Travel: Where Santa Claus was born and King Midas lost his touch

In the shadow of a volcano in Cappadocia, Jonathan Begg encounters a land drenched in history and covered in the strangest rock formations

The panoramic Altintepe restaurant, perched in solitary splendour above Kayseri, is a good enough place to take stock. At 3,000ft (900m), you are only a quarter of the way up to the great volcano whose rose- pink ash clouds have covered this region with some of the strangest rock formations on earth - this region being central Cappadocia, the heart of Anatolia.

But the great ash sculptures are not visible from this height. Your panoramic view could almost be the Russian steppes, rugged and remote, but not as otherworldly as you might wish. And learning, perhaps with a shrug, that Kayseri is the mid-point of Turkey, you wonder whether this central position actually means anything. Well, it did to the Seljuks.

Nearly a thousand years ago, these early entrepreneurs were strongly motivated to map out the shortest routes between Europe and the East for the sake of the lucrative silk and spice trade. And Kayseri's location made it a crossroads which blossomed into a fine centre of learning, a provincial capital, and now the gateway to this whole region. Originally called Caesarea (not the Biblical one), Kayseri is the grandest and most gracious of those remote towns whose mosques and markets provide little hollows of interest in the folds of the great sunlit plain of Cappadocia.

Indeed, your first break from the hot sun may well be when you duck inside the early Ottoman mansion called Gupgupoglu, which is like a brilliant camera obscura of decorative art, framed against deep timber and intricate pearl inlays, and everywhere the mystic blend of sky-blue and sea-green that owes its name - turquoise - to this country.

Ottoman art is, of course, downright modern, at only 500 years old. On the first morning out, not quite mentally attuned, I briefly wondered what made our tour-guide point so respectfully towards a "19th-century trading centre". Until I realised he meant BC. Not far from here is the earliest city ever discovered, Catalhuyuk, which boasted fine jewellery and paintings almost 9,000 years ago.

In fact, the number of "firsts" in this area is quite something. Let two suffice for now. A mass of buried glass arrowheads, corresponding to others in Syria, suggests the origins of the arms trade. And in Kayseri's archaeological museum, it is a joy to see Assyrian cuneiform tablets that represent the dawn of letter-writing, complete with clay envelopes.

Certainly, the appeal of Turkey's unusually rich cultural legacy is not felt only by the scholar. There is something for everybody here, from whirling dervishes and the Gordian knot to the birthplace of Santa Claus and the tomb of Midas.

And spacious bathrooms, plentiful parking, a colonnaded terrace under a pistachio tree and a wonderful carved walnut door. Good security, too. Just the sort of place to spend the night - nine centuries ago, that is. For this is one of the many caravanserais that accommodated the silk traders, and now provide a partial answer to those who ask whether the Silk Route (now being busily promoted all the way to China) signifies anything more to the tourist than a long strip of tarmac with romantic associations.

True, at first you have to watch that lazy "seen one, seen 'em all" outlook. But caravanserais - the luxury hotels of their day, quite distinct from ordinary inns - can make a satisfying minor architectural study. And Cappadocia is full of them.

The strong fortifications and the guardroom atmosphere at the gate are impossible to miss, reminding us that the silk trade was worthy of serious protection. And with full-time doctors and vets, prayer-leaders, blacksmiths and caterers, they were like miniature villages, geared to a three-day rest for the camels and their drivers.

Star of them all is the Sultanhan at Aksaray, its name echoing royal status, and accessible from Kayseri by a good road that takes in several more, including a little masterpiece at Sarihan.

But only a dedicated historian would still have caravanserais on the mind by then. For you are now heading west into that small region that has shaped its life around a million fantastic Gothic chimneys of rock thrown up by angry Gods of fire and flood, all in another world. You come upon it quite suddenly on the road to Urgup, and at first you flatly disbelieve it: a forest of pink pillars, topped with weird sepia caps that must have been put there by sun-worshippers or other ritualists, as no natural agency could ever have propped them up in quite that fashion. But then you learn to your astonishment that this was indeed the unaided hand of nature.

