The ultimate Cappadocia travel guide

The ultimate Cappadocia travel guide

May 12, 2015

Aşk Vadisi, Kapadokya - photo by Merve Göral

Cappadocia, the land of the wild horses, is where this journey takes place, where Hittites, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans and most recently in its long history Turks have taken up residence in the cave dwellings that proudly rise from the volcanic ashes of the inactive Mount Erciyes.

With its fifteen hundred churches dating back to early Christianity, its astounding natural landscape, and multi-ethnic, multi-religious heritage, Cappadocia is also the poster child of Turkish tourism, with every ‘Visit Turkey’ ad campaign depicting, at least once, the rise of the hot air balloons over the Göreme valley. Certainly, it is a magnificent sight to behold, and yet does not necessarily tell the whole story of Cappadocia, its people, its vast land, its culture and its recent troubled past. Discover here the authentic Cappadocia, an alternative to what gets written up in most guidebooks:

Where to stay

Castle Inn, Cappadocia

Sacred House Hotel 

Sacred House, Cappadocia

Opulent and magical, decorative and full of ornamental curiosities, the Sacred House Hotel is a very stylish choice for a vaunt to Cappadocia. Think palatial columns and chandeliers side by side with the curved walls of the ancient cave complex. It has a masculine lounge area with a fire place, referred to as the inferno, as well as a traditional, oriental style hammam. Sacred House Hotel can arrange adventure tours for guests, from a hot air balloon ride, trekking, to jet-boating on the river. Dutlucami Mahallesi, Barbaros Hayrettin Sok No:25 Ürgüp, Nevşehir; T: (0384) 341 7102; www.sacredhouse.com.tr

 

Museum Hotel

Museum Hotel Cappadocia

Located in Uçhisar, the Museum Hotel is an officially registered museum as well as a hotel, boasting exquisitely decorated rooms with historical artifacts, some carved into rock. The Harem room, with its white and red wine fountains is exuberant. So is the possibility of getting an open-air massage with the valley of Göreme lying below. Tekeli Mahallesi, Göreme Caddesi  No.1, Uçhisar,  T: (0384) 219 22 20;  www.museumhotel.com.tr

Chapelle Cappadocia

The Istanbul boutique The House Hotel is branching out of the city and into Cappadocia. Located in Ortahisar, a room here will give you a view over the surrounding fairy chimneys and the ancient volcanic terrain. 29 of 45 rooms set into the cave complex will open in June 2015, with all 45 rooms becoming available by January 2016. There will be a restaurant with indoor seating and a terrace, plus a Turkish style hammam spa. Expect raw luxury and exceptional hospitality. Ortahisar Merkez, Nevşehir; T: (0212) 252 04 22; www.thehousehotel.com/the-house-hotel-cappadocia

argos in Cappadocia

argos in Cappadocia, photo by Merve Göral

Located on the site of an ancient monastery in Uçhisar Village, argos in Cappadocia has carefully restored the remains of historical dwellings, underground tunnels and caves and now houses 53 rooms. Aşağı Mahallesi, Kayabaşı Sokak  No.23, Uçhisar;  T:  (0384) 219 31 30; www.argosincappadocia.com

Asmalı Konak

Made famous by the Turkish TV series with the same name, is one of the prettily preserved old Greek mansions that dot the winding streets of Mustafapaşa village. It has since been converted into a small boutique hotel known as the Old Greek House and still has a pull with local tourists who would like to visit the former set. Sinasos Village, Mustafapasa, 50420, Ürgüp; T: (0384) 353 53 06; www.oldgreekhouse.com/en/

Babayan Evi

The home of Adem Koçdemir – or Adem Abi (brother), the fifth generation of a rock carving family, an ardent horse rider, and a local of İbrahimpaşa village, situated near the town of Göreme – and his wife Ayşegül. An environmentally conscious entrepreneur, Adem Abi rents his bağ evi (country home), at the foot of the valley of İbrahimpaşa köyü, out to travellers.

While bağ evi may seem isolated, guests are encouraged to use its stables to accommodate their (rented) horses, making this an ideal place to explore the area, cultivate fruits and vegetables, and experience real deal.

