The Traveller's Guide To: Cappadocia

Pat Yale explores the underground cities and cave dwellings in the valleys of central Turkey


CAPPADOCIA? ISN'T THAT WHERE PEOPLE LIVE IN CAVES?

Indeed it is. Millions of years ago, volcanoes spewed out ash and tufa over a wide part of central Turkey. The wind and rain then worked away at these deposits, carving out deep gorges and leaving behind astonishingly phallic rocky outcrops, known as "fairy chimneys". Enterprising locals went on to burrow into the rock to make houses, churches, stables, storerooms, even cave wineries. Many people, particularly in the village of Goreme, still live an extraordinary troglodyte lifestyle, albeit with satellite television and washing machines.

I CAN'T FIND IT ON THE MAP

That's because Cappadocia was actually the name of an old Roman province. Medieval historians used the name to refer to the region, which is renowned for its amazing frescoed churches. More recently, the tourism industry co-opted the name as shorthand for a triangle that turns on Aksaray in the west, Kayseri in the east and Nigde in the south. The villages and small towns of Goreme, Uchisar, Mustafapasa, Urgup and Avanos are the main tourist centres.

DID YOU SAY CHURCHES?

The Ancient Greeks colonised much of what is now Turkey, and their Byzantine descendants carved out hundreds of wonderful churches in Cappadocia between the 7th and 14th centuries. Most of these churches are cut right inside the rock. It's a jaw-dropping experience to gaze on the columns, altars and other familiar church features, all cut out of the stone. Even more amazing are the frescos that cover the walls.

The best frescos are inside the Goreme Open-Air Museum (00 90 384 271 2167), an ancient monastic settlement on the outskirts of the modern village of Goreme. Within the museum, the best churches are the Tokali (Buckle) Church and the Karanlik (Dark) Church (separate admission fee). The museum is open 8.30am to 5.30pm daily, admission 12 lira (£5).

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SEE?

Cappadocia boasts more than 30 underground cities, some burrowing down eight or nine storeys. The top levels of these cities were probably excavated by the Hittites, but the early Christians turned them into places of refuge during the 7th-century Arab invasions. Kaymakli and Derinkuyu are the largest and most impressive underground cities. Both are open 8.30am to 5.30pm daily, admission 10.50 lira (£4.50).

Uchisar is dominated by a vast plug of rock. Climb to the top and you will be rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. It's open 8.30am to 5.30pm daily, admission 2 lira (£0.85).

In the valleys of Zelve, near Avanos, another Open-Air Museum occupies the site of a village that was abandoned in the Fifties. Full of dark tunnels and scary ladders, it's a great places to bring restless older children. It is open 8.30 to 5.30pm daily, admission 5.60 lira (£2.40).

To learn what goes on behind the scenes in the cave houses it's worth visiting the small Museum of Cappadocian Cultural Life in Ortahisar, which is open 9am to 9pm daily, admission 2 lira (£0.85).

HISTORY'S NOT MY THING

Never fear, because the Cappadocian valleys are perfect for a walking holiday. One of the most beautiful places to walk is the Ihlara Valley, which has the bonus of a cooling stream running through it. The Kizil (Red) Valley, between Goreme and Cavusin, is named for the glorious colour of its rock face, especially beautiful in late afternoon. Mehmet Gungor (00 90 532 382 2069), who grew up in Goreme and knows the valleys like the back of his hands, will happily guide you.

For a stroll that takes in some particularly dramatic fairy chimneys, walk behind the Turist Hotel on the Open-Air Museum road out of Goreme to find the marvellous Zemi Valley.

WHAT ELSE BESIDES WALKING?

One of the greatest of all Turkish treats is to float over Cappadocia's dramatic landscape in a hot-air balloon. Several balloon companies operate out of Goreme, but Kapadokya Balloons (00 90 384 271 2442) has been in business the longest. Weather permitting, the company operates flights every morning from mid-March to early November. Flights cost about 222 lira (£95) for 45 minutes, with longer flights available.

