Away with the fairies

Turkey’s Cap­pado­cia is full of mag­i­cal nat­u­ral at­trac­tions, writes Linda Cook­son

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

IT’S six in the morn­ing, and the world has barely awo­ken. We are in a hot-air bal­loon, drift­ing over a field full of apri­cot trees. Ev­ery now and then the bas­ket skims so low along­side the tree­tops that we can lean across and pick the vel­vety ripe fruit from the branches. Mo­ments later, gen­tly, im­per­cep­ti­bly, the bal­loon is 800m above the earth, float­ing over a silent canyon where rose-pink or honey-coloured rock for­ma­tions are ris­ing to meet us like the tur­rets of gi­ant sand­cas­tles.

This is Cap­pado­cia, a realm that’s at once as alien and as eerily beau­ti­ful as a moon­scape. To view it from the air, to see what the ea­gles see as they cir­cle and swoop be­low you, is mag­i­cal.

Cap­pado­cia is a re­gion, not a coun­try. It is lo­cated deep within cen­tral Turkey, a land­locked tri­an­gle en­closed by Kay­seri to the east, Ak­saray to the west and Nigde to the south. It has been des­ig­nated as a na­tional park but that isn’t how it feels.

With its pale-golden land­scape of sculpted caves and cones and its strange, ex­otic name (Cap­pado­cia is said to be a cor­rup­tion of the an­cient Per­sian for ‘‘ the land of beau­ti­ful horses’’), it feels like a lost king­dom out of fan­tasy fiction. Time­less, tran­quil and sur­real, it’s like noth­ing else on earth, which is why it fea­tured in the StarWars films as Ta­tooine, the de­serted planet home of the Sky­walker fam­ily.

Cap­pado­cia’s other-world­li­ness has its ori­gin in a ge­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. A se­ries of three vol­canic erup­tions (the first more than 10 mil­lion years ago) left the re­gion thickly lay­ered with a soft, por­ous stone known as tufa, formed from hot, vol­canic ash. Since then, wind and rain have eroded the rock to cre­ate spec­tac­u­lar lu­nar scenery, en­com­pass­ing, across a cen­tral area of about 300sq km, hun­dreds of weirdly shaped pil­lars and pin­na­cles.

In this crazy, im­prob­a­ble, sher­bet-coloured won­der­land, the land­scape wraps it­self like a mis­shapen stone for­est around the clus­ter of small towns and vil­lages that lie at its heart. They in­clude the small town of Ur­gup (where we’re stay­ing) and the nearby vil­lage of Goreme, which is home to Ka­padokya Bal­loons, the com­pany that has or­gan­ised to­day’s ad­ven­ture.

The launch­ing place se­lected for our flight is a short truck drive away from the vil­lage, along a wind­ing road edged with tof­fee-coloured sharks’ fins of rock.

Al­though barely an hour ago, it now feels as if years have passed since our four-wheel-drive bounced across a field pit­ted with craters, tow­ing our bal­loon on a trailer be­hind us.

Ten min­utes later we’re in a clear­ing, watch­ing the ground crew un­pack the bal­loon, in­flate it and di­rect jets of flame to heat the air inside, all in the pink light of dawn. Then comes an undig­ni­fied scram­ble into the high-sided pas­sen­ger bas­ket and, fi­nally, the thrilling mo­ment when the bal­loon first lifts up­wards and we are air­borne. Into the sky we float, like a bub­ble ris­ing through wa­ter. Fly­ing in a bal­loon is one of the dreami­est sen­sa­tions ever, to­tally dif­fer­ent from any other form of flight. There’s al­most no feel­ing of mo­tion. And, apart from oc­ca­sional roars from the burner when the hot air needs top­ping up, the only sounds are of bird­song.

Cap­pado­cia’s orange hoopoe birds have been ac­tive since dawn. They’re cartwheel­ing be­low us, call­ing like mini alarm clocks as the world be­gins to stir. As they fly, their wings spread to re­veal vivid bars of black and white. Mean­while, the bal­loon glides over gorges and ravines and we dip down into a suc­ces­sion of rocky val­leys bristling with wig­wam-like for­ma­tions and mono­liths.