Adem grows organic (not certified, but in this landscape there really is no need for certification) fruits and vegetables. His aim is to raise the awareness of visitors to Cappadocia about the importance of local farming, and to safeguard the farming heritage of the region. The small plot of land grows local grape varieties, melons, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and more besides. His fertilizer is pigeon droppings mixed with water. 

The bağ evi compound also houses a cold storage room. Carved deep into rock, these rooms are used to store fresh produce, most notably lemons that are grown in the city of Mersin by the Mediterranean sea. The cool and damp air and the constant temperature is said to permit the thinning of the lemon peel and increase the juice content and sweetness of lemons. The end product weighs more than when it first arrived into the cold room, and is called yatak limonu (bedded lemon). Naturally, the cool and moist rock storage cellars are also perfect for maturing and storing wine, as the region is well known for its winemaking tradition. Babayan Evi, İbrahimpaşa Köyü, Ürgüp, T: 0532 576 59 71; www.babayanevi.com.

Where to eat

Babayan Evi

Babayan Evi

Ayşegül’s cooking takes center stage. For dinner, she prepares dishes of local flavors, almost all cooked in a traditional tandır (tandoori). Expect delicious cuisine that is likely to include bulgur çorbası (bulghur soup) prepared with finely chopped green peppers and garlic and immersed in a homemade tomato sauce. Bulgur çorbası is light, the dried mint perfume combining with the softest bulghur, and the tart acidity of sweet heirloom tomatoes. ‘The seeds of the tomatoes all come from my mother,’ Adem Abi says. This is what makes the tomatoes different, and this dish so appetizing.

Babayan Evi’s mantı rivals the celebrity of Kayseri mantı. Served in a terra cotta dish, the minced meat of the dumpling is kneaded with cumin and onion prior to boiling, and the tomato salsa adds delicious acidity to the surprisingly sweet flavor of garlic. 

The dessert is aside, a local taste which sees the well-known un helvası (flour halva), prepared with the addition of the homemade grape concentrate pekmez, one of Babayan’s most prized specialties, prepared by the family after the grape harvest in September, and quickly consumed by family members and visitors, with its addictive mayhoş (sweetly sour) flavor profile and its runny and light texture.

Deringöller Pide Salonu 

The pide (dough rolled out in the shape of an oversized eye with various toppings) here is the best in the area. The pide topped with the local ewe’s milk tulum cheese is well worth mentioning, and so is the pastırma (cold beef cuts, aged in the sun and covered with a garlic and fenugreek paste) and cheese topped alternative.

What to drink

The art of winemaking has always been a part of daily life in Cappadocia, the tradition dating back thousands of years to the Hittites, whose methods of grape cultivation was developed by the subsequent civilizations that resided in the area. During Ottoman rule, non-Muslims were permitted to continue their wine production, though solely for personal use. Today, winemaking practices continue in the area, with medium to small scale producers making locally representative wine with the autochthonous grape varieties Emir and Narince (white grapes), as well as Kalecik Karası, Boğazkere and Öküzgözü (red grapes), while also cultivating international grape varieties that yield positive results, such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The remaining tuff from the volcanic landscape inject unique characteristics to the finished wine.

Winemaking is currently also practiced by households that own one to two hectares of land, and are allowed by the state to produce up to 400 liters of wine for home consumption. (As the land is hilly and uneven, larger hectares of vineyards are hard to come by.) The region also produces grapes to consume as fruit. Across from İbrahimpaşa village lies Pancarlık, where you can see examples of Cappadocia’s vineyards, where the vines grow as shrubs rather than being hung, as is tradition in this region. Walk a little further towards the edge, and see the astounding view of Cappadocia: rock formations, cave dwellings, gardens of white and black mulberry and walnut trees that cover ancient riverbeds, and the length of Ortahisar Castle as it pierces the sky. 

What to do

Cappadocia, the land of the wild horses, is where this journey takes place, where Hittites, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans and most recently in its long history Turks have taken up residence in the cave dwellings that proudly rise from the volcanic ashes of the inactive Mount Erciyes.

