An underground movement

`God designed the basic structure; and man added the finishing touches.' Lesley Gillilan visits the labyrinthine worlds of the cave-dwellers of both Spain and Turkey
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The Independent Culture
It May be one of the oldest towns in Spain, founded by Julius Caesar in 45BC, but Guadix doesn't, at first, seem to offer much in the way of photo- opportunities. The 16th-century church of Santa Ana is worth an idle shot, as is the Moorish Alca-zaba, but the principal asset, the most picturesque corner of this apparently unremarkable Andalu-sian market town is less obvious. Most travellers whiz by on the N342 by-pass and miss it altogether.

Guadix is the troglodyte capital of southern Spain. Hidden in the labyrinthine backstreets of a subterranean suburb are the grotto-like hordes of more than 10,000 modern cave-dwellers. Though barely mentioned in guide books, there are dozens of cave villages in the region - a triangle of high plateaux and Sierra foothills between Granada, Baza and Castril. And the fact that they have survived is tribute a to the user-friendly nature of underground life in a hot, arid climate.

Cave-dwelling persists in pockets of France, southern Italy, Tunisia, China, outback Australia and, more famously, in Cappadocia in Turkey, and all these communities have made use of freaks of nature and geological architecture - known, I am told, as "geotecture" - suited to home-shaped excavation. God, if you like, designed and engineered the basic structure; man came along and added the finishing touches.

In Spain's south-eastern hinterland, nature has provided a variety of curious rock formations, ranging from red sandstone cliffs and canyons (most of the Spaghetti Westerns were filmed in these parts) to cone-shaped eruptions of brown volcanic limestone. For centuries, impecunious Spaniards have used the soft, friable raw material to create homes in situ. They just dug a deep hole in the face of a cliff, cut windows, doors, steps and passages, and moved in. Of those who have never moved out, some still share their homes with donkeys and chickens.

In Guadix, a typical cave consists of a white-washed brick and plaster facade, edged with a fringe of terracotta roof tiles and grafted on to the base of limestone, out of which tufts of dry, yellow grass sprout, alongside rows of painted chimney pots, tangled wires and television aerials. Strings of drying red chillies, vines, bouganvillea, geraniums and strips of green plastic door curtain add dashes of colour to the dry, earthy landscape.

In the town's main street, a series of signs point you in the direction of the Barriado des Cuevas, but this troglodyte settlement offers little in the way of tourist facilities. There is one small museum dedicated to southern Spain's underground heritage and a rudimentary shop selling ice-creams, Sierra-view postcards and moulded plaster models of the local cave houses. But otherwise the attraction is purely voyeuristic - unless you count the novelty of scrambling from chimney to chimney along meandering rooftop paths.

Some of the district's residents protect their privacy with barred gates and grizzly dogs, but the keepers of the shop willingly offered us a guided tour of their home. It must be their way of boosting sales on a slack day because once we had penetrated their domesticated rockface to peer into the twilight of underground bedrooms, admire lace curtains hanging from the arches of rock-cut doors and walls of gaudy religious kitsch, we felt morally obliged to buy an ice-lolly and a roll of film. A neighbouring troglodyte had a more straightforward approach. She simply asked for cash.

She told us that her cave is more than 200 years old and was originally built - or burrowed - to accommodate peasant farming folk and their live- in livestock. She produced a large bucket and brush, both coated with lime-wash, from a cavernous cupboard to explain that the rough organic surfaces of her underground rooms need constant painting - twice a year, at least - to keep damp and fungi at bay. And she lifted the corners of bedspreads to show that cave-dwellers sleep under several woolly blankets all year round. Even in the heat of a dry Iberian summer, caves maintain a comfortable temperature of 20 degrees.

Visitors are now able to find these things out for themselves by doing a stint of underground living, courtesy of the holiday cave. A few groups of derelict caves - of which there are many - have been restored and transformed into modernised self-catering cottages. There are not many of them, but there's enough to warrant an off-beat cave-hopping trip from Granada, along the N342 to Guadix, skirting the border of the Sierra de Baza's wild Parque Natural to cave-riddled Galera, a small town perched on the rim of a plateau where the province of Granada meets Murcia.