Many of the val­leys have names, help­fully trans­lated from the Turk­ish. Red Val­ley is so called be­cause it’s un­usu­ally rich in iron. Nearby is Imag­i­na­tion Val­ley, though Hal­lu­ci­na­tion Val­ley might be nearer the mark. So many of the rocks ap­pear to be shaped like an­i­mals — there are camels, seals, snakes, dol­phins, even an ele­phant — that the bal­loon seems tem­po­rar­ily to have drifted into Dis­ney’s Fan­ta­sia .

Most fa­mous of all the val­leys is Perib­a­calari Va­disi, the Val­ley of the Fairy Chim­neys, with its tall, sandy­coloured pil­lars capped by large tawny-pink boul­ders.

Long ago the pil­lars were reg­u­lar in shape, uni­form in colour. But con­trast­ing lay­ers of rock have been eroded at dif­fer­ent rates and to­day they’re like some­thing from a fair­ground hall of mir­rors: quirk­ily dis­torted and an amus­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenge for on­look­ers. To some peo­ple they’re gi­ant phal­luses. For oth­ers they’re magic mush­rooms or even ex­plod­ing cigars. But the Cap­pado­cians keep it safely whim­si­cal. They’re known as fairy chim­neys be­cause only fairies (though pre­sum­ably rather sturdy ones) could pos­si­bly have lifted such heavy boul­ders and po­si­tioned them atop such nar­row col­umns.

Ev­ery now and then the bas­ket of the bal­loon ro­tates gen­tly as our pilot Kaili Kid­ner uses guide ropes to open and close the flaps in the bag. English-born Kaili and her Swedish hus­band Lars-Eric More founded Ka­padokya Bal­loons in 1991 and she and Lars have flown more than 50,000 pas­sen­gers with­out mishap.

Lars is pi­lot­ing an­other flight and his bal­loon, cream-coloured and shot with blue pan­els, hangs in the air like a piece of the sky. It’s only when I catch sud­den glimpses of our bal­loon’s shadow on a rock face, or on a corn­field far be­low, that I re­mem­ber how far we are from the ground.

Fairy labour­ers apart, Cap­pado­cia’s mar­vels have not been moulded by na­ture alone. This is high­lighted for us in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion as we start to pass over the cen­tral, pop­u­lated area on our flight path. The tufa rock that char­ac­terises the re­gion is dis­tinc­tive, not only for its form and colour, but for its soft­ness when moist.

Early set­tlers were quick to dis­cover how easy it was to carve stor­age cham­bers into the hon­ey­comb cliffs and to cre­ate fan­tas­ti­cal dwellings, as weird and won­der­ful as any of the stark stone totems that stud the land­scape. To­gether with Uchisar, the vil­lages of Ur­gup and Goreme form an in­ner tri­an­gle of so-called cave vil­lages, small, oddly time­less com­mu­ni­ties where gen­er­a­tions of res­i­dents have led a troglodyte ex­is­tence.

Even to­day, many peo­ple are happy to live in the war­rens of homes chis­elled into rock faces that still sur­vive in the older quar­ters of the vil­lages, al­beit now with satel­lite television and the in­ter­net. In fact, a lu­cra­tive re­de­vel­op­ment pro­gram is un­der way, cre­at­ing lux­ury cave houses as sec­ond homes for wealthy city folk, as well as cave ho­tels for vis­i­tors.

As the bal­loon hov­ers some dis­tance from Ur­gup, we can make out the snug lit­tle cave house where we’re stay­ing. Con­verted from a nat­u­ral cave in 1996, it’s called Ma­gari Evi, Turk­ish for Mary’s House. It’s owned by Mary Hall, a Bri­tish wo­man teach­ing English in Turkey, and has been fur­nished with kil­ims and an­tiques ga­lore. It’s like liv­ing in a trea­sure chest.

Of the trio of cave vil­lages, 8km apart from each other, the most pic­turesque is Uchisar. The place is un­miss­able, not least be­cause it’s topped by a cas­tle built into a high cliff. It is a bul­bous, rocky palace of win­dows, tun­nels and pas­sage­ways. There are panoramic views across to dis­tant snow-capped Mt Er­ciyes .