With its fifteen hundred churches dating back to early Christianity, its astounding natural landscape, and multi-ethnic, multi-religious heritage, Cappadocia is also the poster child of Turkish tourism, with every ‘Visit Turkey’ ad campaign depicting, at least once, the rise of the hot air balloons over the Göreme valley. Certainly, it is a magnificent sight to behold, and yet does not necessarily tell the whole story of Cappadocia, its people, its vast land, its culture and its recent troubled past. Discover here the authentic Cappadocia, an alternative to what gets written up in most guidebooks:

Cappadocia 

Trekking

Göreme is a good base for trekking some of the Daliesque valleys in the area, as it is surrounded by the gorgeous Göreme National Park. When hiking you will find churches cut into rocks, pigeon houses, and such a range of carved structures that you could spend hours spotting the various animal shapes in the rock formations. To see some of the most interesting shapes and famous fairy chimneys in a range of colors, visit the Devrent Valley (sometimes referred to as Imagination Valley). For serious trekkers, there is no better place than the Ihlara Valley National Park. A series of beautiful ancient churches and the 13th Century Selime Monastery can be found here.

Off the Beaten Path: Cemilköy and Beyond 

East of Golgolu mountaın lies the old village of Cemilköy. Little known by tourists that visit the area, it has an astounding vista, with a deep gorge that cuts across its center, and the area’s largest church perched atop the western hillside. Although official recordings of the church date it to the nineteenth century, other locals we met are quick to dismiss this. The frescoes of the airy church are all but gone, but its commanding position atop the valley is well worth the travel for those who would like to get away from the buzz of other tourists.

Cemilköy also had its own quarry, from which came a white stone known as cemiltaş, different than the stones of Mustafapaşa and İbrahimpaşa villages. The younger generation of the village is known to have emigrated elsewhere, leaving Cemilköy to its own fate, a sad but true story for many villages across Anatolia. A car is necessary to get to and away from Cemilköy.

East of Cemilköy

Driving further east from Cemilköy, the surroundings get lusher thanks to the presence of underground water sources and the Damsa dam. Arriving in Keşlik Monastery, it is thought to be one of the earliest monastic complexes in the area with two churches, a refactory, a winepress and over fifty fairy chimney dwellings.

Cappadocia

Cebir Coşkuner has been working as the host of the monastery complex for over twenty years, and he guides visitors around. Torchlight in hand, he will introduce you to the first church, the Rum Orthodox Church of Saint Michael, which dates back to the thirteenth century. Though the frescoes have been partly damaged and soot-blackened, it is still possible to make out Biblical scenes from entombment to transfiguration. A holy spring (ayazma) runs below, its end point marked by three cypress tree high reliefs, with a flowery ornament growing atop the middle tree. 

The refactory has a haunting beauty, the dining and seating cut out from rock, and a beautifully carved rock seat at the head of the table. The wine-pressing atelier exemplifies the simple technology of making wine, unchanged over centuries. Yet the pièce de resistance of the compound is the small Church of Saint Stephanos, dating back to the eighth or ninth century, with intricate iconoclastic wall paintings that remain largely intact, lively and astounding works of art.

Near the village of Şahinefendi, the ancient city of Sobesos was discovered during unlicensed excavations. Since its discovery, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture took over the area, and excavations are continuing to unearth the complex. Until now, the meeting room, thought to be the center of administration, and the adjacent bathhouse complex has been revealed.

Sobesos has proven the existence of Roman life as it extended east towards the Soğanlı valley, and the intact mosaics demonstrate the period’s aesthetic standards. Within the bathhouse complex, numerous terracotta cylinders have been excavated, along with the beautiful mosaic depicting a pair of bathhouse sandals. The mosaics lining the floors of the meeting rooms are equally beautiful, and well preserved. Excavations are still underway, and we are eager to see the rest of Sobesos’ treasures.

Horse-riding

Dalton Brothers Horse Farm:

A local of the town of Göreme, and owner of a horse farm near the Göreme Open Air Museum, Ekrem İlhan roams the hillsides of Erciyes mountain and catches yılkı atları (wild horses) which he then trains on his farm. Ekrem Abi is our most trusted advisor as to what to see and do in Cappadocia. Not only do tourists come to his farm to organize daily horseback tours across the valleys of Cappadocia, but locals and tourists alike come here for a piece of muhabbet (the art of conversation). 

