Turkish Bizarre

Henry Bourne

Set in an ancient, otherworldly landscape, Cappadocia is stepping out as a very 21st-century destination, complete with smart restaurants and superstylish hotels.

It’s 4:30 a.m. and I am standing in a desolate field thinking about Einstein. As the voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to dawn prayer drifts from the minarets of nearby Urgüp, I remember a phrase I read half a lifetime ago: “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.” But shivering in the chill autumn darkness, I feel too tired for awe and wonder. Six of us huddle, sipping çay and Turkish coffee, watching a ten-foot-long tongue of flame swell the hot-air balloon. Clambering into the wicker basket, we speak in whispers, as if afraid to wake the distant villages. A blue-and-gold smear of first light emerges on the horizon as the balloon finally rises toward the sawtooth cliffs. I wonder whether now would be a good time to tell the pilot that I suffer from vertigo. Then we crest the ridge, my stomach lurches, Cappadocia unfurls. My eyes are opened.

We float through a desertscape as dreamlike as a Dalí canvas—mysterious, melting, magical. Here in the heart of Turkey, 500 miles east of Istanbul, deep valleys scar the plains. The cliffs, undulating like folds of silk, shimmer with red and green and sulphur-yellow in the shifting light. Pale rock formations known as peri bacalari, or fairy chimneys, soar in cones and columns, many of them capped by black basalt hoods. This is a land born of fire and shaped by 30 million years of rain and wind—the soft tuff sculpted into dizzying spires arrayed like a petrified army. It is easy to see why Paul Lucas, dispatched by King Louis XIV to explore the region, thought he had stumbled on “the ancient cemetery of a vanished city.”

As the balloon drifts down toward the valley floor, a wolf starts from the scrubland, eyeing us skeptically before disappearing into the darkness. We rise again, hovering for a moment near a cave, the doorway to a vanished underworld. For if this dawn-dappled landscape is strange, what lies beneath is stranger still. Every crag and column is honeycombed with caves. For thousands of years people have hollowed out the friable pumice to create homes, churches, even vast underground cities like Derinkuyu, where miles of tunnels once housed 20,000 people. Cappadocia was at the crossroads of ancient empires, and centuries of history are carved into the soft rocks of this all but forgotten hinterland of Turkey.

Twenty years ago the only travelers to Cappadocia were archaeologists and a few hardy backpackers. But the past decade has seen the villages of Urgüp, Göreme, and Avanos transformed. Cave houses and crumbling Ottoman mansions have been refurbished as stylish hotels to accommodate a burgeoning stream of visitors. I am staying at Anatolian Houses, a boutique hotel incorporating five caves overlooking Göreme. A modern twist on Ottoman style, this impressive cluster was conceived by owner Hasan Kalci as a showcase for the region’s arts. There are flashes of architectural drama—a swimming pool of glass and stone beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling—but each rug is unique, while archaeological finds from the area are displayed throughout. In my cave suite, tawny rough-hewn walls contrast with hardwood floors and hand- knotted rugs in jewellike colors. Most enchanting is my tenebrous bathroom, lit by five niches containing ancient Greek amphorae.

After 20 minutes beneath the pounding “rain” shower, I feel ready to explore. Sipping a glass of çay on the terrace, staring out across the rugged landscape, I contemplate where to begin.

Cappadocia’s many attractions lie scattered throughout the valleys, which stretch for more than 100 miles. Hundreds of rock-cut churches have been discovered, and everywhere there are homes, mills, and bare cells in caves where hermit monks once prayed. Two of the best-preserved sites are the open-air museums at Zelve and Göreme. Cobbled pathways weave through Göreme National Park, once a thriving village that was home to an early Christian community. The otherworldly landscape looks almost like a film set—indeed this was where George Lucas wanted to shoot The Phantom Menace (he settled for locations in Tunisia). Wandering through cave dwellings, peering into dark chapels, stumbling around the warren of chambers that make up the Women’s Monastery, it is possible to dimly sense how a vanished community lived.

To avoid the crush of tourists, arrive just before sunset, after the coaches have left. The park’s numerous rock churches—carved directly into the valley walls and decorated with Byzantine frescoes—are most beautiful when deserted. They range from the simple barrel-vaulted Chapel of Saint Barbara to the famous Karanlik Kilise, or Dark Church, whose richly painted dome rises above four columns topped with capitals. Every detail of the Dark Church, completed around the end of the 11th century, was modeled after cathedrals of the period. Its frescoes in crimson, gold, and ultramarine still have a raw power and unwavering sincerity. Four saints sit atop the columns, a radiant angel smiles down from the cupola, and throughout there are scenes from the life of Jesus. The Crucifixion, as Christ is pierced with a lance, is almost Mannerist in style, but its evocation of suffering and grief is as moving as anything in Christian art.

