The ancient Cappadocians slept in caves. // © 2014 Fareeha Molvi
Arriving in Cappadocia, Turkey, feels like traveling to another galaxy, or at least another time period. Conical peaks, formed from volcanic rock, stand tall over arid valleys. Below, small cave cities are home to family-owned restaurants, pottery shops and street vendors hawking everything from souvenirs to goat-milk ice cream. To the credit of central Turkey’s preservation efforts, Cappadocia is a city frozen in time — and for good reason, as the region is filled with historical significance dating back to the fourth century.
The Goreme Open-Air Museum, the most popular and historically significant site in the region, is home to ancient cave churches and dwellings where early Christians sought refuge from the Roman Empire in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. Visitors wander in and out of the caves, which bear names such as Apple Church and Snake Church, to see frescoes featuring iconic scenes from the life of Christ. Unfortunately, many of these works are in deteriorating condition — a fact that plays a part in Cappadocia’s unique history. In 1922, a population exchange deported native Christians in the area to Greece. In exchange, Muslim Turks and Slavs from Greece were given land in Cappadocia to inhabit. A lack of awareness for historical preservation combined with a religious taboo against iconography led to the vandalization and damage of many of the frescoes. Since then, the Turkish government has worked to preserve the caves and, in 1984, the museum was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, visitors are cautioned to keep their voices down and avoid flash photography to prevent further damage to the works. In fact, the best-preserved fresco in the museum can be viewed in the Dark Church for an additional fee, which regulates foot traffic in and out of the cave.
After touring the man-made wonders of the area, take in the natural beauty of Cappadocia. As a result of ongoing erosion, past volcanic activity and tectonic shifts, Cappadocia hosts unique geological formations that seem to belong on the set of a sci-fi fantasy movie. For instance, Pasabag is a valley famous for its “fairy chimneys” or tall mushroom-shaped rock towers. Visitors also enjoy hiking Devrent Valley, also known as Imagination Valley, for its animal-shaped rock formations. Some of the formations, such as the famous camel, are so uncanny that you might think they were carved by hand and not the work of natural erosion and winds.
At the end of a busy day of touring, treat yourself to a Cappadocian home-style dinner — the highlight of which is testi kebap, or pottery kebap. This trademark dish is prepared by stuffing pieces of spiced meat into a clay pot and then firing it in a wood-burning oven. At the table, diners crack open the pot to reveal the tender, sizzling meat inside.
No trip to Cappadocia is complete without a famous sunrise hot-air balloon ride. Here, early morning is prime departure time for hot-air balloon flights, granting passengers unparalleled views of the valleys and rock formations. This once-in-a-lifetime ride is a sight to behold, as you float among hundreds of other balloons while the rising sun casts a warm, rosy glow over the Martian-like landscape.
Most visitors to Cappadocia will take a one-hour domestic flight from Istanbul to one of the nearby airports, either in Nevsehir or Kayseri.
Shuttle vans and tour buses are the best bet when it comes to navigating the narrow alleys and roads of this ancient region. Most guided tour packages include transportation to and from the different sites.
When to Go
The tourist season lasts from April through October. Spring and fall months have the most moderate weather, although the tail end of fall can be fickle with dipping temperatures and rain.
Where to Stay
Do as the early Cappadocians did and sleep in a cave. Karadut Cave Hotel and the Shoe String Cave House offer all the comforts of modern amenities but with the unique novelty of being built into a cave.