17-20 September 2015. The phone alarm starts singing. I moan quietly then suddenly I’m wide awake. It is 3.30 in the morning and today is the day we take a hot air balloon ride. Neither of us has ever done this before. Excited! We wash and dress quickly and wait outside to be collected. We are taken to a central meeting point. After an unremarkable breakfast with many other people we go to the launch site a little way outside the town of Goreme.
In the early morning darkness we see the balloons spread out on the ground. We watch fascinated as one by one the burners are lit creating a golden glow. As the hot air fills each balloon it slowly expands and becomes upright, tethered to the earth by ropes.
We climb aboard, about twenty of us. The basket is divided into six sections: four corners, and one on either side. I’m determined to get a corner rather than a side compartment for the best view. We lift off, so gently I hardly even realize we are in the air. We are gliding silently up and up as the sun rises over one of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen.
Watching the pilots manoeuver the huge balloons around each other and around the rock chimneys is a thing of beauty. It takes huge skill. Hot air balloons cannot be steered. Only the height can be adjusted with bursts of fire from the burner to put more heat into the balloon. They travel in the direction of the wind. The wind close to the ground can be different both in speed and direction from the wind even a couple of hundred metres higher. We go as high as 650 metres (nearly half a mile) at one point, looking out over the whole landscape and all the balloons below us. I think there must about one hundred of them.
We float over the landscape with its plateaus and valleys. Suddenly I realize we are only a metre or so off the ground. At another point the basket scrapes the top of a tree as our pilot maneuvers the balloon for us to get the best view of the landscape.
Our pilot is from Germany, an ex airline pilot. He says he watches the other balloons above and below him to see the direction of the wind. At times it is a bit cramped with me and Don and another couple in our small corner section of the basket, but overall the view is open and clear. We float, there is no bumping, just a slow drifting along by the pink valley, and later along by the Love Valley so close to the chimneys we can almost touch them. I’m surprised by how close we go to some of the rock formations, and to some of the other balloons.
I watch as a balloon heads straight for one of the rock chimneys and wonder if the pilot will get it high enough in time to avoid crashing into it. He does. Just. The way the pilots make the balloons dance is almost like watching a ballet. It takes enormous kill and precision. Our landing is smooth and perfect, directly on top of the trailer waiting to tow it back to town. How does he do that? Given that it’s not possible to steer the balloon it’s an impressive feat.
We climb out and in the morning sun we drink champagne and toast the pilot, and this magical experience.
Some time between three and sixty-six million years ago three volcanoes began continuously erupting in central Turkey depositing a layer of ash, lava and basalt over a large area now known as Cappadocia. It solidified into a soft rock called tuff, covering the earth 150 metres (500ft) deep. Over the millennia the erosion of the tuff by snow, freezing, wind, and especially by rain and rivers, has created one of the most surreal and unique landscapes in the world. The weathering has left only the harder elements behind, forming an enchanted landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, which reach up to 40 meters (130ft) into the sky.
Nature created the landscape and people took it further. Discovering that the tuff is soft enough to carve, thousands of years ago people began carving dwellings in the rock, both in the cones and chimneys and underground. The entire area is honeycombed with tunnels and hand-hewn caves many floors deep. Underground there are living quarters, storerooms, stables and temples.
As long ago as 1800 to 1200 BC the Hittites needed a place to hide from the warring Greek and Persian Empires. Later the caves became a refuge during the early days of Christianity when those fleeing Rome established monasteries here.
We go exploring in Derinkuyu underground city. Down and down and down in the dark winding tunnels. Some of the tunnels are barely wider than we are, some so low we have to bend over to get through them. Lighting is dim and sporadic.
This ancient city is 60 metres (200 feet) deep, carved into the soft rock. To put that into perspective, 60 metres is the equivalent of a fifteen-story building. At one time it sheltered as many as twenty thousand people and their livestock. There are rooms carved out for stables, cellars, food storage, oil presses, refectories, and chapels. There is a large 55 metre (180 foot) ventilation shaft. An entire city hidden underground. And it is only one of several in Cappadocia.
Derinkuyu is the largest excavated underground city in Turkey. It could be closed from the inside with large stone doors, and each floor could be closed off separately. It was a safe haven from the warring factions above ground. It reminded me of the underground tunnels and dwellings built more recently in Vietnam.
Next day, having been given a map, we go hiking up a cobbled road on the edge of town, looking for the trail into the Love Valley to see the chimneys up close.
Right at the beginning there are some abandoned cave dwellings and we climb inside one of them. It is scary – exciting, and fascinating. We have no idea what we’ll encounter. We have no idea if we should go in or not.