What’s most surprising about these frescoes is how well they are preserved. In churches throughout Cappadocia, frescoes have been defaced—eyes and features hacked away by Muslims who believe depicting the prophet Sidna-Aïssa, as they call Jesus, is a sacrilege.

My guide throughout this trip, a high school teacher named Ahmet who can hold forth passionately on Cappadocia in French, English, German, and Spanish, is eager to move on. “Too many people,” he says. “They come in cars and coaches, but they do not see. They only click-click.” He mimics a camera. “To know Cappadocia, il faut faire du trekking—we must walk.”

Half an hour later, as we set off into the Rose Valley on the several-mile hike to Zelve, I think gratefully of the spa treatment I booked at the hotel. But Ahmet is right. Navigating the twisting paths, dwarfed by coppery towers and lulled by the whispering soundtrack of the wind, I get a sense of what St. Basil meant when he called this a “naked and mournful” land. There is something spiritual in the fingers of rock stretching toward the heavens.

Ahmet falls silent as he scrabbles into a crack in the rock face. I follow him, and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. Known as the White Church, this softly luminous chapel features a vaulted nave and soaring columns that look almost as though they were carved from ice.

Later we stop to buy çay from a ramshackle kiosk where an old man sits singing türkü to himself. From here, above the trees, we can see the crumbling crag of Cavusin half a mile away. A hundred years ago Cavusin was a village carved into the cliff, but it was ruined by erosion and landslides. In its shadow a village of modern brick and concrete houses is rising from the rubble.

Old and new live cheek by jowl in Cappadocia—a young shepherd with his flock stops to adjust the volume on his iPod, a satellite dish sprouts from a rooftop, while a prayer rug hangs in a window, traditionally a signal that the family has a daughter of marriageable age. Farmers still store apricots, potatoes, and squash in abandoned caves, and centuries-old crafts continue to thrive.

The crucial moment in any negotiation is the second glass of tea, as I am reminded the next morning when I visit rug shops in Urgüp. Stepping into Galeri Yunak, I am confident, having haggled many times in the souks of Marrakech. But the Turks are infinitely more subtle bargainers. Halil Elalan serves me sweet black çay in a gilded tulip glass as his young assistants unroll seemingly every rug in the store. Halil ignores the flurry and instead, having discovered I am Irish, talks to me about The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It is 20 minutes before I can interrupt to point to an exquisite ikat throw in black and ocher. The border, he tells me, symbolizes running water, the central motif is the tree of life. Kaç para? I ask. “For you, seven hundred dollars,” he says. I counter with three hundred. He shakes his head sadly, as though disappointed in my naïveté, and offers me more tea. I accept, quickly realizing that a second glass of tea, like a second date, is a commitment.

We talk for an hour more—about history, politics, the rain-drenched landscapes of Ireland—occasionally punctuating our chat with offers and counteroffers, inching toward compromise. We finally agree on $480, but by then it is as though we are friends and he is making me a gift. As one of the boys wraps my purchase, Halil sees me staring at a delicate prayer rug. “Another glass of tea?” he asks. Smiling, I shake my head and respond, “I don’t think I can afford more tea today.”

In the afternoon I visit Avanos, where the main square is dominated by a statue of a potter, a reminder of the craft traditions that have made this place famous. “There are more than a hundred ceramics workshops in Avanos, and many homes have looms for weaving,” says Galip Körükçü, the town’s most celebrated potter, as he ushers me into his workshop built into a series of caves. “Six generations my family has worked here,” he says proudly. “I make my first pottery with my father when I am six years old.”

As if to prove that any child can master the skills, he beckons a teenage boy to demonstrate. Spinning the wheel with his bare feet as Galip narrates his swift, graceful movements, the boy transforms a hunk of red clay from the Kizil Irmak River into an elegant trefoil vase. The basic techniques have changed little from those the Hittites learned from the Assyrians. Visiting cave after cave, I find painstakingly hand-painted bowls, pitchers, plates, and long-necked vases in glittering gold and black, in lustrous reds and turquoise blues. It takes ten years or more to earn the title of master and to produce a plate as flawless as ever graced a sultan’s table.

In Turkey elegant tableware is not so much a mark of the host’s wealth as a tribute to his guest, for food is the cornerstone of hospitality here. A traditional meal is not hurried; it is a sinuous ballet of tastes and textures, of wine, conversation, music, and dancing.

A decade ago Cappadocia’s villages offered nothing more sophisticated than a meyhane, the Turkish variant of the brasserie, serving simple fare in a thunderous atmosphere of music, free-flowing raki, and spontaneous table dancing. More recently, several high-quality restaurants began presenting Anatolian cuisine in a different light. Using the rich panoply of traditional ingredients—eggplant, peppers, milk-fed lamb, pulses, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts—they serve variations on savory pastries (börek), succulent kebabs, spit-roasted lamb (kuzu çevirme), and slow-cooked stews (güveç).

