If only house-hunting was always this fun

The locals in Cappadocia are friendly, if eccentric. Well, what do you expect from people who live half-way up cliffs? By Claire Gervat
THERE'S A DENTIST in Urgup. I know this because the old woman next to me on the bus to Ortahisar had just been there to have two teeth pulled, a fact she demonstrated with a mime graphic enough to make me wince. Just for a moment, I wondered whether I shouldn't have taken a guided tour after all.

Cappadocia certainly has enough worth visiting to provide the local tour agents with a fistful of day-long itineraries. In this extraordinary part of central Turkey, the ash and mud from volcanic explosions 30 million years ago have formed a soft stone called tuff, which has eroded over time into fanciful shapes. Not only that, generations of inhabitants have carved out cave houses, churches and even underground cities from the rock, so that it is not just the landscape that is worth further investigation.

The small town of Goreme is one of the few places in the area where the rock-cut houses are still in use. Many of them have been restored as simple hotels; Goreme is, along with Urgup, the main place to stay in Cappadocia, as its rows of carpet shops, travel agents and bike hirers show only too clearly. Its chief attraction, though, is a mile and half out of town towards Urgup. Here, at the open-air museum, is a cluster of around 30 rock-cut churches, mostly from the ninth to the 11th century, and each with its own distinguishing characteristics.

The 11th-century church of St Basil, for instance, has long rectangular graves cut into its rock floor; the wall frescos in the slightly newer Church of the Sandals have been badly damaged by graffiti carved into their surfaces (handy if you want to study local teenage romances). These are not the only ruined frescos in the museum. Others have had the eyes on some of the figures deliberately scratched out. My favourite of the churches, though, is Tokali Church, just outside the complex, with its blue-grounded frescoes, and narrow friezes of Christ's life piled up across the vaulted ceiling.

A couple of hours at the Goreme open-air museum should satisfy anyone's appetite for rock-cut churches, and left me with an urge to stray off the tourist trail. So, on my second day in Cappadocia, I jumped on the bus to Ortahisar.

Ortahisar is one of several small villages within the triangle of roads that connect the small towns of Avanos, Nevsehir and Urgup, the most heavily visited part of Cappadocia. It is not on the tour itineraries, however, despite the rock-cut fortress that towers over the village, so you can wander around the tiny lanes that twist below it without bumping into anyone. The place to start is the rock, 86 metres high, that once housed the whole village, a fact that becomes all the more incredible the higher up you go through the bare chambers. Sadly, there are no clues to what daily life here was like, but the view over the village and the surrounding fields from the top makes up for any disappointment on that score, even if you feel a bit like a spy as you look down into people's courtyards.

Back on solid ground, I wandered down the dusty lanes below the fortress, scattering chickens in my path and dodging the animal droppings; no prizes for guessing that agriculture is still the main business in this village.

Backing out of an alleyway that had come to a dead end at a particularly pungent stable, I nearly fell over a hunched-over old woman struggling up the hill. She recovered quickly enough from the shock to ask if I was on my own. "One? Two?" she questioned. "One," I replied, using up my entire Turkish vocabulary in one go. Ah, she seemed to say, me too, but what can you do? And she carried on up the hill.

Twenty minutes later, I saw her sitting with four other women in the doorway to a courtyard, eating lunch. They beckoned me over to join them in their meal of bread, watermelon, grapes and a paste made of ground spices and olive oil. Nothing as trivial as linguistic barriers were going to stop my hosts finding out everything they could. In return, I had the chance to study local dress: trousers so baggy they looked like skirts, worn with blouses and knitwear and a double layer of headscarf.

I wandered back to the main road, past caves that were being used to store lemons, looking for the head of Rose Valley, a local beauty spot, and the starting point to a footpath to the next village, Cavusin. The owner of the nearby campsite offered me a lift there; I gratefully accepted. Hitchhiking isn't always the best idea when you're on your own, but the only threat turned out to be to my waistline, since we bumped into some friends who fed us huge slabs of pide (Turkish pizza) off the bonnet of his car.

