Tuesday 27 September 2016

Turkey: Captivated in Cappadocia

Turkish Delight

Gemma Fullam

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

Hot air balloons float of the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey's central Anatolia region.
Hot air balloons float of the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey's central Anatolia region.
Ilhara Canyon.
Meze at Ziggys
Many hot air balloon companies operate in the region.
Gemma in Goreme Open Air Museum. To the right you can see where caves have been carved out of soft tuff rock.

Nothing about the Central Anatolian region of Cappadocia is run of the mill, says an enchanted Gemma Fullam.

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The chambray-blue sky was punctured at junctures with minarets, cranes and Soviet-style apartment blocks, the balconies of which were draped with blood-red flags bearing the crescent moon and star. I was in Turkey.

As the bus trundled along the road from Kayseri to Urgup, my destination in Cappadocia, the cranes and apartment blocks gave way to a butter-hued vista of stone: towers, turrets and pillars of rock, a terrestrial lunar landscape, unlike anything I'd ever seen.

My lodgings for the duration: a cave. Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia, is famous for its cave hotels, but I hadn't expected my cave to be so . . . well, posh. Serinn House isn't just any old cave. It was designed by a famous Turkish architect, Rifat Ergor, and restored without any structural additions, so the soft stone edifice segues seamlessly into the landscape.

This apprentice troglodyte found herself sleeping in a Habitat bed, under a chandelier by Maarten Bass, while Philippe Starck sanitaryware occupied the cave's privy. As you may have gathered, Cappadocian caves aren't your average prosaic pothole. But then, nothing about the Turkish region - the name of which translates from ancient Persian as 'the land of the white horses' - is run of the mill.

The spectacular landscape of the area is otherwordly; it evokes the fantastical planets of many a sci-fi film; walking around, you half expect Luke Skywalker to emerge from one of the pasabaglari (fairy chimneys) that epitomise the uniqueness of this region.

The whole area is steeped in history and, because of its peculiar geography and geology, it has been a sanctuary throughout the ages for those fleeing religious persecution. Among those who came here - persecutors and persecuted - were the Hittites, Phrygians (among them, King Midas), Lydians (and another famous King, Croesus) Tabals, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans.

But first, there was a volcano: Mount Erciyes, 'white mountain'. Known as the 'Father of Cappadocia' it exploded 70 million years ago and spewed out its last lava about 8,000 years ago. The continual eruptions left the land coated in layers of volcanic ash and mud, which compressed and hardened over time to form tuff, a porous rock that has excellent insulating properties.

Gemma in Goreme Open Air Museum. To the right you can see where caves have been carved out of soft tuff rock.
Gemma in Goreme Open Air Museum. To the right you can see where caves have been carved out of soft tuff rock.

The fairy chimneys - called 'hoodoos' by geologists - formed where erosion ate away the softer tuff, leaving behind tapering columns of basalt. Throughout the centuries, people have taken advantage of the ease with which, when dampened with water, the soft tuff can be carved out (it hardens as it dries) to create homes and indeed, entire underground cities.

Derinkuyu underground city is one such place. The Hittites may have carved the first such cities - or possibly it was the Phrygians, whose architects are considered by archaeologists to be among the finest of the Iron Age, and are known to have engaged in complex construction projects. Derinkuyu was discovered in 1963 by a man knocking down a wall in his home, who came across the labyrinth of tunnels that comprise the multi-level underground city, which had remained hidden for centuries.

I was on Rock Valley Travel's (see rockvalleytravel.com) Red Tour; one of their four day and half-day guided packages (Red; Blue; Green and Orange), which comprehensively cover all of the must-see sights in the region.

The Red Tour begins at Derinkuyu, which has eight floors - four are open to the public - and is 40 metres deep. If you're at all claustrophobic, you may want to give this bit a miss, as the tunnels are very narrow and low-ceilinged in spots.

There is method in this, though: the restricted space meant it was difficult for a person to pass through, most particularly an enemy soldier clad in bulky armour, although as the underground caves were mainly used for grain and food storage in times of peace, the narrow passages also ensured a thief could not escape with much booty. Some of the ventilation shafts are so narrow and serpentine that, to this day, it is a mystery as to how they were constructed. Along with possibly the world's first lunatic asylum, these underground cities, of which there are 150, had bedrooms, water resevoirs, grain mills, stables, churches, seminaries, and wineries. Lookouts would sound a warning horn if an enemy was spotted approaching, and the entire city, along with its livestock, would simply vanish underground until danger had passed, which was often a period of weeks or months.

Next up was a 4km trek in the sublime Ihlara Canyon, through which flows the Melendiz River. Our entrance to the 120-metre deep canyon was down a 360-step wooden staircase (there are other ways in, should you wish to do a longer trek), and the valley, once home to a population of 8,000, is a biodiverse Eden, with a wide variety of flora and fauna, along with 10,000 rock caverns and over 150 churches from the Byzantine period built by the Cappadocian Greeks. (The Greeks, who had lived in Cappadocia since antiquity, were expelled during the mass exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923.)