Goreme, where to­day’s flight started, is the most awe­some vil­lage. Its open-air mu­seum, a 15-minute walk from the vil­lage cen­tre, is at the top of ev­ery vis­i­tor’s must-see list. It’s a com­plex of prim­i­tive churches built into cas­cad­ing walls of rock. The stone falls away into folds like the carved drapes of a statue and small door­ways and stair­ways lead into tiny chapels that blaze with jewel-coloured fres­coes dat­ing from about the 12th cen­tury.

But Ur­gup, where we’re stay­ing, is my favourite vil­lage. Larger and scruffier than the other two, it feels more like a work­ing town, less of a tourist cu­rios­ity. As well as our lovely cave house, there are a num­ber of gor­geous bou­tique ho­tels in the posh Es­belli neigh­bour­hood. But there’s also a bus sta­tion, a li­brary and as­sorted shops sell­ing brooms, buck­ets, toys and real clothes, not just craft shops and aw­ful stalls flog­ging Evil Eyes and tufa ash­trays.

Ur­gup also has a cou­ple of good restau­rants, which is a re­lief when you can’t face an­other Turk­ish meat­ball. The Somine (above a shop­ping ar­cade but don’t let that put you off) is the smartest place in town, serv­ing spe­cial­i­ties such as gu­vek, a stew of beef, toma­toes, gar­lic, cumin and paprika, baked in a clay pot that’s cer­e­mo­ni­ally bro­ken when it’s brought to your ta­ble. Han Ci­ra­gan Restau­rant, in a vine-cov­ered court­yard, serves fresh fish from the Kizilir­mak (the Red River) in nearby Avanos and an ex­quis­ite mint and lentil soup.

The small town of Avanos, 13km from Ur­gup, is home to a thriv­ing pot­tery in­dus­try, us­ing the dis­tinc­tive red clay from its river bed. Do-it-your­self pot-throw­ing es­tab­lish­ments line the streets and the town cen­tre is dom­i­nated by a huge mon­u­ment de­pict­ing a pot­ter at work. Oth­er­wise, Cap­pado­cia’s key in­dus­tries re­volve around car­pet-weav­ing, carv­ing an­i­mal or­na­ments from onyx and, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, wine­mak­ing.

Away from the bar­ren moon­scapes, there is a strongly agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity. The com­bi­na­tion of vol­canic soil and long hours of sun­shine is per­fect for grow­ing grapes and the re­gion has many fine winer­ies. The hun­dreds of dove­cotes, hol­lowed out of dis­tinc­tive rock cones that curl up­wards from the plains like huge horns, are there to at­tract nest­ing pi­geons, not for their eggs but for their drop­pings (a rich source of fer­tiliser).

As if as a re­minder of this, our bal­loon starts to float south­west­wards over a plain, cross­ing row upon row of vines, mul­berry trees and wal­nut trees, along­side broad patch­work ex­panses of green wheat fields and yel­low vetch.

Weav­ing through a line of po­plar trees, we drop low over the crops to see hares hid­ing from crows and a fox re­turn­ing home to his fam­ily af­ter a night’s hunt­ing.

Squat ce­ment farm­houses, their yards a mud­dle of dusty tyres, ce­ment sacks and rusty olive-oil cans come into view. We’re so close to the land that the smell of ma­nure wafts into the bas­ket and a lo­cal farmer, up early to hoe the soil in readi­ness for the rain that is fore­cast, waves up at us.

Within mo­ments, he’s joined by a crowd of chil­dren and, soon, a ca­coph­ony of farm noises en­velops us. Cock­erels are crow­ing, chained-up dogs are yap­ping and snarling, goats are bleat­ing.

Most bizarrely of all, a frog cho­rus is croak­ing at full vol­ume. Scour­ing the coun­try­side for signs of any­thing ap­proach­ing marsh­land, we see that an en­ter­pris­ing colony of frogs has taken up res­i­dence next to a net­work of wa­ter chan­nels cut into the stone.

