By Shabana H Shaikh
Clichéd as it may sound – with its many ancient, historical, mythical and natural wonders, Turkey is a traveler’s paradise. A befitting moniker, nonetheless, is as one Japanese traveler I met in Istanbul summed it up: “I came here for a week, ended up staying for a month, and returning three times since!”
You’d mostly hear people talk about Istanbul but Turkey is much more than that. My urge to see unusual places took me to central Anatolia. Here, nestled between the cities of Nevsehir, Kayseri and Nigde, is the ancient region of Cappadocia.
Cappadocia, which means land of beautiful horses, is a spectacular gift of the forces of nature. Three million years ago, violent eruptions of two volcanoes covered the surrounding plateau with a layer of mud, ash and lava. Time and natural elements have eroded these volcanic rocks into a sprawling landscape of peculiar-shaped pillars and fairy chimneys. These fairy chimneys look like enormous mushrooms, or humped animals, while others appear to be magical creatures from a Harry Potter film.
This fairy-world-like landscape, underground cities and cave dwellings, render Cappadocia a one-of-a-kind adventure and just one of the many places worth visiting.
Getting there: I flew to Istanbul and contacted a local travel agent. It was economical and flexible. Play safe and deal only with agents who are members of TURSAB (Association of Turkish Travel Agencies).
Several low-cost airlines fly daily to Cappadocia from Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and these are preferable to land transport. The flying time from Istanbul to Nevsehir airport in Cappadocia is one hour and 40 minutes. Ruefully, domestic carriers do not believe in punctuality. Delays are inevitable, so choose flights with reasonable gaps, especially if you are connecting internationally.
Staying in Cappadocia: Cappadocia has no conventional hotels. Bunk in troglodyte-style in a cave, albeit cave hotels. Mostly B&B, cave hotels are refurbished with modern amenities and few luxuries, like jacuzzis, while retaining their originality. Localities still live like troglodytes, but with modernized appliances such as televisions. You will see crumbling villages – now abandoned – with tiny homes, mosques, and shops still standing.
I stayed at the Katpatuka Hotel in Göreme, Nevsehir, which is operated by a young Turkish couple, Mustafa and his wife. The house, which originally belonged to Mustafa’s grandmother, is now converted into a homely hotel like many of Mustafa’s neighbours. Rooms are comfortable with attached bathrooms. Even in the middle of June, it was cool during the day and chilly at night.
What to see: The first day of the tour kick-started with a trek of the canyon-shaped Ihalra Valley, the Pigeon Valley, leading to the Göreme Open-Air museum, and cave churches. Early Christians made countless cave churches, chapels and monasteries in Cappadocia, with more than 200 churches scattered through the valleys. Here you can view some of the best frescos in the world, especially inside the Göreme Open-Air Museum.
The most impressive sights in Cappadocia are its underground cities, some yet undiscovered. There are about 32 underground cities, of which only two are open to tourists. These are Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, with the former being the largest and the latter being the deepest. With eight to nine floors below ground level, narrow tunnels, clever ventilation systems, and hidden rooms – these cities are the culmination of thoughtful planning and construction. The Kaymakli Underground City, which I visited, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985.
On our second day, we headed to Avanos, the artisans’ town. Here, menfolk make pottery, design and paint them, while women weave carpets. Avanos pottery is intricately beautiful and worth buying, whether for your own home or as give-away gifts. Tour groups are usually offered good discounts on purchase. I had the pleasure of meeting and receiving a gift from Galip Körukçu?, the renowned 5th generation artisan, who runs his ancestral workshop Chez Galip.
On the other hand, Turkish carpets are as pretty as their pottery. Exclusively hand-woven, each carpet takes time to create, with silk ones taking up to three years to complete. So, do not complain when you see the price tag.
What to Eat: Our tour group had lunch in one of the old districts, where we feasted on a delectable meal of Testi Kebab, a local specialty. For this, lamb is cooked in a clay pot, with the top sealed off with dough, for up to six hours in a traditional stone oven. The dish originated in Avanos, where local potters cooked in their kiln.
As we seated our weary bodies along an oblong table, in a tavern craved from rock, the chef arrived with the clay pot on a trolley and, before our amused eyes, smashed the top-half and poured out our steaming, aromatic meal.
For drinks, some ordered the alcoholic brew Rahi, an unsweetened anise-flavoured drink. Being non-alcoholic, I opted for Ayran, the Turkish equivalent of the Indian buttermilk, or the cousin of the Middle Eastern Laban. A cool drink of Ayran with a sprinkling of pepper definitely compliments the Testi Kebab.
Throughout our meal, we were entertained by an instrumentalist playing the Kanoon, a Turkish instrument with 75 keys.
Turkish Night: While day tends to be exhaustingly action-packed, the place goes eerily quiet at night. Activities of any sort are mostly indoors, which makes the Turkish Night experience so alluring. For my Turkish Night, my host drove me to Evranos, another underground inn carved out of rocks. You will need prior reservations, which the hotel staff will readily do for you.
The entertainment began with the enchanting dance of the Whirling Dervish, followed by belly dancing, traditional and fusion folk dances. Later, everyone took to the dance floor gyrating to western pop music.
If you have the time, take the advantage of a Turkish bath with their signature massage. Like most places, the Turkish bath is also an old converted establishment.
Another way to glimpse Cappadocia is from a Hot Air Balloon. But priced at €230 per head, the cost for this pleasure is steep. However, according to a fellow tourist, the aerial views are undisputed, so if you have deep pockets, do not miss out.
Best time to visit: Spring (April-June) and Autumn (September-November)
Based in Kuwait, Shabana Shaikh is a full-time management assistant who considers writing a passion and intends to keep it that way. She has been widely published and is a regular contributor to Bazaar, Khaleejesque, and Statement magazines.