We’ve turned the corner back to the west, to Istanbul, after spending three wonderful nights in the heart of Cappadocia’s fairy tale landscape. The central Turkey region of Cappadocia, a name dating back to the Persians meaning “land of beautiful horses”, contains multiple extinct volcanoes that, over the thousands and millions of years predating ours, the Persians, and the Hittites arrivals, buried the landscape in ash and basalt. Rain, wind and man went to work carving a fantastical landscape of narrow rock spires, many of them capped with a slab of basalt. Back home in Washington state, we call these landforms hoodoos. Here in Turkey they call them fairy chimneys. They’re basically the same thing, though here in Cappadocia, particularly around the town of Goreme, hundreds (thousands?) of these tufa-based fairy chimneys were hollowed out and became homes, churches, and storerooms.
The best and most popular way to witness this amazing landscape is from the air. Every morning nearly a hundred hot air balloons take to the sky above Goreme and fly up to 3,000 feet above the fairy chimneys and valleys that make up Goreme National Park. Like the camel trek in the Sahara, hiking with the Komodo Dragons, and taking the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic, we decided it was time for another bucket-list type of splurge. Riding in a hot air balloon was something Kristin and I have always wanted to do and there’s arguably no better place to do that in Cappadocia. So after 11 days of cycling from Bodrum to Goreme — and with my fortieth birthday coming up — we lived it up for three nights in a fancy cave suite, went sailing on a 90-minute sunrise balloon ride, and joined an all-day tour of the villages, valleys, and one of the underground cities in the area — the Hittites carved out 32 multi-level underground cities in the 6th century BC, some extending over 150 feet below the surface and spreading out over 3 kilometers in area. The underground city we visited was 8 levels deep, extended over 2 kilometers in area and is believed to have been able to temporarily house up to 4,000 people. Goreme’s location along the Silk Road meant it was a prime target to brigands and invaders and the peace-loving Hittites found it better to carve out extensive underground hiding places rather than face the invaders in combat.
But enough with the history lesson (as told by our tour guide), let’s get on with the photos!
I want to take a moment just to say something nice about the town of Goreme that was both surprising and refreshing. Yes, this town is a tourist hot spot. But a tourist trap it is not! We found the prices of the hotels and restaurants to be well within the range of everywhere else we’ve been so far in Turkey — that it is to say, much less than Greece and Italy! The prices of snacks, beers, and groceries at the markets were as well. Better still, there’s no high-pressure sales annoyances to deal with; you can browse the market stalls and craft shops without being hassled; and the touts that are present keep their distance and are polite. Our tour guide, Gulsen, from New Goreme Tours not only really seemed to have our best interests in mind when it came to steering us clear of rip-off “wineries” and museums that offer little to no value, but it was clear that she was well-trained in dealing with westerners. And trust me, we North Americans and Europeans (and Aussies and Kiwis too) have certain idiosyncrasies about us that not every tour guide is ready for.
So if you’re thinking of taking a trip to Turkey, don’t hesitate. Go! And if you were worried about the hot air balloon rides not being worth it or Goreme and the Cappadocia region being one giant tourist trap, you can put that fear to rest as well. Yes, it’s extremely popular, but even right now in high season it didn’t feel the least bit crowded and the people in the tourism industry here really know what they’re doing and never once make you feel like you’re just a bag of money to them. That being said, definitely splurge on one of the 90-minute hot air balloon rides, as they are capped at 12 passengers whereas the 60-minute flights pack 20 people into the same size basket. We went with Rick Steves recommended Butterfly Balloon Tours and would go again in an instant. Our pilot, Mike, is British (i.e. fluent English speaker), had once flown over the North Pole in a hot air balloon, and has been in Turkey for 15 years. Butterfly offered a safe, professional service from the hotel pickup to the champagne toast back on land. Last but not least, we also highly recommend our hotel. Ottoman Cave Suites is small and very boutique-ish, but also very high on service and attention and in a great location.
Still not sold? Here’s a video from everyone’s favorite Seattle-area travel guru, Rick Steves, from his visit to Cappadocia.
Special Thanks: We wish to once again offer our continued thanks and acknowledgment to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc for their generous sponsorship of our journey. Thank you so much!