Stepping inside we find the entire interior of the cone has been hollowed out except for a layer of rock creating upper and lower rooms. There is a hole in the ceiling and we climb up on the stone step and have a look in the upper level of the space. It is clear it has been used fairly recently. There are old newspapers, clothes, an empty drink can. It’s fascinating to finally see inside one of the cave dwellings even if it has been abandoned.
We never do find the trail down into the Love Valley. The man at the tour company made it look so easy showing us the trail on the map and saying there would be red arrows, but we find no red arrows. The cobbles give way to a dirt track that keeps branching and the map isn’t detailed enough to indicate which branch to take. Finally we abandon the tracks and set out across country to get to the cliff edge to look down into the valley.
Going cross country, past very sad looking grape plantations with a few grapes withering on the vine, past a few olive trees with small hard new olives on them, past sparsely planted apricot trees, we make sure we can find our way back by using markers: a dead tree, a lone tall white flower looking very much like hollyhock, a squashed cigarette packet on the trail. I sing Irish folk songs as we walk along. We see the rock chimneys of Love Valley directly in front of us but we can’t get down to them.
At the cliff edge we decided to walk along it for a way. Don spots a broken bottle top with a blue neck and lid. He pushes it broken-side-down into the dirt to mark the spot where we need to turn and go back past the vines, and the sad tomato plants, and the bright orange pumpkins, and find our way back to the track we’d started on.
On the way back I climb up to go inside another of the abandoned caves. It’s an almost vertical climb, but my shoes have good grip, and the rock surface is rough enough that I can climb easily. Inside the cone there is a single room with two openings.
On the bus ride from Konya to Goreme we’d noticed endless fields of something orange and wondered what the crop was. In town the mystery is solved. Pumpkins. They are grown only for the seeds. The seeds are mixed with salt and milk and baked in the oven to create a popular snack. I never did find out the Turkish name for it, or get to taste it.
The charming honey-coloured village of Goreme sits in the centre of the Cappadocia region. What was once a farming hamlet has become a tourist hub for exploring Cappadocia, yet it still retains its rural charm. Not all of the troglodyte dwellings are museums, or abandoned. Many people still live in traditional homes carved from the chimneys and cones.
Goreme by night from our hotel balcony.
At the end of the Ihlara Valley,
twenty-eight kilometres from Aksarai is the rock-cut monastery in Selime dating from the eighth century.
The monastery contains a large cathedral, monks’ quarters, kitchen, and a stable for mules – all cut from the rock. It is a maze of rooms hewn from the tuff cones and chimneys. The workmanship and detail is astonishing.
The top is a fortress, and there are a series of secret tunnels and ever-steeper rock stairways and ladders. We follow them to the top, exploring everywhere we can get to.
We eat dinner in the same restaurant every night we are in Goreme. Cappadocia Cuisine is close to home and inexpensive with good service and good food. A winner. Why go looking elsewhere? Most nights we eat clay pot casserole, which is served with rice and salad. The dish is common in central Turkey and dates from the Ottoman Empire. The ingredients are lamb shoulder or chicken, tomato sauce, wild mushrooms, shallots, garlic, green pepper and other vegetables, young potatoes and vegetable stock. It is cooked slowly, and heated in individual servings in a clay pot called a testi. The casserole is poured into the testi, the top sealed with bread dough, and then heated in a wood fired pizza-style oven. The top half of the pot is knocked off with a special knife by the server at the table, revealing the steaming aromatic dish. You can see the top half of the pot covered in burnt bread dough at the bottom right of the picture.
We try again to find one of the many hiking trails leading out from town. The maps are inadequate and there is no signage. I think the people of Goreme don’t want us to be able to find our way around the countryside. We walk a long way out of town trying to find the entrance to a trail leading through some valleys. We walk about four or five kilometres along the dusty shoulder of a fairly busy road. It’s not pleasant, and we never do find the trail, though we try a few that could be possibilities. I think we aren’t even in the region really. We walk back along the road, and try again closer to where we think the trail head should be, but the map we were given and the map on the phone are contradictory and we can’t make any sense of it. The heat is intense, and we know we don’t have enough water with us. If we’d been able to find the beginning of the trail easily it would have been a beautiful walk to another nearby village. Finally we give up and come home after stopping for a much-needed iced tea at the first place we come to. Exhausted. The water in our bottles is now warm. We covered about twelve kilometres, most of it alongside a road. Not so much fun. Later we hiked up to the top of the high plateau on one side of the town for sunset.
Next post: more of the wonders of Cappadocia – exquisite Byzantine churches hidden inside the rock cones, the place of pigeons, and pottery.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.