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Published: April 15th 2012
Göreme Open Air Museum
The first stop was the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a protected area filled with hundreds of caves. Most were carved to be churches and others were living quarters, including a nunnery.
Now I know why everybody raves about Cappadocia, or Kapadokya, if you like the Turkish way of spelling everything phonetically. It really is a beautiful and very unique place. I have never seen anything like it. The mix of ancient cave dwellings, historic cave churches, modern tourist infrastructure and incredible landscape all make it a lot of fun.
My parents and I flew to Kayseri and rented a car to drive to Göreme, where we were staying for the first two nights. I booked us rooms in a cave hotel, which is a very touristy thing that I just couldn’t pass up. It seems like most of the population of Göreme is turning their old family home into a hotel. Lots of work goes into converting a normal residential cave into a modern hotel and this is construction season, since tourist season is mostly in the summer.
We stayed in the Kelebek (which means butterfly in Turkish) and our rooms were definitely not under construction. My parents stayed in a real cave room, complete with fireplace. I got a little room up in a fairy chimney. It sounds hokey, but was even cooler than I thought it would be.
6th Century Cave Church
Some churches still had elaborate frescoes, preserved on the ceilings and walls. In this one Mom found older paintings done in red, like the Maltese cross above the door on the left.
The chimneys are tuff, which was once volcanic ash. It hardens when exposed to oxygen so when people were first carving out their homes centuries ago they cut the rock and then let it harden before inhabiting the new room. I need to do some more geological research before I can say anything about when Cappadocia was volcanically active or how long it takes tuff to harden enough to be useful as a living room.
The first day Mom and I went to the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is like a nature reserve, protecting a small valley of caves. They charge an admission fee, close it up at night and have guards hurrying you through the areas that get particularly clogged with lingering tourists. One of those is the Elma Kilisi, or Apple Church, that is very well preserved and full of beautiful frescoes. As in all stone buildings, you have to put plaster on the walls before you can do any detailed paintings, and these are even more striking since they were carved from the bedrock, not built up with quarried stones.
We went all through the churches, winery, cafeteria rooms for monks, grain mill and
A hot air balloon ride is the quintessential Cappadocia experience. I've always wanted to try ballooning and was so excited looking forward to this!
food storage rooms and other habitable parts of the valley. Some places were closed, like the nunnery, which is like a huge beehive that is badly eroded and obviously should not have tourists swarming through the rooms. Looking at it from outside was enough. Not all the churches had intact paintings, but the effect of the whole place was impressive.
The next morning, our first morning in Cappadocia, I had planned for us to take a hot air balloon ride. It was partly cloudy and a bit breezy, but still nice enough to fly. From up above we could see just how extensive the canyons of caves are. Even if they weren’t all inhabited simultaneously, there are still enough homes for a lot of people carved into the canyon walls. I loved being able to orient myself from above, looking down at a living map. We went low down into the canyons and then high up above to see how many villages are scattered throughout the area. Some were inhabited through the 50s, when the government moved a lot of people into homes in the valley and turned the canyons into protected areas.
After spotting it from the
Balloons among the spires
The pilot took us around and through some of the canyons and we looked down on homes carved in the chimneys and narrow valleys that are still cultivated.
air we went to the former village of Zelva, which is one of the places that was inhabited until the 50s. Lots of the homes are badly eroded after centuries of habitation and it was hard for me to imagine people living in them so recently. It was all so obviously ancient. We had a lot more sun in the afternoon and down in the canyon there wasn’t any wind, so it warmed up to perfect hiking weather. I can’t imagine walking through there in August.
We visited several other villages and churches, some better preserved than others. All showed signs of centuries of erosion, but the ones that had more protection like the Göreme Open Air Museum had more intact frescoes, less vandalism and were a lot cleaner.
After our two nights in the caves we moved uphill to the village of Uçhısar. The name means last (or third) castle and is high on a bluff overlooking everything we saw from the balloon. Mom and I walked up the castle, which is a protected area with a nominal entrance fee. Exposed as it is at the top of the cliffs it shows a lot more damage from
When the sun came up over the mountains we were in it before it reached down to the ground.
erosion than the valley caves. On some cliff faces it looks like whole rooms have eroded off, leaving a door or inner passage exposed. It was impressive and fascinating, with a fabulous view.
As a day trip from Uçhısar we drove to Kaymıklı to tour the underground city there. In the 4th
century the Hittites began digging underground rooms as food storage, since it held a constant temperature. The altitude and inland desert climate give Cappadocia hot summers and cold winters, which would be very disagreeable without some sort of insulated home – or cave! We hired a guide at the entrance, which I highly recommend. He was a great source of information and led us through the top four floors, although I think at one point he said we were eight floors down. Mom probably took better notes than I did. I didn’t even have my camera with me.
It was a fascinating experience and I learned so much about the peoples who have inhabited the underground cities of Cappadocia throughout the centuries. There are hundreds of cities but few have been excavated and even fewer are open for tourists. Even Kaymıklı has many more floors below
The cloud shadows and sun patches highlighted different places in the area, giving us a good overview of where we wanted to explore over the next few days. It was a great way to get oriented to the area and excited to see places up close from the ground.
that have not been excavated enough to open. Our guide was from the village and told us about exploring the caves as a kid, which got him in a lot of trouble. Before grates were put down to cover holes in the floor, and lights were installed along passageways, I image it was an incredibly dangerous place.
Kaymıklı has everything a city could need, although people didn’t inhabit it all the time. During times of peace it was used as food storage but in times of war thousands of people disappeared underground. The cooking areas have ventilation shafts that don’t go straight up but zigzag around so the smoke is mostly absorbed by the tuff and doesn’t give away the city’s location to invaders. Likewise, air ventilation shafts don’t go straight up, lest somebody be able to look down. The wells go down to an underground river that flows below the city. The whole thing is a marvel of engineering, even more impressive since the top was carved in the 4th
century and more floors were carved down with each succeeding century and peoples who inhabited the area. After the Hittites, early Christians hid there during attacks from the
I liked Zelve just as much as the Göereme Open Air Museum because there were more real homes. It was fun to go into a cave and imagine what the kitchen and other rooms looked like when they were still inhabited.
Romans. Centuries later they went back underground during times of war with the Arab tribes invading from the south.
The next day, to get back up in the sun, we hiked down Pigeon Valley, which connects Uçhısar with Göreme. Along the way we saw dozens of dovecotes, where people used to house their birds. I need to read more about this, but apparently pigeons were very valuable not only for eggs and meat, but also because their droppings are such great fertilizer. The desert climate of the region would make it hard to have many large animals, so perhaps a family could only expect to have a couple goats and have to count on pigeons for most of their protein intake. I’m just guessing. There is so much to do and see and learn there that we couldn't possible do all of it in only four days.
It was a beautiful hike, through a little valley, dotted with caves and cliffs covered with dovecotes. Most of the way we followed a stream that is probably dry in late summer. The fruit trees were in bloom and the birds were out. Mom and I spotted several striking birds at
I stayed in the bottom room in the fairy chimney on the left. It was surprisingly warm and comfortable, although a touch damp. It was every bit as quaint as I had hoped!
the Göreme Open Air Museum that I continued to see. The weather was perfect for a walk and it was a great way to spend out last day in Cappadocia.
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