Fantasia has been real all along, and we’ve just found it in the ancient, dusty scapes and air balloon sky-confetti of Turkey.
When a friend tells you they’ve slept in a fairy chimney, travelled in a balloon as big as a whale, explored a subterranean city and wandered through a valley filled with giant mushrooms, you respond in one of two ways. “Those lucid dream classes are really paying off” or, “You lucky devil, you’ve been to Cappadocia!” If it’s the latter, your mate was indeed fortuitous to have ventured to this stone mirage in the heart of Turkey’s Anatolia region. Almost too trippy to believe, this is a land where ancient rock formations reach up out of the earth like greedy hands. Where you can use the word troglodyte for real. Where you can feel free to get high first thing in the morning (in a hot air balloon, silly). And where you can suck shisha pipes, chug apple tea, gobble gözleme and bargain for psychedelic textiles until your eyes roll back in your head and you forget there was ever a time when you didn’t know what a kilim was.
Remember those sandcastles you made as a kid, where you dribbled a fistful of wet sand into a goopy, pointy pile? Well they – or something resembling a monstrous version of them – are the first things you’ll see as you drive into Cappadocia. These infamous fairy chimneys were created when three nearby volcanoes started erupting like Snoop Dogg on stage, dropping volcanic ash, lava and basalt all over the region like it was very, very hot. Earthquakes and erosion then whipped all that up into today’s rock cones, pillars, mushrooms and chimneys, some of which have had boutique hotels and houses carved into them. The dusty gullies surrounding the formations are lots of fun to walk through, so you’d better pack your Timberlands. If you’re exploring the pink folded cliffs of Rose Valley, where
"... WILD CAMELS COULDN'T DRAG YOU AWAY TILL YOU'VE TAKEN A SUNRISE HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE OVER THE LUNAR-LIKE LANDSCAPE."
monks and hermits lived in the fifth century, you might want to pack a helmet too – keeping your eye on the track as dozens of hot air balloons drift over your head will be near impossible. The helmet will also prove useful in Pigeon Valley, named after the hundreds of square pigeon houses carved into the rock. We may think of pigeons as flying rats, but in Turkey they’re God-like, being believed to have helped Muhammad (Islam’s greatest prophet) distract his enemies. You’ll feel like an extra in Hitchcock’s The Birds as they swoop overhead, but just focus on the valley dotted with apple, fig, pomegranate trees and small vineyards, and the famous tree hung with dozens of blue glass evil eye protectors, and you’ll be A-okay. If you feel the need to re-create The Fast and the Furious: Turkish Drift, hire a quad bike in Göreme and hoon through the valleys at sunset. Or, if you’re just a big nerd and want to get your history fix, visit the Göreme Open-Air Museum, a tenthcentury monastic settlement of tiny rock-cut chapels decorated with freaky frescoes.
KILIM ME SOFTLY
You may not have known what this word meant yesterday, but give yourself five minutes in Cappadocia and it’ll be rolling off your tongue. Emporiums stuffed with these intricately woven carpets, rugs and cushions, which have been produced since ancient times, line the streets of Cappadocia. Whether or not you’re three Efes Turkish beers to the wind (no judgement here), they’ll be impossible to resist. Galerie Ikman is the pick of the bunch, a treasure trove filled with thousands of kilim rugs, pillowcases, vests, floor cushions, saddle bags and more, which is worth a visit for the Insta opportunities alone. Shopping in Cappadocia is a welcome respite from the hard sell of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul where you’ll likely have arrived from, so you can forget about telling the shopkeepers to defol (go away in Turkish) and focus on poring over the towering stacks of kilim. Trying not to let them topple onto your head while juggling your cup of apple tea, the ultimate Turkish sales lubricant, will earn you extra street cred, as will driving a hard bargain once you’ve made your decision. Take the original price, halve it, go from there, and don’t crack the complementary Efes until the final price has been settled.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Once you’ve realised your mum’s granny flat will never fit all the kilims you just bought, you’ll be ready to head underground. And not just to avoid having to down another cup of apple tea, either. For underneath those hunky rock formations lie 36 abandoned underground cities. Kaymakli is one of the most impressive, a city that was carved eight storeys below ground in the fourth century and was used by the Hittites, Persians and Byzantine Greeks when they needed to take cover during religious wars. Burrowing dozens of metres underground through tunnels that are the correct height only for a house elf isn’t the most comfortable experience – even for those who aren’t mildly claustrophobic. Especially when your guide tells you that a tourist was recently stuck down there, lost for three days in the maze of tiny tunnels. But stick it out and you’ll see subterranean chapels, food and animal storehouses, rock-carved wine cellars that prove Cappadocia has one of the world’s oldest wine industries, and the place where dead bodies used to be stored in enormous jars when there weren’t other disposal options. Fifteen minutes down there is kinda full on, so spare a thought for the 5,000 poor sods who used to get crammed in there together for months on end.
If you’ve travelled all the way to Cappadocia, wild camels couldn’t drag you away till you’ve taken a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the lunar-like landscape. The bucket-list experience will likely set you back around 200 big ones, but it’ll be worth it. In the inky pre-dawn darkness your balloon will drift up above the world with over 100 others, creating the ultimate sky party. You’ll watch the sun pop up over the jagged horizon, setting the surrounding balloons and rock formations ablaze, and when you finally come back down to earth a glass of champagne, a cheesy medal and an even cheesier t-shirt will await you. Take them all. Because when you get back home bursting with tales of fairy chimneys, balloon rides and enchanted underground cities, it’ll be your turn to prove it wasn’t all just a lucid dream.
EAT & DRINK
Dibek ( dibektraditionalcook.com), housed in an historic home in Göreme’s main village, is where to head for crosslegged floor cushion action and traditional home-style gözleme, okra soup and pottery kebabs. For an alfresco arvo drink, Anatolian Kitchen’s the spot. Bags one of the cane sofas in the garden, order a glass of narince (Turkish chardy) or raki (Turkish ouzo), or if you really want to live on the edge, a Turkish turnip juice.
If you come to Cappadocia and don’t stay in a cave hotel you may as well have stayed home. Cappadocia Cave Suites ( cappadociacavesuites.com) in Göreme is a good mid-budget option, tricked out with local textiles and treasures, with a breakfast patio that’s primo for balloon watching. If you’re after a pool, check out Local Cave House ( localcavehouse.com).