The Canyon was an important monastic centre from the 4th Century; the first Christians hid from Roman soldiers here, because of the many caves and the water supply. Many of the churches, which are carved into the rock and date from the 8th Century, have exquisite frescoes (which date from the 10th Century), the most notable of which are in the Church Under the Tree - the frescoes here have a strong Eastern influence; the Smelly Church and the Church with the Terrace.

It's more of an amble than a trek through this gorgeous gorge, but the day was hot, and it was a welcome treat to plonk myself on a floor cushion in one of Restaurant Aslan's floating booths. There are several similar restaurants dotted around this part of the gorge, and while lunch is basic, the food is tasty, and the setting is spectacular.

Many hot air balloon companies operate in the region.
Many hot air balloon companies operate in the region.

The final stop on our tour was Agzikarahan, an important caravanserai (a B&B of sorts) on the famous Silk Road from the Aegean port of Smyrna (now Izmir) to the Persian city of Susa, near the sea. The imposing building, which is decorated with intricate Islamic carvings, was in use during the 13th Century. Caravanserai were built every 30-40km along the route: as far as a camel could travel in a day. At the time, trade was so valuable that the state guaranteed the security of the merchants' goods, reimbursing them for theft; a kind of early insurance system. The inside is a little overgrown now, but hugely atmospheric; a loveliness of ladybirds and a lone lark sole witnesses to the faded glories of the Seljuk Sultans.

After all that heat, dust and history, I was in need of a good scrub, so I headed for the local hammam, Urgup Sehir Hammam (see urgupsehirhamami.com) following a recommendation from my fellow hotel guests, Naomi and Jude. The hammam, which is located in the centre of Urgup, is housed inside what was once a Greek church. It's old-school floor-to-ceiling marble, and cheap as chips. For a mere $10, I got exfoliated to within an inch of my life, followed by a delicious massage. I was also the only woman in the place, which was initially a little daunting, but when in Rome, as they say.

Dinner that night was at Ziggy's Cafe, named after the owners' much loved Airedale terrier, who in turn was named after Bowie's famous creation. Istanbul natives Nuray and Selim Yuksel moved to Urgup over 20 years ago and set up a shop in the beautiful stone building that houses Ziggy's, which sells handicrafts, jewellery and clothes created by Nuray, who is a designer. The restaurant and cafe followed, and Nuray's artistic eye is evident throughout, from the delicate ironwork chairs fashioned from old bedheads, to the elegant upholstery and romantic lighting. Ask for a table on the terrace; the view of Urgup and the landscape beyond is dreamy. The food here is stellar: traditional Turkish with a modern twist; gorgeous, fresh ingredients, cooked to perfection.

Next morning I was up before the sun, as a bus was collecting me at 4.50am to bring me to the downtown offices of Voyager Balloons for a dawn hot-air balloon ride.

As a child, having avidly read Willard Price's 'Adventure' series, I had long dreamed of a balloon flight - although perhaps a less eventful one than Hal and Roger's whose emergency landing saw them almost cut to ribbons by razor-sharp sisal grass. I needn't have worried though, as safety is paramount in Cappadocia's ballooning sector, and if there's even a hint of wind - read: danger - all flights are cancelled. My aforementioned hotel companions, who had flown the previous morning, had regaled me with tales of the incredible panorama from the air, but as I sipped my sweet Turkish coffee and nibbled on gozleme (savoury pancake) the call came from the local meterological office: too windy; no flights today. Cue sad faces all around, but if you don't fly, you don't pay; you can reschedule and try again the next day if it fits your itinerary. Alas, it didn't fit mine, so ballooning remains on the bucket list.

Ballooning is one thing you must do if you find yourself in Cappadocia, but there are so many others that a week of non-stop exploring would only reveal a fraction of the region's treasures.

Rock Valley's full-day Blue tour had so many wonders, it somewhat made up for my early morning disappointment. First stop was the poetically named Devrent Imagination Valley, so-called because of the many rock formations that resemble creatures and people (camel rock; the alligator; praying Mary; the dancers). Next stop, the Zelve open-air museum, which features remains from almost all of the ancient civilisations that have settled here. The Church of the Grapes, with its beautiful icons, is stunning.

The famous fairy chimneys, pasabaglari, or Monk's Valley, as it was formerly known were up next. Monks seeking refuge dug caves into the top of these vertiginous structures, carving footholds for access. The pointed cylindrical roofs were formed when solidified lava hardened on top of the volcanic ash. It's possible to explore the lower caves, but the higher ones are out of bounds for safety reasons. After lunch, it was time for Pigeon Valley, further up the road, which was, as the name suggests, home to thousands of pigeons. Pigeon dung, or guano, is a rich fertiliser, and was also used by the locals as a paint glaze. The spectacular Goreme Open Air Museum rounds off the day in fine style (the infamous Love Valley is nearby; it's a popular hiking spot that's home to countless phallic-shaped rock formations - some call it 'Giggle Valley' for that reason, but, childish sniggering aside, the landscape here is awe-inspring).

