I could get used to life as a cavewoman.
Banish from your mind images of slimy walls and bat- infested gloom. The boutique hotels of Cappadocia in central Turkey are for the discerning would-be troglodyte. My cave at Alkabris hotel in the village of Ortahisar had heating, a chic bathroom, careful lighting and tasteful decor including mosaics crafted by our artist hostess.
Cappadocia is a moonscape of wacky rock formations created by eroded volcanic tuff, interspersed with bucolic valleys cradling vineyards and orchards. Rock-hewn fortresses tower over quaint cave villages. Below the surface are ancient underground cities and sculpted cave chapels adorned with Byzantine frescoes, some of which are 1,500 years old.
The bizarrely shaped monoliths, obelisks, columns and needles studding the landscape are known as “fairy chimneys.” They are best viewed from above by hot-air balloon, or explored from the valleys below on foot or horseback.
We were picked up at 5:25 a.m. for our balloon ride. Bleary eyed and coffee-deprived, we sat in the dark outside a cafe in Goreme, the main tourism center of Cappadocia, waiting for the pilots to decide whether the weather was good enough to fly.
The pungent aromas from dozens of pots of instant noodles being devoured by the 100 or so Asian tourists waiting with us was overpowering at that time of day. My traveling companion, a vertigo sufferer, was nervous, and passed the wait by making friends with a white street dog that was missing one eye.
“How many people are they going to put in each balloon?” she asked, wide-eyed, looking at the crowded tables of the cafe.
There were eight of us in our bijou balloon basket. Most others carried 20. The nerves and wait were forgotten as soon as we left the ground, floating over surreal rock characters (is that group of cubist figures a huddle of gossipy old ladies?) We watched as dozens of balloons behind us puffed up with air and lifted off gracefully.
The cloudy weather added to the ethereality of it all. At times we were low enough to scrape the tops of the trees; at times so high, the balloons below us shrank to freckles on the face of the earth. It was an exhilarating trip. Something about the way our youthful pilot Cem punched air into his balloon to a catchy rhythm suggested that he reckons he has the best job in the world.
Many visitors to Cappadocia stay just three days and sightsee on organized tours. There is really no excuse for that. Everything is easily accessible independently and three days is not nearly long enough.
We hired a car to explore the Ihlara valley, where priests and hermits dwelt at the dawn of Christianity, as long ago as the fourth century.
Twelve churches are entombed in the canyon’s caves -- including one in a rock sculpted like a Walt Disney fairy-tale castle, though entirely natural. At Belisirma, we ate a fish lunch on a floating wooden platform on the river.
Many of the chapel paintings are in a terrible state of repair, damaged by centuries of vandalism and neglect. Some are covered with the soot of cave fires; many biblical figures have their faces scratched out; others are damaged with graffiti.
It was good to see that the beautiful, 1,000-year-old indigo frescoes at Tokali Church, one of the most important in the Goreme Open Air Museum, are being restored by an Italian- Turkish team.
The Red Valley, close to Ortahisar, yielded the most civilized hiking I have ever experienced, along a path that meanders through airy cave tunnels and orchards. The route is punctuated by little open-air cafes every kilometer or so.
At one, the owner gave us the key to explore his secret Byzantine chapel with spectacular orange frescoes. At the next, we bought walnuts and dried apricots from a gray-bearded old man. Further along, we sank onto cozy cushions for a rest with a young modern-day hermit who insisted on giving us free tea because we were staying in his village.
What draws me to Turkey time and again (this was, I calculated, at least my sixth trip) is not just the cultural heritage of centuries, the climate or the fabulous cuisine. It’s the warmth and hospitality of the people; the ease with which a smile and hello can slip into a chat over tea in a glass.
The smallest interaction is richly rewarded. I helped a young peasant woman by passing her bags of heavy shopping as she got off the dolmus minibus from Urgup market. Her face erupted into wreaths of smiles and thanks, and I was sure a tea invitation was on the tip of her tongue as the door slid shut.
Cappadocia feels like a region on the move. The roads are newly surfaced, the vibe is positive and the amount of building work going on is astonishing. Boutique hotels are springing up by the dozen, it seems.
Still, it would be hard to find one better than Alkabris, with just five snug cave bedrooms. Our hosts Sait and Kamer Kazuk baked fresh bread and cakes for breakfast, served homemade jams and borek (flaky Turkish pastries) and organized everything from car hire to balloon rides for us.
They also cooked in the evenings for an extra charge of 25 euros ($32) per person if we requested it -- a treat well worth staying in for.
I could definitely get used to life as a cavewoman.
(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)
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