The Cuevas Pedro de Alarcon, in Guadix open-ed in 1995 and offers a series of apartments cut into hillocks of rock, high above the town. The interiors are sanitised versions of the real thing with bunker-like rooms carved into perfect arches, and furnished with the sort of textiles and pottery you can buy in local souvenir shops. The views of Guadix, and the distant Sierra Nevada peaks, are spectacular, but the caves have a rather unfortunate position right next to a busy dual-carriageway. Thanks, however, to the insulative properties of rock walls, the bedrooms are as silent as tombs.

In nearby Belerda de Guadix - a tiny one-bar village where there are more sheep than people and the church and many of the homes are cut into the craggy walls of dramatic red mudstone canyon - we stayed in a beautifully restored two-storey cave-cottage owned by a local farming family and opened for the first time last year. The Cueva Tajo del Pollo (Chicken Cliff Cave) looks deceptively small from the outside but sleeps up to 10 people in a warren of white-washed underground bedrooms, including an upper chamber, reached by a steep tunnel cut from solid rock. The only sound to wake us here was the tinkle of bells as a shepherd drove his flock past our window at dawn.

Geologically, Belerda's environs could be the Grand Canyon's little sister, but atmospherically the village feels like a desert settlement in North Africa. And it's worth staying in this hard-to-find village, just to see a setting sun turn the natural ochre colour scheme an Arizonian red.

The terrain around Galera is the colour of concrete and the village itself is sprinkled among the cliff folds and chasms of a steep escarpment which rises sharply from the endless green plain of the Huescar valley. Galera's grey rock faces are riddled with man-made caves many of them empty and derelict or used as garages, donkey shelters and depositories for rubbish. But last year, a local Galerian family (they also run the local tourist office and the village Bodega) opened the Casas-Cuevas - a row of 20 rustic holiday caves at the highest point of the town.

Aside from superb views towards the Sierra de Maria, each cave is a series of visceral passages and cavities, beautifully furnished with Moorish pottery and Andalusian textiles. One has turned an animal trough into a novel rock bath. Most, though not all, of the bedrooms have tiny shuttered windows. The locals, say the owners, thought they were crazy. Now other cave cottages are being bought and restored and Galera's hitherto undiscovered troglodyte heritage is putting the town on the tourist map. So far, most of its temporary cave-dwellers are Spanish.

The mad volcanic rock-scapes of Turkey's Cappadocia, meanwhile, attracts armies of tourists from all over the world. A geological wonderland, the high Anatolian Plateau between Kayseri and Nigde has been eroded over time into ripples and pleats of pinkish rock - like melted strawberry ice-cream - and tapering columns of "tuffs". Some are conical, with a hard basalt cap perched, seemingly precariously, at their peaks. Others are shaped like thick-stemmed spears of asparagus.

Peribaca, the local word for these unique high-rise sculptures, translates as "fairy chimneys" - a whimsical description, for something so obviously phallic. There are hundreds of them, erupting like giant stalagmites from fertile valleys, and surrounded by fields of grain, vineyards and orchards of apples, pears, pistachios and apricots. In some areas, they are also encircled by mini Turkish bazaars and have become the hunting grounds of rug dealers, hotel touts and camel drivers who offer 100-yard lifts for 10 dollars. In high season, the most scenic valleys are lined with tour buses, and long queues form outside the entrance to fairy-chimney churches and abandoned rock habitats.

Although authentic troglodyte culture is fast dying out, Cappadocia has a long history of cave-dwelling. The soft white volcanic limestone, is the perfect building material because it is easy to work with but hardens like concrete when exposed to air. For thousands of years, the locals have made multi-storey homes out of natural rock formations. Somewhere around 600-800BC, the Christian Hittites further capitalised on the phenomenon, by carving over 400 fresco-painted cave churches of which 100 are open to the public. The best known are those at the Open Air Museum - a medieval troglodyte village at Goreme.

Other Cappadocian attractions are the monastic retreat at Zelve - pointed chimneys combed with tunnels and topped with natural minarets - and several vast underground cities. Thought to have been founded around 2,000BC, they were later developed and monopolised by the Hittites as refuges from invading Persians. Derinkuyu, for example, had room for 10,000 on eight subterranean levels. Only 20 per cent is open to the public but it still takes more than an hour to explore and you could get lost without a guide.