The chan­nels them­selves lead to in­con­spic­u­ous square holes, which in turn lead to vast un­der­ground reser­voirs, Kaili ex­plains. In the same way, the heavy stone blocks that are just about dis­cernible at a num­ber of cave en­trances con­ceal huge un­der­ground store­rooms stuffed with grapes, lemons, pota­toes and flat breads. In the cool of a nat­u­ral cave en­vi­ron­ment, sup­plies keep fresh and dry for more than six months.

Hid­den reser­voirs and store caves are not the only un­der­ground se­crets in the re­gion, as arche­ol­o­gists have been dis­cov­er­ing. There’s al­most as much of in­ter­est be­low the ground in Cap­pado­cia as above it. More than 30 sub­ter­ranean cities have so far been un­cov­ered, huge labyrinths (some de­scend­ing through eight or nine storeys) where whole com­mu­ni­ties took refuge from in­vaders. They were hid­den by mas­sive mill­stone doors that could be opened only from the inside.

Later, ac­com­pa­nied by a guide, we visit the largest of th­ese, Kay­makli. Kay­makli, was first dug out by the Hit­tites in 1200BC and it’s thought that up to 5000 peo­ple may have lived there at one time. The cave was opened to the pub­lic in 1964.

A mas­sive ventilation shaft plunges 40m through level af­ter level: imag­ine an up­side­down mul­ti­storey car park, if that’s not too mun­dane a com­par­i­son. Four lev­els have been ex­ca­vated and can be ac­cessed by vis­i­tors through an elab­o­rate maze of in­ter­con­nected tun­nels.

Now, of course, they’re lit by elec­tric light but the walls are still thickly black­ened by the residue from the lin­seed can­dles used orig­i­nally. The smoky stone, the low light­ing and the si­lence all give a slightly spooky at­mos­phere, like visit­ing a ghost vil­lage af­ter a fire.

But the big sur­prise is how so­phis­ti­cated an un­der­world this is, equipped with liv­ing rooms, din­ing ar­eas, sta­bles, a wine cel­lar and a small chapel. The only clue that this was a refuge from dan­ger rather than a de­lib­er­ate lifestyle choice comes from the pres­ence of a com­mu­nal kitchen. Food had to be cooked cen­trally to cre­ate as lit­tle smoke as pos­si­ble and avoid too many tell-tale trails es­cap­ing into the world above.

This visit to Cap­pado­cia has taken us un­der the earth and over it. Sadly, the bal­loon ride is com­ing to an end. Kaili and Lars are in ra­dio con­tact, dis­cussing where they will land, and the truck that has been shad­ow­ing us dis­creetly since take-off is ex­e­cut­ing a deft three-point turn in a corn­field and head­ing in our di­rec­tion. It still looks like a toy from above but we are def­i­nitely de­scend­ing. Our land­ing, in a field of corn­flow­ers, is gen­tle, the bas­ket set­tling on the ground like a feather.

No­body speaks. In a mo­ment, the ground team will reach us and we’ll alight from the bas­ket to share in the tra­di­tional toast of cham­pagne and cherry juice that fol­lows each flight. But for now it’s good to savour the si­lence. In a cor­ner of the field, in this land of beau­ti­ful horses, a chest­nut pony is drink­ing from a wa­ter butt. He doesn’t look up. The In­de­pen­dent Check­list Ku­muka World­wide has a 12-day Caves, Dervishes and Gulets tour of Turkey that in­cludes Cap­pado­cia and a three-night cruise on a tra­di­tional gulet. From $2120 an adult, $1495 a child, flights ex­tra. More: 1300 667 277; www.ku­muka.com. A one-hour hot-air bal­loon ride with Ka­padokya Bal­loons costs about $345 a per­son; www.ka­padokya­bal­loons.com.

Pic­ture: Ka­padokya Bal­loons

Pil­lars and pin­na­cles: A hot-air bal­loon ride gives a mag­i­cal view of Turkey’s Cap­pado­cia, a crazy, im­prob­a­ble, sher­bert-coloured won­der­land with a his­tory stretch­ing back more than 10 mil­lion years to a se­ries of three vol­canic erup­tions

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