We had been hiking the valleys and canyons of Cappadocia for two days and this morning we were going to see this magical landscape from a different perspective.
As our guide Bihtar explained, eons ago this region in central Turkey saw many volcanic eruptions. Over time, the thick ash solidified into a soft rock called tuff (Tuffa in Turkish). Wind and water gradually transformed this tuff into strange other-worldly shapes forming the fairy-tale-like landscape visitors see today – huge pillars, mushrooms, cones and chimneys – some as tall as 130 feet – rise to the sky.
First inhabited by the Hittites around 1,800 B.C. to 1,200 B.C., this region was on a fault line between various warring peoples including Greeks versus Persians and later Byzantine Greeks versus their rivals. In the 4th century A.D., Christians fleeing Rome arrived here and began establishing monastic communities. They tunneled into the rock creating town complexes some eight to ten stories underground. At its height, 10,000 Christians lived in their subterranean cities.
One of the best examples, Goreme Open Air Museum has achieved UNESCO World Heritage status. We toured many of the 30 rock-hewn churches dating from around 11th century A.D. Some churches had beautiful frescoes. We opted to pay an extra admission charge to go in the Dark Church and were rewarded by seeing some of the best frescoes in Goreme.
I am usually not a morning person, but the opportunity to take a hot-air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia was incentive enough for me to rise early.
While it was still dark, the six of us traveling with INCA arrived at Kapadokya Balloons headquarters – the first balloon company established in the area. INCA President, Bill Roberson, has known the founders since they started in 1991. We listened to the safety briefing fortified by coffee and pastries and then were transported to a large field. Soon our group climbed in the sturdy basket of our hot-air balloon (room for about 14) and paid attention to our Turkish pilot who gave the safety instructions and rehearsed positions for landing.
In minutes, we were airborne. As the dawn light filtered across the plains. other hot-air balloons slowly filled the sky—first 15, then 25, then 50 and then more than 100 balloons. When the ancient poet Homer wrote about the "rosy fingers of dawn", he had surely witnessed day breaking in Turkey. The sky was a soft shade of pink.
For almost two hours, our balloon sailed at about 3,000 to 4,000 feet and must have covered 20 kilometers. Occasionally we would descend to about 500 feet for a closer look at a particularly scenic valley. Some balloons ventured even lower.
It was blissfully, utterly quiet. The rare sound came when the pilot adjusted the burner to change height or direction. We sailed over a patchwork of green fields and farms and followed the craggy, undulating sand colored stone of the rifts and valleys we had explored by foot.
The hot-air balloon ride was a first and one of the high points of Cappadocia for me. Others in the group had ballooned before in California, France and Kenya. They were delighted by the generous time we had aloft.
As the balloon descended in a field of wild flowers, our pilot was already radioing his crew that was busy preparing our champagne cocktails.
Our days in Cappadocia began with a vigorous hike through orchards, vineyards and fields of wild flowers: gladioli, grape hyacinth, bachelor buttons, wild mustard and poppies. In the Red Valley, Bihtar showed us a "secret" stone cathedral and we saw frescoes in other rock churches. We passed very few others on the paths.
Having worked up an appetite, we would lunch on meze and salads at traditional Turkish restaurants. The plates would keep coming: bulgar with tomatoes, peppers and onions, chick peas, tomatoes with mint, dolma, burek, yogurt with cucumber mint and dill and fabulous bread right from the oven.
In the afternoon we would tour other underground cities – there are some 100 in the Cappadocia region – with 36 open to the public. Bihtar explained that the lowest level of a city could be as deep as 100 feet and the miles of tunnels connecting one city to another might have 600 entrances. Each city had wells, water tanks, pits for cooking, bathrooms, even tombs. Fresh air came from ventilation shafts. Animals lived on the first level. Most people did not live in the underground cities all the time. The tunnels connected homes to the city and when under attack, people would take the tunnels to the underground city. Massive one-ton millstones sealed off some of the entrances.
After walking – and squeezing through some of these tunnels – we understood how these troglodyte cave-cities served as long-term hiding places from marauding armies passing through Anatolia.
You can experience the wonders of Cappadocia on our Origins of Civilization 19-day in-depth exploration of Turkey.