The top of Rose Valley is a popular viewpoint, especially at sunset, when the rocks glow red and orange in the warm light and the car park fills with coaches. Earlier in the day it's quieter and I scrambled alone down the path past a small group of buildings that looked like stone wigwams.

The walk through Rose Valley and neighbouring Red Valley goes through fields and over ridges, past rock-cut churches (which are dangerously hard to climb into) and decorated pigeon houses so high up you wonder how they were carved out.

It was almost a relief to reach Cavusin and see shops and cafes. Most of the village's inhabitants have had to move out of their cave houses because they became too dangerous, as at nearby Zelve, now an open-air museum. However, you can still visit the fifth-century Church of St John the Baptist, as long as you don't suffer from vertigo, as it's in a perilous position halfway up a cliff face.

The churches are a good excuse for exploring, and the next day I headed south from Urgup to look at the little-visited Pancarlik group of churches. It turned into an opportunity for a country walk, with glimpses into other people's lives. Just after the turning off the main road there was a group of stone houses like Ku Klux Klan hoods; they looked rather as if they might be in use. Farther along, a man was tilling the fields with a mule-drawn plough. Farther still, a farmer was praying in the open, the call to prayer from Urgup plainly audible through the clear air.

Back in Urgup, footsore and weary, I wandered round the last few stalls of the weekly market. Nothing there to buy (fresh fish makes a bad souvenir), so I turned to the handicraft shops. In every one the owner offered a little cup of strong black sugary tea and a chair by the stove - the evenings are chilly, outside of mid-summer. Even buying a long-distance bus ticket seems to entitle you to tea and a chair by the stove. Or perhaps I just looked thirsty.

I was certainly hungry. The third day in Cappadocia hadn't turned up any free meals, so I settled into the nearest family restaurant, enticed by the smell of roast lamb. It was quiet, the off-season, so the waiter laid the table next to the stove and left the television on for me. Just as well he did; I found out that the Smurfs aren't nearly as annoying in Turkish as they are in English. Not that that's what you'd go all the way to Cappadocia to find out, of course.

A break on the Black Sea coast, page 7

cappadocia fact file

Getting there

Turkish Airlines (0171-766 9300) has one flight a week from Heathrow to Kayseri via Istanbul for pounds 260 return including tax. Or fly to Ankara, four hours by express bus or car from Cappadoccia: Turkish Airlines (pounds 250), Cyprus Turkish Airlines (0171-930 4851, pounds 280). It's 12 hours by bus from Istanbul: the lowest fare with British Airways (0345 222111) and Istanbul Airlines (0181-688 7555) is pounds 159 return. The flight from there to Kayseri (daily with Turkish Airlines) is pounds 55 each way.

Getting around

There are plenty of organised tours available locally for around $20- 25 a day, if you prefer not to drive or rely on the patchy bus services. Car hire is a good idea but relatively expensive, from around pounds 225 per week, even through operators such as Holiday Autos (0990 300400).

When to go

July and August are busy (and hot). The best times to visit are May, June, September and October.

Where to stay

There is a very wide range of accommodation, with simple rooms in a "pansyon" costing from as little as pounds 5. If you prefer to book ahead, several tour operators offer stays in Cappadocia: Accommodation Overseas (0181-977 2984) has seven nights in Goreme half-board in a three-star hotel for pounds 509 per person, including flights and car hire. Savile (0171-625 3001) uses the elegant Esbelli House hotel in Urgup; a one-week visit (three nights Istanbul, four nights Urgup) costs from pounds 699.

Another good tour operator is Simply Turkey (0181-747 1011), which also has a twin-centre holiday.

Waymark (01753 516477) and Explore (01252 344161) have walking holidays in the area.

The Turkish Tourist Office (brochure line 0891 887755) has a useful booklet of tour operators.