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.
Day 2: Take off
Today's hot-air balloon ride requires a dawn launch, but it's worth it: Cappadocia's spectacular topography puts it at the top of every balloonist's list. There are scores of outfitters; among the most respected is Kapadokya Balloons, run by British expat Kaili Kidner and her Swedish husband, Lars-Eric Möre. As you float 1,500 feet above the earth, villages look like giant anthills, green gardens hidden in narrow canyons reveal themselves, and you can see that entire valley walls are pocketed with pigeon roosts. When your balloon dips near the ground, you can even reach out and pick apricots from the trees. On clear days, the view stretches hundreds of miles to Mount Erciyes and beyond.
Back on terra firma about three hours later, return to your hotel in time for breakfast. Consider a nap and then an outing to the Göreme Open-Air Museum. This extraordinary monastic complex dates back to A.D. 900–1200 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You don't need a guide; just wander through its 10 excavated churches and refectories, ending at the Girls' Tower, a six-story convent that once housed up to 300 nuns. As you go, look for examples from two major eras of art history: Geometric patterns brushed directly on the rock (the best of which are in St. Barbara Church) are said to date back to the iconoclastic period, when the depiction of living forms was forbidden; plaster frescoes of the life of Christ (such as the Nativity and Crucifixion scenes in the Dark Church) are representative of Byzantine-era painting. Notice the vandalism: Many years ago, locals wary of the evil eye scratched out the eyes of the saints.
Back in Göreme, have lunch on the terrace of Alaturca, a lively restaurant with a menu that zigzags from mezes to Italian pasta. Next door, at Gallery Anatolia, you can watch women extracting silk from cocoons, dyeing and spinning wool, and weaving kilims.
Devote the evening to poking around the boutiques and jewelry shops of Ürgüp. End the night at Ziggy's, a popular café and gift shop in a stone house with carved decorations. Sofas and tables are set on three open-air terraces, and there's a great meze menu—plus a mille-feuille pastry with a secret, addictive filling for dessert.
Day 3: Walk this way
Approach Cappadocia on foot, and the cliffs and ravines that look impenetrable from a distance turn into fruit-tree fields, rivers, and vineyards. You'll be in expert hands if you sign on for a half-day hike with guide Mehmet Güngör. A Göreme native, Güngör is a one-man operation, Walking Mehmet, with a sales pitch: "I bet walking with me will be the highlight of your trip." He's right, especially if you ask him to lead you from Göreme to the astonishing red-banded pillars and chimneys of Rose Valley. Along the way, you'll pick walnuts from trees, stop to chat with farmers, and hear about Mehmet's childhood escapades. Be sure to ask him to show you the White Church, a cave with high ceilings and soaring columns that look as though they're made of ivory.
Ease back into city life with a visit to the slow-paced village of Mustafapasa. In the 19th century, many Ottoman Greek Orthodox families inhabited the town, and although they were expelled in an agreement between Turkey and Greece in 1924, their legacy remains in the intricately decorated stone mansions lining the streets. Check out the grapevines carved on the colorful façade of the Church of Constantine-Elene, and then sip mint tea at a café on the main square, where village elders play backgammon all day.
You'll witness the region's mixed heritage firsthand at the Old Greek House, a hotel in a mansion full of tiled arches and Turkish carpets that was built by a Greek family more than 250 years ago. The in-house restaurant serves first-rate stuffed vine leaves and meatballs in a large courtyard. But its claim to fame is that it was the main set of Asmali Konak, the soap opera sensation that introduced contemporary Turks to Cappadocia. Early Christians would be incredulous to learn that their dark lairs are now the inspiration for the travel plans of thousands. But then again, they weren't able to get out much to appreciate the views.
GETTING THERE Turkish Airlines flights leave up to six times a day from Istanbul to Cappadocia's Kayseri Airport (thy.com). The trip takes about 80 minutes and costs from $65 round trip.
WHEN TO GO Cappadocia's summers are scorching, and its winters decidedly raw; the best months to visit are April through early June, and September. Days are typically in the 70s, but the temperature drops after dark.