Come nightfall, the corner area of his farm becomes a vista point for the beautiful peri bacaları, or fairy chimneys, of Göreme. Interestingly enough, Ekrem Abi also has a claim to fame: he’s the wild horse catcher in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s much-acclaimed Palme d’Or winning film The Winter Sleep.

We are told in conversation that the best time to enjoy Cappadocia is during the full moon, when the moon lights this incredible territory, and watching this from a hilltop, reached after a horseback ride, is a life-changing experience. The Dalton Brothers, Göreme; T: 0532 275 68 69; www.cappadociahorseriding.com | Deringöller Pide Salonu, Dumlupınar Caddesi No.1, Ürgüp; T: (0384) 341 51 23.

Dalton Brothers

Babayan Evi

The home of Adem Koçdemir – or Adem Abi (brother), the fifth generation of a rock carving family, an ardent horse rider, and a local of İbrahimpaşa village, situated near the town of Göreme – and his wife Ayşegül. An environmentally conscious entrepreneur, Adem Abi is a horse-whisperer extraordinaire. Babayan Evi, İbrahimpaşa Köyü, Ürgüp, T: 0532 576 59 71; www.babayanevi.com.

Babayan Evi

Biking in Cappadocia

An alternative to horseback riding in this terrain is biking around Cappadocia, though riding around the valleys would most likely be trickier. Riding from Göreme to the valley of Avanos, with the life-giving Kızılırmak river on its edge, is a manageable route, made all the more exciting with the prospect of a late breakfast at Kavi Restaurant by the river. A word of warning is required, as the bike ride back from Avanos to Göreme is trickier with numerous uphill battles. Istanbul Tour Studio and Seasong Tours also offer biking, horseback riding and car hire services around Cappadocia. Kavi Restaurant, Taş Köprü yanı, Avanos,  T: (0384) 511 60 03;  www.kavi-restaurant.com

Aşk Vadisi, photo by Mervel Göral

Flying in a Hot Air Balloon

One of the most memorable and special ways to experience Cappadocia is from above. Early risers will notice the morning sky filled with a colorful array of hot air balloons, which in itself is a beautiful sight. However, it is the view from above that is truly spectacular, without a doubt a highlight of any visit. Balloons take off at dawn or very early in the morning, not only so you can enjoy the sunrise, but also for safety reasons, as winds pick up and become unpredictable later in the day. Be sure to fly with a reputable company that won’t cut any corners when it comes to safety. Anatolian Balloons is one of the oldest and most established companies, and comes recommended.

Sunrise at Cappadocia, photo by Merve Göral

Watching the Sun rise and set

Most tourists visiting the area are advised to watch the magnificent sunset from atop many of the valleys, most notably from the top of Güllüdere (The Rose Valley), and Kızılçukur Vadisi (The Red Valley), with its famous dovecuts and carved rock churches.

However, the locals opt for slightly different vistas. The top of the Golgolu (or Golgoli) hill used to be the preference of the Rums from the village of Sinasos, where they would celebrate the feasts of the Greek Orthodox calendar by staying there for over a week. The remains of a church and an underground tunnel that ties Golgoli hill to the valley of Gomeda still remain, though parts of it have collapsed. 

Another local spot is the top of Gemil (or Kermil) dağı (mountain), rising almost 1500 meters above sea level, which can be reached on horseback, and has an incredible yet little known panoramic view of the villages of Uçhisar, İbrahimpaşa and the valleys of Cappadocia. 

What to see

Cappadocia, the land of the wild horses, is where this journey takes place, where Hittites, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans and most recently in its long history Turks have taken up residence in the cave dwellings that proudly rise from the volcanic ashes of the inactive Mount Erciyes.

