I carried on with the tour.  The company was even kind enough to give us half of the money back.

Inside the crowded underground city
I therefore carried on the tour by myself and next reached one of 30-odd underground cities in the region, built by early Christians to escape persecution before the religion had properly taken hold.  I had heard of these cities before I came, but its difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of them until you make your way down inside them.  The largest of them are 13 storeys deep (so essentially an underground tower block), of which only a few are open to the public due to a fear of collapses.  Once again the sheer volume of tourists made it hard to imagine what the caves had been like 'back in the day’, but the tour guide told us that the cities would have been able to hold up to 10,000 people for up to two months and included churches, meeting places, animal shelters and even a crypt.  Unfortunately, as I have alluded to, the effect was spoilt slightly by the numbers of people down there and we spent a lot of time not moving as we waited for streams of people to make their way through the tunnels that were only about waist-high.  Had something (like a cave-in) sparked panic, there would have been complete carnage and I have to say that it was pretty uncomfortable down there.

Ilhara Canyon, Cappadocia
Back in fresh air again we jumped back onto the tour bus for an hour journey to a canyon on the southern edge of Cappadocia, called the Ilhara Canyon.  On the way we passed through parched fields of grass and crops, without a fairy chimney in sight.  In the distance we could see the outlines of the three volcanoes which had created the rock features, but apart from that this area of the National Park was a lot different to the images that I had seen of it.  The canyon broke the monotonous yellow fields with a gash of green and blue.  A river, the first running water I had seen in the area, runs along the bottom and the vegetation inside seemed to be a lot healthier.  It looked a lot like the kind of valley that films show people re-starting civilization in after a nuclear apocalypse and it was the perfect place for Christians to hide in during the early days of their religion.  Several churches are built into the sides of the canyon, but we skipped most of them as the tour was behind schedule.  We had lunch (provided) in the valley at a unique restaurant that had pretty much been built in the river itself, with the water running underneath the tables and chairs.

Selime Monastery complex
Our last major stop of the tour was the Selime Cathedral at the north end of the canyon, which is one of the largest religious structures in Cappadocia.  It is surrounded by smaller churches and monasteries and has amazing views back down the canyon and over the landscape to the north.  This was probably the Cappadocia that I had pictured in my head and I am pretty sure that I heard somebody say that part of one of the Star Wars movies had been filmed here (though I’m not sure which one if this is true).  I have to say that the tour guide didn’t actually fill us in much on the history and context of the area (it was more of a 'this is so and so, go take some pictures of it’ kind of tour), but you could grasp a lot of the meaning of the area just by being there.  We now made our way back to Goreme via one last viewpoint for a panorama over 'Pigeon Valley’, where the Byzantines had kept pigeons for communication and other uses, and also at an Onyx factory where the staff made a fairly tragic attempt at getting us to spend loads of money on precious stones.  It had been a pretty good day but the main use of the tour had been to get me from A to B, rather than to be particularly informative.  I got back to the hostel again at half 6 and Ellie (who was feeling far better) and I went out to get some dinner.

Day Three: Rose, Red and Pigeon Valleys

Rose Valley with Ellie, the donkey and the old man
The eight valleys that spread out from Goreme are supposedly the best places to hike in all of Cappadocia.  The only problem is that they aren’t brilliantly signposted or mapped, not to mention the fact that the tracks come and go.  Having seen the south of the national park yesterday, it made sense to explore the north of the park around Goreme and the cheapest and most rewarding way to do this was to try our hand at following the footpaths.  The first of these, the Red and Rose valleys, were actually fairly straightforward and after walking about 2km east of Goreme we came across the start of the trail (marked by a spray painted telegraph pole).  Sitting below a tree at the start of the trail was an old man with a donkey.  He was waved at us and then offered us some peaches that he had just picked.  We sat with him for a bit and he seemed very happy to be speaking to two people from England - when we left him he gave both of us a kiss on each cheek.

Old rock houses in Cavusin
Usichar Castle
We started the trail and after about 20 minutes we looked behind us to see that the old man was coming towards us on his donkey.  We waved at him and when he came over he jumped off and insisted that Ellie got on.  As I wanted to do lots of walking today and was wary of Ellie being ill the day before, we decided to take up the old man’s offer - he was very sweet and it seemed pretty cultural to do this isolated trail on a donkey.  We didn’t see any tourists as we made our way along the Rose and Red valleys, so named because of the colour of the rocks that make up their steep cliffsides.  It was quite useful to have somebody walking with us, though it wasn’t a surprise when we got to the end of the trail and he stuck out his hand asking for money.  The 20 TL that we gave him was probably a bit steep, but he had been nice enough and had showed us where we needed to go next.  We decided to have a drink at the village of Cavusin where I taught Ellie how to play draughts, before we made our way back to Goreme for lunch.

I wasn’t quite satisfied that we had seen everything that I wanted, so having spent the morning walking in the Rose and Red valleys we got a taxi to the village of Uchisar to the north of Goreme.  The village is famous for its castle, built into a huge rock formation, which is visible across all of Cappadocia.  Having been looking at it for the last two days, I decided that I wanted to climb to the top of the castle before walking back down the Pigeon Valley to Goreme, where we would get the bus back to Istanbul.  This plan started well, and after paying the 5 TL entrance fee for the castle and climbing to the top, we got perhaps the best possible view of Cappadocia.  We managed to avoid tour groups as well, so we had the outcrop to ourselves.  We hadn’t felt that we had enough money for the hot air balloon tour, so this felt like a reasonable alternative.

View from the castle

Pigeon Valley, Cappadocia
After climbing back down from the castle all that was left for us to do was to walk along the Pigeon Valley, which links Goreme and Usichar.  Unfortunately this wasn’t quite as easy as we had hoped due to the badly marked trails.  It started off well and as one of the quieter valleys we were able to walk together by ourselves.  This solitude had a negative side however and this was that the paths weren’t well worn at all.  Pretty soon after I had spoken the fatal phrase 'its impossible to get lost in a valley, its just forwards and backwards’, we were lost and faced with a sheer drop in front of us.  It turned out that the valley itself had lots of 'steps’ cut into it, as well as several valleys within a valley.  I didn’t think it would be an issue, but we were actually running the risk of missing our bus back to Istanbul so I decided to cut our losses and we made our way out of the side of the valley and back to the main road where we got a taxi back to town.  It wasn’t the ideal way to end our time in Cappadocia, but time was tight and it was the sensible thing to do.  It also gives me an excuse to come back to this very special part of the world with a bit more time on my hands in the future.

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