Medraft (00 90 242 312 5770) in Ortahisar offers rafting trips along the Zamanti river in the Aladaglar National Park near Nigde. One-day trips cost 150 lira (£64) and involve a fair amount of driving, but the scenery is glorious and the water offers a cooling relief from the blistering heat in high summer.

Winter visitors can ski down the slopes of Mount Erciyes near Kayseri. Lift passes cost 16 lira (£7) per day, boot and ski hire are 21 lira (£9) per day. Kirkit Voyage in Avanos also organises week-long walking tours on snowshoes for around 620 lira (£265).

CAN I PLAY AT BEING A TROGLODYTE?

To feel the real Cappadocian vibe you need to bed down in a cave pension or hotel, and there are rock-cut rooms to suit every budget. In Goreme, the Kelebek (Butterfly) Boutique and Pension (00 90 384 271 2531; www.kelebekhotel.com) have the widest range of rooms, from a few backpacker basics with shared showers (from 40 lira/£17) to gorgeous suites with their own private sitting areas (from 94 lira/£40).

In Urgup, the Esbelli Evi (00 90 384 341 3395; www.esbelli.com.tr, doubles 117 lira/£50) is the oldest of several gorgeous boutique hotels. It's run as a stylish "home from home," and guests are welcome to browse the owner's CD and book collection. On a grander scale is the Yunak Evleri (00 90 384 341 6920; www.yunak.com, doubles from 164 lira/£70). Here a whole neighbourhood of crumbling cave houses has been transformed into a luxurious hotel, complete with private Jacuzzis. At Kirkit Pension in Avanos (00 90 384 511 5440, doubles 50 lira/£21) guests can sample Cappadocian wines and listen to saz (Turkish guitar) players while they eat.

SPEAKING OF FOOD...

Cappadocia has several good restaurants. For a tasty light lunch you could do worse than head to Mustafapasa, where The Old Greek House (00 90 384 353 5306) offers meals at tables in its shady courtyard or sitting on the floor in its airy upstairs dining rooms. In Goreme, Alaturca (00 90 384 271 2882) offers excellent dinners in a dining room awash with Cappadocian artefacts. Locals swear by the warm humus and pastirma as a starter and the Ali Nazik (grilled lamb on a garlic and aubergine puree) as a main course.

NOT MUCH NIGHTLIFE, THOUGH...

Cappadocia may look as if it's in the back of beyond but you can still have a thumping night out. Urgup is well known for its wines, and during the day you can visit the Turasan Winery to sample the local produce. Later you can order your chosen tipple at the small and atmospheric Red Red Wine House in Goreme, or the classy Prokopi Bar in Urgup.

WHAT CAN I TAKE HOME?

Cappadocia is a far calmer place than Istanbul to shop for Turkish carpets. Good places to start looking include Tribal Collections (00 90 384 271 2400; www.tribalcollections.net) and Sultan Carpets (00 90 384 271 2003; www.sultancarpet.com) in Goreme, or Kirkit (00 90 384 511 4542) in Avanos. All have fixed prices, so don't try haggling.

Avanos has a flourishing pottery industry, with products made from thick red clay from the Kizilirmak (Red River), which flows through the town centre. There are scores of ateliers to choose from, but at Chez Galip (00 90 384 511 4240) you can try your hand at throwing a pot before making your purchase. Here, you should bargain hard.

Other possible souvenirs include hand-made dolls from Soganli, onyx ornaments, local headscarves, hand-made lace and thick woollen socks.

I'M PERSUADED. HOW DO I GET THERE?

Most people get to Cappadocia by flying to Istanbul and then taking a one-hour internal flight on Turkish Airlines to Kayseri. From there, shuttle buses run them to their hotel door (about an hour and a half, 19 lira/£8, must be pre-booked with flights). Overnight buses run to Cappadocia from Istanbul and the coastal resorts but the ride (11-12 hours) can be gruelling - flying is a far better option.

WHEN SHOULD I VISIT?

Cappadocia has blazing hot summers and icy cold winters. Time your visit for spring to see the abundant wild flowers, or autumn for the spectacular colour of the trees in the valleys.

Pat Yale is co-author of Lonely Planet Turkey and has restored a cave house in Goreme

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