After a good night sleep in Trabzon, we hopped on a plane and headed off to the magical wonder of Cappadocia. We’re scheduled to do a three-day hiking tour of the area, but first we had one full day to explore the town of Goreme, the gateway to Cappadocia, on our own. Cappadocia is known around the world for its “Fairy Chimneys,” its troglodyte dwellings, and its unique cultural and historical heritage. The Fairy Chimneys are towers of stone that dominate the valleys around the region. Formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity, the rock forming the chimneys was eroded away over time to make the current forms. Beginning in the 4th Century AD, Christian inhabitants carved out churches and living quarters within the chimneys and surrounding stone, enabling them to hide from armies of invading Arabs. Many people still live in the troglodyte dwellings in the area.
Goreme lies in the bottom of one of Cappadocia’s valleys. Much of the village is built into the stone formations. The town is dotted with dozens of “cave hotels” where you can get a room carved into one of original rock formations. Goreme is one of the most popular tourist towns in Cappadocia and can tend to feel a bit touristy with its numerous rug shops and souvenir stores. We did manage to find some very good restaurants here but some of the better ones are a bit hidden in the upper part of town, off the beaten path. Don’t be afraid to wander around the streets.
Our first full day in Cappadocia started very early in the morning with a hot air balloon ride at dawn (watch a video of our hot air balloon ride here). We were picked up at our hotel at the unearthly hour of 4:45 AM, given a hot breakfast, and then driven out to the launching area for the balloons. Balloon rides are a huge tradition in Cappadocia and you quickly find out just how popular this activity is when you arrive at the launch site. Balloons as far as the eye can see are spreading out and filling up with hot air as eager tourists await their ride. Nearly 100 balloons are launched simultaneously, making it one of the largest mass ascension of balloons you will find anywhere in the world. What’s really impressive is that this happens in Cappadocia almost every single day from April to November.
Although the days in Cappadocia can get hot, the early morning air was quite cool so we were glad to be bundled up on warm jackets and gloves. Our balloon basket had enough room for 10 tourists and our pilot. We did, however, see balloons with up to 30 or more passengers aboard.
The balloon ride lasted about an hour and took us across the wide end of the valley and then down into a narrow valley, nicknamed the “Valley of Love” (a glance at the photo below reveals the reason for this nickname). Our pilot took us up to over 2,000 feet above the ground and then deftly dropped us into a canyon passing very close to the rock formations. Our direction was determined by the wind, but it guided us through some magnificent country, made even more special by the glow of the early morning sunlight. We had been instructed how to prepare for a hard landing but on this morning our pilot skillfully dropped the balloon basket close to the trailer where the ground crew grabbed a hold and then easily guided the basket onto the trailer where we disembarked.
After eliminating the air from the balloon and rolling it up for transport, the balloon pilot and ground crew offered us the customary champagne toast, in this case it was a combination of champagne and tart cherry juice – quite delicious!
We returned to our hotel by 9:00 AM where we took a short nap and a warm shower. We had the rest of the day free to explore Goreme so we walked through town and about 15 minutes up a side road to the Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. Here, in a small side canyon, is a complex of refectory monasteries placed side-by-side, each with its own fantastic church, all carved into the rock. Most of the churches in Goreme Open Air Museum belong to the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. The Goreme Open Air Museum is quite interesting with its preserved churches and beautiful frescoes. We were, however, visiting just as all the tour buses showed up so it got a bit crowded. Still, it provided us an exceptional introduction to the history and culture of the people who inhabited this rugged landscape so many years before.