The restaurant A’laturca, which opened in Göreme in 2003, has an elegant dining room of terracotta and exposed beams, a wine list with remarkably good locally produced bottles, and an excellent menu of regional specialties such as delicately spiced beef sarma (tenderloin stuffed with mushrooms, pistachios, and cheese) and ali nazik (seared sliced lamb with a rich eggplant-and-garlic purée).

My last evening in Cappadocia I save for a return visit to Elai Restaurant in Uçhisar. Nestled on a rocky citadel, the terrace offers a perfect place to watch the setting sun. Though the food is influenced by classical Anatolian cuisine, it has a contemporary simplicity, as in the melting carpaccio of sea bass marinated in raki that I’ve come back to savor. While my table is prepared I sit by a fire with the owner, Kubilay, chatting about Turkish wine. Later, as I finish a succulent loin of lamb with stuffed eggplant, Kubilay stops by with a glass of Emir-Sultaniye, the finest wine of Kavaklidere.

“How long are you staying?” he asks. I tell him I leave for Istanbul the next day, where I will live until the spring. “You must come back and see Cappadocia in winter,” he suggests. Listening to him talk about the snow-shrouded plains and the foolhardy few skiing and snowboarding through the valleys, I have already begun planning my next visit.

Going to Cappadocia

The best time to roam the region’s surreal landscape is in spring or fall. Summer can be unbearably hot, while winters are quite cold. But Cappadocia under snow is spellbinding, and skiing and snowboarding are a short distance away. Most sights are around the villages of Urgüp, Avanos, and Göreme.

Getting There

The nearest airports are Kayseri (50 miles) and the smaller Nevsehir (27 miles). Turkish Airlines (thy.com) offers flights from JFK to Kayseri (via Istanbul) for about $1,300. From Istanbul, connections are available daily to Kayseri and most days to Nevsehir for about $200.

Local Tour Companies

Since Cappadocia’s places of interest are scattered throughout the villages and valleys, a knowledgeable guide and driver are invaluable. Those renting a car should still consider hiring a guide. Argeus Tourism & Travel (90-384/341-4688; argeus.com.tr) offers full-day tours for two ($320–$340) and longer, all-inclusive packages (eight days with hotel for $1,475 per person, excluding flights). Alan Turizm (90-384/341-4325; alanturizm.com) specializes in minibus tours and walking and hiking excursions with multilingual guides ($60–$65 per person).

Where to Stay

Serinn House, in Urgüp, is a five-room boutique hotel with cave and stone suites that offer WiFi (from $150, including breakfast; 36 Esbelli Sokak; 90-384/341-6076; serinnhouse.com). Esbelli Evi, also in Urgüp, is a stylish boutique hotel with cave suites hewn from golden stone and terraces overlooking the valleys (from $155 and cave suites from $340, including breakfast; 8 Esbelli Sokak; 90-384/341-3395; esbelli.com). A complex of 19 suites above Göreme, Anatolian Houses features rooms, some built into fairy chimneys, with sunken tubs and Anatolian antiques (from $300, including breakfast; Gaferli Mahallesi; 90-384/271-2463; anatolianhouses.com).

Where to Eat

A beautiful carved fireplace dominates the dining room at Sömine Restaurant in Urgüp, which serves excellent traditional flatbread pizzas, called pide, and güveç, or casseroles ($20; 9 Cumhuriyet Meydani; 90-384/ 341-8442; sominerestaurant.com). A’laturca Restaurant in Göreme offers classic Anatolian food in a setting with antiques and opulent weavings ($50; Göreme center; 90-384/271-2882; alaturcagoreme.com). Occupying a pair of restored Greek mansions, the boutique hotel Gül Konaklari in Mustafapasa serves outstanding traditional dishes in two dining rooms, Atina and Selanik ($25–$30; 1 Sümer Caddesi; 90-384/353-5486; rosemansions.com). From its perch overlooking the valleys, Elai Restaurant in Uçhisar puts a smart modern spin on Turkish and Ottoman cuisine ($35; Eski Göreme Caddesi; 90-384/219-3181; elairestaurant.com).

Buying Crafts

Exquisite hand-painted ceramics are available in the many potteries in Avanos. For those interested in learning centuries-old techniques, some workshops offer classes. Two of Avanos’s best shops are Chez Galip (Yeni Mahallesi Jan Zakari Caddesi; 90-384/511-4577; chezgalip.com) and Beikaya Atölyesi (Yukari Mahallesi; 90-384/511-3464; beikaya.com).

Urgüp is an ancient carpetmaking center where you can watch the process, from dyeing the wool skeins to handweaving patterns on vast looms. Galeri Yunak is one of the region’s most respected shops (Yunak Mahallesi; 90-384/341-4667; galeriyunak.com).