Despite its captivating beauty, Cappadocia's rock country teeters on the edge of becoming a Stone-Age theme park. In Goreme - a village which could have been designed by the Almighty on Acid in association with Bilbo Baggins and Gaudi - at least one fairy chimney has been turned into a Hard Rock Cafe or a Flintstones Bar ("Yaba Daba Doo... Hey Wilmaaa! Are you Coming?" is the un-Turkish sign on one door) and there are dozens of basic pansiyons, populated by Lonely Planet backpackers, which (for around pounds 7 a night) offer clean but musty cone-shaped caverns with great views and the minimum of facilities.

Much of the region is protected by national park status and a Unesco preservation campaign, which puts its natural assets on a par with Egypt's desert valley tombs. There has been a tendency to add insensitive concrete extensions to rock formation. The Turkish Government has tightened up on regional planning guidelines and has encouraged more appropriate development and the emergence of stylish cave hotels which respect both environment and the architectural culture of Cappadocia's troglodyte history.

Club Med's long-established Kaya Oteli in Uchisar was the first to provide four-star underground accommodation. In Urgup, the main tourist centre is now bristling with cave-style hotels, but most are fake - with cave- shaped rooms built of rough-cast concrete. In the six-year-old Esbelli Evi Pansiyon, one of the only genuine underground guest houses in Urgup, the walls of the interior are raw rock, lined with antique furniture and free of mould. Created from five houses - in which the rock rooms date from the fourth or fifth centuries, and an upper stone extension, from the 1890s - the six-bedroom hotel is rarely empty.

Last year, French architect, Jacques Avison, bought a series of derelict cave homes in nearby Uchisar and has transformed them into seven stunning holiday homes. Typical of many original Cappadocian houses, they are not created out of fairy chimneys, but cut from terraces of rock. Like Esbelli Evi, the facades of Les Maison de Cappadoce are built from local stone, carved with Ottoman motifs; the underground spaces are either lined with perfect stone arches or roughly sculpted into womb-like rooms. Each has tra- ditional fireplaces, kilims and terracotta pots, cobbled terraces and views of a fairy-chimneyed valley seen through decorative stone arches.

Unlike the Spanish, few Turks still live underground but the spread of sophisticated tourism, nonetheless, threatens a traditional way of life. In Uchisar, for example, black-clad local women continue to gather in the square around a communal oven and open-air laundry. Monsieur Avison, who now wields some power in this as-yet unspoilt corner of Cappadocia, suggests that he'd like to see the more primitive aspects of local village life tidied and sanitised. But surely, getting close to our primitive side is part of the charm of staying in a cave, however posh it's become.

SPAIN

GETTING THERE

Spain's national airline Iberia (0171 830 0011) operates daily services from London to Granada via Madrid or Barcelona, from around pounds 275 return. Alternatively, fly to Malaga and travel inland by car or rail (two to three hours) and return via Seville (from around pounds 253 return).

STAYING THERE

All the area's cave hotels are self-catering. An apartment at Pedro Antonio de Alarcon in Guadix (00 34 958 664986) costs from around pounds 40 per day (pounds 225 per week) for a two-bedroom cave, sleeping four people. Daily rates at the Casas Cuevas complex in Galera (00 34 958 739068) range from around pounds 20 (pounds 110 per week) for a one double-bed cave to pounds 60 (pounds 385 for a week) for a four-bed cave. The four-bedroom Cueva Tajo del Pollo in Belerda (00 34 958 273110/696114) sleeps 10 and costs around pounds 50 per day (pounds 250 per week).

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information on the region's cave accommodation contact either the Spanish Tourist Office in London on 0171 499 0901, or the Granada Office of Tourism in Spain on 00 34 958 223 528.

TURKEY

GETTING THERE

Turkish Airlines (0171 499 4499) run a limited service from London to Kayseli in Cappadocia via Istanbul, from around pounds 240 return. Alternatively, fly to Ankara (via Istanbul) and take a bus to Goreme or Urgup (approximately four hours). London-based Turkish travel agent, Bakhus arrange tailor- made packages to anywhere in Turkey. Telephone 0181 482 3224 for more information or a brochure.

STAYING THERE

The Esbelli Evi Pansiyon in Urgup (Tel: 00 90 384 341 3395) costs from around pounds 40 per double room. High season daily rates (minimum of three days) at Les Maisons de Cappadoce in Uchisar (00 90 384 219 2813 or 00 33 056347 0677) range from pounds 48 for a two-person studio to pounds 130 to pounds 160 for a six-person house.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For more information on destinations and places to stay in Turkey contact the Turkish Tourist Office, 170/173 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD. Tel: 0171 629 7771.

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