Goreme Museum is fascinating and you could easily spend a day here, too; it's full of gorgeous churches, many of which are 1,000 years old, and frescoes that look as vivid and bright as if they were painted yesterday (guano was used as colour, along with onion skin and walnut leaves). Possibly the best frescoes are in the Dark Church; there's a small extra admission fee to enter, but funds go towards the ongoing restoration works.

Dinner that night was at Han Ciragan in Urgup, which is located in a gorgeous 250-year-old building that was once an Ottoman inn. The owner, Ertugrul Bekler, loves to cook, and spent no less than six months perfecting a 200-year old recipe for lamb stew with apricots that he came across in a book on ancient Cappadocian cuisine. The dish was invented by a Greek living in the area, and, having tried it, I can testify to its melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness. Although, in this land of surprises, it didn't fail to confound when it came served with . . . pasta, of all things. I ended my repast with a Turkish coffee (made by adding coffee grounds and sugar to cold water and then gradually heating it. It's an acquired taste; a little gritty, but quite pleasant).

It had been the busiest of days, and back at Serinn House I collapsed into my gorgeous bed and slept the sleep of a contented cave-dweller. Next morning, Eren Serpen, Serinn House's owner and superb host, served me her signature delicious breakfast as I sat on the terrace and took in the pastel-hued landscape one last time. (I had arrived in Cappadocia harassed, exhausted and without a plan, having missed my connecting flight from Istanbul. Eren, without any prompting, arranged my entire schedule, dropped me hither and thither, recommended the best restaurants, answered every question I had about the area without hesitation, and was on hand with a Turkish coffee or an ice-cold glass of wine at just the right moment. Everyone that passes through the teal-blue antique doors of her ultra-chic cave hotel gets the same treatment; she truly is a hostess with the mostess if ever there was one.)

There is so much beauty in Cappadocia; it took me completely by surprise. Its undulating streets of soft yellow stone, dotted with hollyhocks and marigolds, echo with the past, while filled with the everyday life of the present. It's a bewitching land of the unexpected, of magic. And one day this novice cave dweller will return to see those fairy chimneys from the air.

Getting  there

For a fresh perspective on the stunning Cappadocia skyline, discover Serinn House, the first cave hotel in Turkey to integrate hip urban design with the intimacy of natural caves. One of just six hotels in Turkey to be selected for inclusion in HIP Hotels' exclusive properties, Serinn House is nestled in a historic district of Urgup, Cappadocia, with magnificent views of the town and surrounding mountains.

This intimate hotel with six guest rooms seamlessly blends sophisticated modern décor and luxe bathrooms with an ambiance of warmth, charm and personal attention.

A standard double room costs €80 including breakfast, served on the terrace overlooking Cappadocia's stunning mountain landscape. For more information and special offers, see serinnhouse.com, or tel: +90 384 341 60 76.

Turkish Airlines, voted Best Airline in Europe for the fifth year in a row by Skytrax, has three daily flights to Istanbul from Dublin. Return flights to Kayseri via Istanbul from Dublin with return flight departing from Nevsehir, Cappadocia available from €304 inclusive of taxes and charges. See turkishairlines.com/en-ie/ for more detail. Direct daily return flights Dublin-Istanbul available from €192 return inclusive of all taxes and charges

Take three: Top attractions

Ilhara Canyon

I went on Rock Valley Tourism's Red tour, part of which involved a 4km trek through the Ilhara Canyon - however, you can trek much further through this magical gorge, and if you have a hire car, take the time to spend the day here, wandering along the riverbank exploring the ancient churches hewn out of the rock face. The verdant canyon is a delightful counterpoint to Cappadocia's otherwise rugged landscape.

Balloon ride

One of the best ways to fully appreciate Cappadocia's landscape is by air. Many hot-air balloon companies operate in the region; I went with Voyager Balloons, see voyagerballoons.com. A bus collects you pre-dawn, and you can  enjoy breakfast at the downtown office while waiting for the met office to green-light the day's flights. A tip: schedule your flight early in your stay; if it's cancelled, you can try again another day.

The food

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The food in this part of Turkey is fabulous, something I hadn't expected. From the home-made yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice, sweetest of strawberries, caramel-y dates and excellent eggs at Serinn House to the superb meze at Ziggys (think ember-grilled aubergine; fava bean puree; stuffed vegetables), paired with aromatic Turkish coffee and delicious Cappadocian wine (try Turasan), it's a feast for body and soul.

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