With its fifteen hundred churches dating back to early Christianity, its astounding natural landscape, and multi-ethnic, multi-religious heritage, Cappadocia is also the poster child of Turkish tourism, with every ‘Visit Turkey’ ad campaign depicting, at least once, the rise of the hot air balloons over the Göreme valley. Certainly, it is a magnificent sight to behold, and yet does not necessarily tell the whole story of Cappadocia, its people, its vast land, its culture and its recent troubled past. Discover the authentic Cappadocia, an alternative to what gets written up in most guidebooks:

Göreme Open Air Museum, photo by Merve Göral

The Göreme Open Air Museum

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area where the Göreme Open Air Museum now stands was an important Byzantine monastic settlement, which then became a site of pilgrimage in the seventeenth century. The valley is dotted with early Christian and Byzantine churches carved into fairy chimneys, of which there are over thirty, some with extremely well-preserved frescoes.

Cappadocia churches

Elmalı Kilise (Apple Church)

A tiny but well-kept church from the twelfth century with dominant tones of red in its frescoes, and the Ascension scene depicted above the entryway.

Karanlık Kilise (The Darkened Church)

Requiring a separate entrance fee, Karanlık Kilise dates back to the eleventh century and astounds its visitors with its well-kept frescoes, thanks to the lack of light passing through over the centuries, and hence its name. It also contains a fresco depicting adolescent Jesus Christ. 

Tokalı Kilise (The Church With The Buckle)

Cappadocian religious art is said to have reached its peak at this larger church, which has gained its final form as a result of the enlargement of an old church with additional sections. The frescoes were painted in the eleventh century and depict several scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. 

Underground Cities

Another must-do when in Cappadocia is visit the extensive network of underground cities at Kaymaklı or Derinkuyu. Built during the 6th and 7th centuries, these cities extend several stories underground, and provided refuge for Byzantine Christians hiding from Persian and Arabian armies. Exploring the underground cities, one can imagine what life must have been like for these communities who often spent months in these cramped and claustrophobic dwellings along with their animals.

Today, we can still see evidence of their living and cooking quarters, and even their complex ventilation systems. Everything was carefully designed to prevent detection and block invasions, with large stone slabs that could be wheeled to cover entryways at the first sign of an intruder. Many of the passages are quite narrow with low ceilings, and can sometimes become uncomfortably crowded on weekends or during high season.

The Dovecuts

As you gaze at the multitude of rock cave dwellings dotting the valleys of Cappadocia, you will notice the many dents all along the tops of the rock formations. They are intended to house the many pigeons of the area, whose droppings are used as fertilizers.

Another reason for the populous existence of pigeons is their ability to spread news around the valleys. Pigeons were the main source of communication during times of attack during Roman and later Byzantine rule in the area, as rock-cave dwellers, upon receiving news of adversity, would be able to flee to the region’s vast underground cities, through the escape routes built into the cave dwellings. One such famous underground city is the well-known Derinkuyu, and although at times claustrophobic, is well worth a visit, to comprehend the psyche of the area. 

Mustafapaşa Village

Mustafapaşa village, otherwise known as Sinasos, has been gathering more and more attention recently, thanks to the abundance of well-preserved old Greek mansions that dot its winding streets. The wooden doors colored in shades of turquoise, green, blue and gray opening up to beautiful interior courtyards are sights to behold, but they cannot hide the troubled past this city has seen. After the Lausanne treaty was signed in 1923, populations of Anatolian Christian Greeks (called Rum) were exchanged with the Muslim populations then residing in the greater region of Macedonia and the Balkans, Each population’s departure from their homeland where they had been living for generations solely due to their faith was an act with far flung psychological, social and cultural consequences for both Greece and Turkey.

The mansions that can still be observed in Mustafapaşa village were the summertime residences of the wealthy Rum merchants from Constantinople, whose departure to the other side of the Aegean closed a chapter in Cappadocian history. One such mansion is the Topakoğlu Konağı, currently under renovation to be converted into the local municipality offices. 

Rock And Stone Masonry 

The mansions of Mustafapaşa village, along with the houses later built in İbrahimpaşa have all been built with the karakisle stone, as the two villages and the neighboring town of Ortahisar all shared the stones from one quarry. Karakisle is known to be resistant to fire, and is cream white in color. İbrahimpaşa’s locals are known as rock masons, while stone masons come from the village of Kavak, and Mustafapaşa locals specialize in working with travertine and ceramic.