Oth­er­worldly land­scape awaits in Tur­key

Bal­loon rides of­fer unique van­tage point

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - DESTINATIONS - By Court­ney Bon­nell

GOREME, Tur­key — A few whoosh­ing breaths of fire and up we went, a yel­low orb ris­ing in a sea of hot-air bal­loons like the sun bright­en­ing the morn­ing sky. Oth­ers fol­lowed close be­hind, climb­ing over craggy canyons, pink moun­tains and mush­roomshaped rock for­ma­tions called fairy chim­neys. Sud­denly, our bas­ket, packed with tourists an­gling for a per­fect pic­ture, bounced as it got bumped by an ascending bal­loon. “Don’t worry! It’s OK, some­times,” our young pi­lot hollered out, smil­ing be­hind his Ray-Bans and turn­ing up the flame on the bal­loon’s burner to climb faster. We chuck­led ner­vously, but it got our blood pump­ing in the thin­ning at­mos­phere. So did what we saw next. We slowly spanned up a hill­side and hun­dreds of bal­loons ex­ploded into view, a colour­ful mélange hov­er­ing above the val­leys cut like light­ning into the Turk­ish re­gion of Cap­pado­cia. But be­fore the breath­tak­ing views comes the prepa­ra­tion. On­line travel searches are good ways to scope out top-rated bal­loon com­pa­nies in a re­gion renowned for the rides. You will pay more for rep­utable oper­a­tors and to share the ex­pe­ri­ence with fewer peo­ple — some­thing you will value as you try to shoot photos that don’t in­clude an er­rant hand or head. Al­most all of­fer a con­ti­nen­tal break­fast be­fore the ride, trans­porta­tion to the launch site and a “Cham­pagne toast” — usu­ally sparkling cider — and cer­tifi­cate af­ter land­ing. The re­gion is a UNESCO World Her­itage Site that’s econ­omy sur­vives on tourists flock­ing to see the fairy chim­neys, cave dwellings, vast un­der­ground cities and an­cient Chris­tian churches carved into the moun­tain­sides. Be­cause of its pop­u­lar­ity, hun­dreds of ho­tels are poised to han­dle bal­loon book­ings. The cave ho­tels, hun­dreds of which are packed onto a hill­side in the small tourist town of Goreme, are a must-do. Pick one with win­dows to avoid feel­ing claus­tro­pho­bic — my large, mod­ern­but-rus­tic room with a ter­race went for US$100. I booked my bal­loon ride through the ho­tel, which al­lowed me to put the ride on my credit card and pay at check­out in­stead of need­ing cash. My ho­tel con­tracted with three bal­loon com­pa­nies of dif­fer­ent price lev­els. (I went with the midrange af­ter look­ing up the oper­a­tors on TripAd­vi­sor.) The for­ma­tions and hill­sides served as year­round homes, and the caves also pro­vided safety for per­se­cuted Chris­tians of the 10th to 13th cen­turies. Visi­tors can climb through some of the houses of wor­ship, dec­o­rated with elab­o­rate mu­rals, at the famed Goreme Open Air Mu­seum. The mu­seum is walk­a­ble from Goreme’s town cen­tre. The Chris­tians also built ex­ten­sive un­der­ground cities where they hid from at­tack­ers, some­times for months at a time. Two are open to visi­tors. At Kay­makli Un­der­ground City, you duck through nar­row en­try­ways into fam­ily rooms, liv­ing quar­ters, kitchens and even cham­bers where they buried their dead. They also brought down their live­stock and made wine in buck­ets carved into the soft stone walls. Above ground, you can hike through val­leys with names like Love, Red and Rose; climb up cave cas­tles, which are nat­u­ral fortresses pit­ted with tun­nels; and scram­ble through fairy chim­neys at Pasabag. The fairy chim­neys have been cre­ated over eons by ero­sion. The soft, white rock at the bot­tom of the for­ma­tion erodes more quickly than the stur­dier rock at the top, leav­ing the mush­room shape. Soar­ing over this oth­er­worldly land­scape is the ride of a life­time. Get­ting up at 4 a.m., wrap­ping up against the chill and cram­ming into a bucket next to other tourists is not for the un­ad­ven­tur­ous or those on a tight bud­get. But as you dip low into the val­leys and fly high above the moun­tains, even those afraid of heights will want to look down.

COURT­NEY BON­NELL / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An early Chris­tian church is carved into the hill­side at Goreme Open Air Mu­seum.

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