When the first of these mighty volcanoes erupted, its ash settled into a fairly soft, malleable rock that formed vertical stacks. Later, the other volcano threw up a much more rigid lava that simply sat on top in great boulders. As the softer material began to erode, the pillars took on the strange mushroom shapes you see all around today. To the superstitious Turks, these had to be "fairy chimneys", where men might be carried off by mythical beings if they offended the Fates. But the softer stone, called tufa, was so easily scooped out that the rock-faces were steadily turned into homes and churches.

The fairy chimneys are concentrated in the small triangle between Urgup, Zelve and Goreme, all within about five miles of one another. The first is a comfortable stopover for touring the sites. The second is walking distance from the legendary Three Valleys - a popular rock-church pilgrimage. And the third is a town literally built right among these great stacks, with shops and offices slap next door to strange lone chimneys which are still inhabited.

Just above the town is the most impressive single sight of all, the Goreme open-air museum, a warren of chapels deep inside the jagged cliffs, and ablaze with Byzantine art. Mostly single-naved (St Basil of Kayseri preferred his churches small and manageable), their rock-frescoes have kept their vivid blues and crimsons to this day, sheltered from sunlight in these little darkrooms of the past.

A more spread-out version of the same thing is Zelve, an amphitheatre of rock leading off into its three valleys, two of them joined by a tunnel, and dominated by a huge monastery complex. The standard one-hour tour is nowhere near enough. I would recommend taking most of the day for Zelve, trailing its little cliff paths, stumbling across painted dove-cotes or 9th-century churches named after grapes and deer, and then watching the sun move slowly round this whole weird volcanic junk-yard, battered and bruise-coloured, but then turning to a rich creamy gold sometimes tinged blood-red.

Curiously, the colours here are much easier to describe than to photograph. Without a polarising lens, you will end up with pictures of cold, hard masculine surfaces from which all charm has been banished. But more than the colours, it is the shapes that stay with you - the sheer wonder of those scattered ghost-villages wrung from scorched sandstone, their pointed roofs and basilicas still challenging us to believe they are real.

Some shapes are clearly the dirty jokes of the Gods, such as the three pillars in a neat row outside Goreme apparently making an obscene salute to passing motorists, like the worst kind of erotic candles. However, lingering in the wide Zelve moonscape, it is perhaps too tempting to see shapes embedded in the rock surface: bearded and helmeted heroes, priests and prophets, solemn and reproachful ... But then comes a truly recognisable dark shape: the passing shadow of a hot-air balloon.

Suddenly you're up, and the peach trees are waving down below. The chimneys are almost too small to see, and Goreme itself is blending back into the sandy rock, with no hint of the jewels within. Towards Urgup, a vine-green slope marks the home of those pale wines with their discreet scent of melon or mango. Now it's that long river full of the red clay of Avanos, light and strong, that you can ping like a bell. Over your shoulder, a grey blur suggests Kayseri, always full of shade and dignity. And looming there forever, the great hazy volcano where it all began ...

This is your defining glimpse of Cappadocia. A remote plain that was suddenly wrestled and wrenched into wild contours, and then made immortal by the first stirrings of human commerce.

And there, soaring above all that history and prehistory, the silks and spices, the painted chapels, the Ottoman mansions, the orchards of cherry, plum and apricot springing from the lava, you see - perhaps - what the Gods saw in Turkey.

TURKEY

GETTING THERE

Kayseri is an 85-minute flight from Istanbul. Turkish Airlines (tel: 0171-766 9300) flies from the UK to Kayseri daily (via Istanbul), from pounds 281 return.

WHERE TO STAY

Anatolian Sky Holidays (tel: 0121-633 4018), offers tailor-made tours. A typical 10-night itinerary costs pounds 750-pounds 800 per person, including flights, transfers, hotels, but not excursions. Contiki Time Out Tours (tel: 0181- 290 6422) does a 12-night sightseeing tour from pounds 495 per person, including flights, coach transport and hotel accommodation with most meals.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Turkish Tourist Office, 1st Floor, 170/173 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (tel: 0171-355 4207).

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