Cappadocia: A wonder set in stone

Darren Loucaides finds a way to dodge the crowds in this extraordinary Turkish region

First light is pouring over the horizon in lines of gold, illuminating the panorama offered by Goreme's highest hill. The melting coned forms extending beneath are a vast dreamscape; there's also an ominous droning, like an invasion of giant insects to account for – bizarre flabby objects are bloating in the valley below. Before long this host of hot-air balloons is floating towards the heavens.

My wonder at the sight is haunted, however, by the words of a tour guide the day before, who pointed out some of the adverse consequences of Cappadocia's growing popularity. "The balloon companies flattened the valley," Edip Ozcan Arslan had explained. "There used to be many trees and bushes there; now it looks like a balloon airport. It disturbs my eyes to see it, knowing how it was 10 years ago."

A similar misgiving casts a shadow over my visit to Goreme's open-air museum, which became one of Turkey's first Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1985. You approach it through the otherworldly wasteland of the Rose Valley, and the monastic honeycomb of churches buried within the peach stone conceals faded frescos of Byzantine art. These cave-dwellings are masterfully hewn out of soft rock, blending seamlessly with the landscape. The only indication of humanity is the little holes that pass for windows. At least, that's how it must have once felt, for today there's a swarm of tourists and imagining the original inhabitants is difficult.

Interest in Cappadocia is soaring. In 2013, the central Turkish region welcomed more than 2.5m visitors. A wave of new hotels has opened, including luxury options such as the new Hezen Cave Hotel in Ortahisar, which merges ancient charm with contemporary comfort. Relais & Chateux recently added the lavish Museum Hotel to its collection.

But despite the area's World Heritage status, there has also been a spate of unauthorised constructions, with a handful of unscrupulous builders carelessly spoiling parts of this fairytale world. "There's already the natural erosion which crumbles the unique landscape away day by day," Edip tells me. "The last thing we need is man-made corrosion."

It's not hard to understand Cappadocia's appeal. Long before hotels emerged among the rocks, early Christians carved out dwellings here. Fourth-century Monks established a network of tunnels dotted with cave chapels whose soft-stone walls are furnished with precious well-preserved Byzantine art. Even further back in history – at least as far as 1200 BC – people were burrowing into this extraordinary landscape and creating fascinating settlements.

However, the story of Cappadocia's makeover began millions of years ago, when Mount Erciyes erupted leaving a thick layer of rock to be sculpted by the elements over the aeons. Seen at this height, the unreal empire that resulted is diverse, from the pockmarked Pigeon Valley to the jocular pinnacles of Love Valley, and many a cluster of mushroom-shaped caverns in between.

Edip has launched a new tour aimed at diverting interest away from the obvious tourist draws and on to local people. After all, their Hittite, Persian and Byzantine ancestors are responsible for fusing the landscape's scenic glory with their rock-carving ingenuity. There are few better ways of getting acquainted with a culture than through food. In the village of Ayvali, we join local women whose take on the 15th-century Ottoman recipe of mani involves tiny dumplings being stuffed with minced lamb and crushed chickpeas, served with yogurt and oil caramelised with tomato paste. Like small, spicy tortellini, they're exquisite.

Next, I meet the pottery makers of Avanos, who for centuries have used the deep-rouged silt from Kizilirmak, the Red River, to make their earthenware. Visitors can try their foot at the ancient kicking-wheel technique, though even under the watchful eye of a master potter I succeed in little more than making a mess.

According to Edip, the most rewarding way of experiencing Cappadocia today is to mix local encounters such as these, especially in villages on the outskirts, with the splendour of its landscape. I find this out for myself after a visit to the landmark Uchisar Castle.

Bursting out of an otherwise flat village, this glorious butte looks like an enormous sandcastle that's been eaten away by the tide.

"Many people used to live there," an elderly man astride a quad bike tells me, "but it's been empty for a long time now." I work my way to the top of what is now a museum and each ledge reveals new, stunning views. The highlight is seeing Mount Erciyes from the summit, dusted with snow.

Edip's tour includes the recently restored A'laturca restaurant, with superbly balanced dishes such as the tender, spiced kuzu pirzola kafes (lamb chops). But I've fallen for a small café, Nazar Borek, whose inexpensive fare includes a firm favourite of mine: gozleme, similar to pancakes, filled either with Turkish sausage, spinach and cheese, or minced lamb.

The friendly owner of the café, Refik, is full of stories. He tuts dismissively whenever a car drives by beeping loudly; apparently they're young men off to do military service. "When I did mine," Refik remembers back some 30 years, "I went quietly with nothing but my little knapsack. My mother wanted to come with me to the bus station. I said there was no need to make a fuss."

Getting there

Both Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; turkishairlines.com) and Pegasus (0845 084 8980; flypgs.com) fly from the UK to Istanbul, with onward connections to Kayseri

Staying there

The Museum Hotel (00 90 384 219 2220; museumhotel.com.tr) has doubles from €300, including breakfast.

Visiting there

The 11-day Turkish Flavours itinerary, run by Argeus Tours, costs £2,200pp, including domestic flights, bed and board, cooking classes and museum entry (00 90 384 341 4688; argeus.com.tr).

Red tape

British travellers to Turkey require a visa, which costs US$20 (£12.50), when purchased in advance through the website evisa.gov.tr

More information

goturkey.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments