I liked Istanbul’s character immediately when we arrived. Everywhere you look you see pretty minarets dotting the skyline. Salesmen offer you hot tea on the street in actual glassware complete with a single cute little sugarcube. And although there’s still not much of a “personal space” concept, people apologize when they bang into you. Not everything is great. High-rises have advertisements in the windows five stories up. Smoking is all around, and people don’t even think about the fact that they have a cigarette hanging out of their mouth when they enter a small space with you. But whatever you like/dislike about Istanbul, it would be hard to argue it lacks character.
My true sites before arriving in Turkey, however, were set on the historical region of Cappadocia. A few nights ago Elliott and I boarded an overnight bus for a 10 hour ride to the town of Göreme in Cappadocia. Our bus ride was mostly uneventful except for two things. One – we finally gave in and paid to go to the bathroom at the rest stops. Sometimes there’s just no other way, despite our objections! (E’s note: I’m still fuming about this!) Two – the bus company provided us free drinks and snacks! They even had a little collapsible cart that they pushed up and down the aisle. Wow, that beats most domestic US Airlines these days. 🙂 (They also had personal entertainment sets for each seat providing movies, music and games on demand, but, unfortunately for Elliott, everything was in Turkish.)
I slept a fair amount on the bus and woke up in the wee hours of the morning to see snow on the ground. Luckily, an hour later we had traveled to a warmer area where there was no snow. Although I didn’t totally object, I was hoping to see the town of Göreme snow-free, at least at first. As we drew closer, the fairy chimneys, about which I was so excited, started to come into view. The fairy chimneys are rock formations made of sandstone which look to me like sand castles, often complete with windows and doors. The Göreme Valley was originally formed by volcanic ash, which later hardened into sandstone, and eventually was sculpted solely by erosion. It served as a home to an entire culture of Byzantine people starting in the 4th century. People carved refuges, residences, storage areas and churches in the fairy chimneys. In short, it’s amazing, and I’d argue it’s as pleasing as some of our best National Parks back home.
We thought we’d arrive in Göreme and take a nap after a long night on the bus. Instead, we headed right out after meeting our host so we could explore this beautiful place. Our first stop was the Open Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It consists of a large group of monasteries cut out of the rock, mostly from the 10th-12th centuries, each with its own dining room and church. Several of the churches still contain their original frescoes on the walls and ceilings. We didn’t notice the “no camera” icon outside the first church, so lucky for you we have some photos of the frescoes in that one church, even though we shouldn’t. I wish we had more – the frescoes were that beautiful.
Here’s some more info on the Open Air Museum in Goreme: http://www.goreme.com/goreme-open-air-museum.php
Later that same day, and again the next day, we hiked in the valleys of Göreme. We hiked to and then in the Rose Valley, which is filled with rock containing rose-colored stripes. We searched for the Red Valley but I don’t think we ever found it; to our credit, the “trail markers” consisted of random red arrows painted on the rock in a totally haphazard, and often conflicting, manner. Oh well. It will be a goal for next time. The scenery was gorgeous, and we never knew what we might come upon. We explored endless fairy chimneys. We loved climbing up inside of them, finding room after room, guessing the use for each room. Many of the fairy chimneys have windows and doors that are multiple stories high; Elliott speculated the ground must have been much higher once upon a time, or the original residents must have used some kind of ladder system. On our second day, though, we climbed inside a fairy chimney and found a staircase and tunnels in addition to the rooms. Maybe there were “ways up” on the inside many of these buildings that we couldn’t even imagine!
Another day, we took a local bus to the town of Nevşehir and then Kaymakli. The big attraction in Kaymakli is the Underground City, built around the 7th or 8th century BCE. People built underground cities all throughout Cappadocia (36, to be exact) back then so they could live in them, hiding from marauders and conquerors. (Kaymakli is actually connected to another underground city,Derinkuyu, by an 8km tunnel.) It is estimated that the underground city in Kaymakli goes eight or nine stories down, although only four stories have been cleared out and are open to the public at this time.
At the Turkish Bath the night before, those Italian guys told Elliott we should hire a guide for the Underground City, as there isn’t much information there. As usual, we decided to check it out ourselves before making a decision. We arrived early when the site opened, and the only other people there were in a tour group in front of us. At first we were bummed that we’d have to “follow them”, but we soon realized our pace would not keep up with theirs.
How cool! We were all alone, underground, in dimly-lit rooms, caves and tunnels, all open to our exploration. There were red arrows to follow as you went in, and blue arrows to follow back to the exit when you were finished. (Luckily there were no conflicting arrows here.) Some of the rooms had labels such as “living room”, “kitchen”, and even “winery”. Wow! The people living down here were clearly doing okay if they were as well off as to have wineries. Some of the rooms were for food storage – I noted there was ample room for chocolate supplies. And Elliott pointed out that one of the unlabeled rooms was obviously the “grill and fry room”, used for cooking hamburgers and French fries.
We also came upon huge stone “wheels” occasionally that were used as doors to block off entire passageways when the people living there needed to run from intruders. There were plenty of unlit areas as well that certainly required exploring, so we were extra happy to have out flashlight. Each time we found a dark tunnel, we followed it until we started to get too freaked out to continue further. One thing we noticed was the low ceilings in many of passageways. I’m still not sure if it was just too much effort to dig higher ceilings, or if people were much shorter back then. But by the end of the day, we each had several lumps on our heads, my backpack had a few tears in it, and both our backpacks were covered in dust!
Here’s some more info on the Underground City in Kaymakli: http://www.goreme.com/kaymakli-underground-city.php. I thought it was pretty cool to learn that the local residents of Kaymakli today still use some of the tunnels as cellars and stables, which they can access from their courtyards!
The next day we had decided to take it easy as it was an anniversary of sorts (our engagement, yay!), and we were ready for some relaxing. To our surprise, we woke up to some falling snow! I was super excited – now I’d get to see my fairy chimneys in their natural state, *and* in their snow-covered state. We got dressed and hiked up any roads we could find in order to get to a good vantage point for photos. On the way we found a house (or maybe a hotel) under construction – perfect for exploring!Eventually we came to a platform way up on a hilltop. It was windy and the snow was cold blowing in our faces, but the views did not disappoint. All my sand castles were suddenly white.
Elliott could not get enough local Turkish food, so we tried a few new dishes while in Göreme. My favorite was the Lahmacun, a Turkish pizza of sorts with a very thin crust and a good kick to it. The price was right too, at only three Turkish Lira (about $1.65). We always ordered apple teas along with it, which were not only tasty, but helpful in curbing the heat in our mouths. Elliott also loved the Pottery Kebap, which he ordered especially for our anniversary. This is meat and vegetables cooked in a pottery urn which is sealed with a hunk of bread. It needs to be cracked open with a hammer in order to enjoy the yummy Turkish goodness within. Fortunately, there’s a seam along which it cracks, and no pottery shards end up in the food. Unfortunately, the bread it is sealed with is apparently not edible, but it sure looked good.
On our last day in Göreme, we walked 8km to the town of Avanos, known for its pottery and ceramics. When we arrived we also found a river, a suspended bridge, and a pretty mosque. We ate a picnic lunch by the river and then walked across the bridge, jumping up and down to make it more fun. The mosque had a sign that said it was open for visitors, so we took our boots off, went inside, and found we had the entire place to ourselves! What a treat. Eventually we came across the pottery shops and workshops, and had fun as we were escorted by shop owners through room after room after room of handmade pottery and ceramics. Most of the businesses there were family owned, and our “guides” were very proud of that, telling us what each of their family members made.
Between all the amazing sites and tasty food, we were definitely loving the Turkish Delights!