DREAM TRIPS 2009
Float Over Cappadocia
Check in to a cave hotel; then take off in a balloon. In this surreal stretch of central Turkey, volcanic rock formations and underground cities await.
Your first question: Have I landed on another planet or woken up in a Salvador Dalí painting? Spread across 1,500 square miles in the middle of Turkey, Cappadocia (which locals pronounce "cap-pa-doe-ki-a") might be Mars: Picture naturally formed drip castles the size of apartment buildings, meringue-like hills, and fields of capped stone cones aptly called fairy chimneys. Standing amid it all, you can't help but wonder how such a landscape came to be.
It's thanks to a perfect storm of sorts: The soft, porous rock that covers the region is the deposit of volcanoes that erupted as many as 70 million years ago. Over the aeons, wind and rain carved it into curious shapes. And so, too, have the many people who have taken shelter here in man-made cave dwellings. In the eight centuries after the birth of Christ, hordes of Christians literally holed up in Cappadocia to escape Roman persecution. They created some 150 subterranean settlements, complete with churches, monasteries, and trapdoors to block invaders.
Skip to the present and you'll come across people who continue to live as their ancestors did. But all is far from archaic: Canny locals and foreigners have been turning abandoned cave dwellings into smartly designed hotels, with bold contemporary touches like Dutch chandeliers and swooping lounge chairs. Still, Cappadocia has yet to be overrun by tourists. Until recently, the area's biggest fans were archaeologists, geologists, and backpackers. And it took a soap opera that was shot in a tiny Cappadocian village in 2002 and 2003 for Turks themselves to start making the pilgrimage.
Ready to join them in the heart of fairy-chimney country? Take in this mysterious place by car, by hot-air balloon, and on foot, following our three-day plan.
Day 1: The big-picture tour
Fly into Cappadocia, via Istanbul, in the morning and arrange a straight-from-the-airport outing with Argeus Tourism & Travel. Thirty minutes in, you can see your first cave construction, Snake Church. The crumbling chapel is decorated with Greek and Armenian graffiti—and a 10th- or 11th-century ceiling painting of Saint George slaying a serpentine dragon. (According to legend, the actual slaying took place in Cappadocia atop Mount Erciyes, the highest peak in central Anatolia.)
Nearby, in the rock-hewn village of Soganli, time seems to bend more than a little. Locals moved into dwellings with electricity and plumbing only within the past decade, and some remain in hillside caves. At the small market, you'll notice piles of colorful rag dolls—believed to have been first created to memorialize a lost child, they've since put Soganli on the crafts map. Townswomen here still bake their family's pide (flatbread) in community ovens; each household has an assigned day. If your guide spots one of the telltale smoke plumes, he'll take you to the source so you can taste the delicious sourdough-like results.
But don't fill up: A midday feast awaits at the family-run restaurant Aravan Evi. Sit under a grapevine-covered pergola and admire the whitewashed hamlet of Ayvali. The cooking here is wonderfully homey Turkish fare made by the wife of the owner: bulgur wedding soup, white beans in tomato sauce, and lamb stews cooked in a tandir, a traditional earthen oven.
After four courses, you might be inclined to nap; instead, let a cup of rich, sweet Turkish coffee revive you. You're on your way to the underground city of Kaymakli, which once sheltered 3,000 beleaguered Christians. Prepare to duck and crouch: A low passage leads from aboveground stables to eight subterranean levels, four of which are open to the public. Inside, a maze of tunnels connects dark caverns that hold identifying clues: Churches have carved-out altars, kitchens come with fire-pit remnants, and rooms with basins cut into the ground were wineries (judging by the sheer number of these, wine was both a sacrament and a saving grace).
You can stay in caves in far better condition at today's final stop: either the intimate and upscale town of Ürgüp or, 20 minutes away, the bustling, backpacker destination of Göreme. Both are well-located places to book a room. Ürgüp is home to Serinn House, the area's first high-style hotel; designed by Istanbul architect Rifat Ergör, its interior is largely sculpted out of a sandy cliff. (Among Serinn's other pluses: the daily breakfast spread of cherries, apricots, yogurt, cheeses, and tomatoes.) In Göreme, Kelebek Pension has 16 grottoes kitted out with antique rosewood chests and locally woven kilim rugs, as well as views of the town and surrounding mountains from its two-tiered terrace. Budget aside, the question is how you like your Flintstones-style dwelling: timelessly cozy or gorgeously up-to-date?