Six o'clock in the morning, and the world has barely awoken. We're 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 half a mile 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 Star Wars 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 of them 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 some 300 square kilometres – 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 was 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 4x4 bounced across a field pitted with craters, towing our balloon on a trailer behind us. Ten minutes later we were in a clearing, watching the ground crew unpack the balloon, inflate it and fire in jets of flame to heat the air inside – all in the pink light of dawn. Then came an undignified scramble into the high-sided passenger basket and – finally – the thrilling moment when the balloon first lifted upwards and we were airborne. Into the sky we floated, 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 in the sky 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 flap and 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 outcrops of tall, sandy-coloured pillars capped by larger, 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 uses guide ropes to open and close the flaps in the bag. Devon-born Kaili Kidner and her Swedish husband, Lars-Eric More, founded Kapadokya Balloons in 1991, and she and Lars have personally flown more than 50,000 passengers without mishap. Lars is piloting another flight at the same time as ours. His balloon, cream, shot with blue panelling, hangs in the air like a piece of the sky. It's only when you catch sudden glimpses of your shadow on a rock face, or on a cornfield far below, that you remember how far away you now are from the earth.
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 also 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 a small inner triangle of so-called "cave villages " – small, oddly timeless communities where generations of residents have led a troglodyte existence over the centuries.
Even today, many people are happy to live by choice 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 programme 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 – seven or eight kilometres apart from each other – the most picturesque is Uchisar. The place is unmissable from miles around, 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 the snow-capped Mount Erciyes in the distance.
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 around AD1100.
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 lovely restaurants, which is a relief when you don't think you can 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 as 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, 13 kilometres 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 – wine-making.
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 south-westwards over a plain, crossing row upon row of vines, of mulberry trees and of walnut trees, alongside broad patchwork expanses of green wheat-fields and yellow vetch. Weaving through a swathe 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 V C 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, all too soon, a cacophony of farm noise 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, as Kaili explains to us. 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 archaeologists have been discovering. There's almost as much of interest below the ground in Cappadocia as above it. More than 30 subterranean cities have been uncovered to date – 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.
Yesterday, accompanied by a guide, we'd visited the largest of these, Kaymakli. Kaymakli was first dug out by the Hittites in 1200BC, and it's thought that up to 5,000 people may have lived there at one time. The cave was opened to the public in 1964. A massive ventilation shaft plunges 40 metres down through level after level – imagine an upside-down multistorey car park, if that's not too mundane a comparison. Or a giant-sized badger set. 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 separate 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 want to 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 over in our direction. It still looks like a Dinky toy from above, but we are definitely on the descent. Our landing, in a field of cornflowers, is as soft as they come – the basket settles 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.
Cappadocia is served by Kayseri airport, an hour's drive from Urgup. Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.thy.com) flies from Heathrow to Kayseri via Istanbul.
The writer travelled with Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk), which offers four nights in Urgup from £829 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Kayseri via Istanbul, transfers, four nights' self catering at Magari Evi and three days' private guiding in the region including transport and entry fees. The seven-day version of the same break costs from £1,016 per person with four days' private guiding. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
The way to see The Valley of the Fairy Chimneys is from the air. A one-hour hot air balloon ride with Kapadokya Balloons (00 90 384 271 2442; www.kapadokyaballoons.com) costs €230 (£154) per person.
Magari Evi, Urgup (00 90 384 341 3173; www.urgupevi.com.tr).
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Somine Restaurant, Urgup (www.sominerestaurant.com).
020-7839 7778; www.gototurkey.co.ukReuse content