If a fairytale were to be set on the moon, Cappadocia would be the movie location. Take a winter trip to this Turkish delight for a real-life cinematic experience
Those dreamy Instagram shots don’t lie: a 60-minute flight from Istanbul lands you in a part of Turkey quite unlike any other, where multi-hued hot air balloons often float across a lunar landscape. Cappadocia occupies 5,000 square kilometres of the vast Central Anatolian region and is characterised by an undulating landscape of kooky volcanic rock formations dating back 4,000 years, enchanting communities carved into the soft stone, maze-like underground cities, and a glut of fresco adorned Byzantine churches. Ideal for a long weekend, you can take to the skies or journey deep into the caves to discover this magical destination on all its levels…
Rock your world
You could easily spend a day at Göreme Open-Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Listed site. A blank canvas of misshapen formations from afar, look closely and you’ll find windows, doors and staircases hewn from the rock, many of which open up to reveal stunningly preserved Byzantine church interiors (with a few red herrings for fun) housing jaw-droppingly colourful frescoes. All the churches have nicknames, such as Snake (Yılanlı Kilise), where a fresco depicts St George slaying the dragon (squint and you get the snake reference).
More al fresco exploration awaits at Zelve Open-Air Museum. Spread across three valleys, it began life as a 9th-century monastery and was a thriving village by the 20th century. Abandoned in 1952 due to erosion and the threat of rockfalls, you can now (safely) explore the area’s churches and picturesque rock-cut mosque.
What lies beneath
Cappadocia’s ingenious citizens dug deep… literally. Derinkuyu Underground City is one of 36 below-ground communities in the region, and beyond its 600 or so doorways lie 85 vertical metres of living space including cellars, storage rooms, refectories and (temporary) mortuaries, guarded by moving stone doors that, historically, could be quickly sealed in the event of attack. It’s not for the claustrophobic, although there is plenty of fresh air thanks to 15,000 cleverly designed ventilation ducts – just mind your head.
Score some edible souvenirs at one of the area’s authentic local markets. Top buys include seasoned pumpkin seeds, local honey, dried apricots and seasonal roasted chestnuts. Wednesday is market day in Göreme, Ürgüp bags Saturday and Nevsehir takes Monday
UPS AND DOWNS
It doesn’t get any more surreal than drifting over fairy chimneys and deep green valleys in a flying machine, and a hot air balloon trip (weather permitting) over Cappadocia’s distinctive landscape is one for the bucket list. A sunrise experience, expect to rise to 1,000 metres if conditions are calm and travel up to 20 kilometres on a perfect day.
Get off the beaten track in and around Göreme atop a quad bike, with escorted tours offering a different, and very dusty, perspective of the countryside. Rev up your love of adventure and cover a decent amount of ground (not to mention dunes and trails) through the surrounding valleys. Stop offs for photographs are a given and sunset is a particularly popular time.
Plan your trip during the winter and a major attraction that comes into focus is Mount Erciyes and the chilly call of the ski season. While its peak (3,917 metres) is snow-capped all year round, the slopes come into their own from November until April. Erciyes Ski Centre (on the northern Tekir Plateau) offers 12 kilometres of runs and is home to Turkey’s longest chairlift. Snowboarders and sledders get their own dedicated runs and extreme sports fans will wig out with some serious kite skiing action.
TAKE A HIKE
Boasting the deepest gorge in Asia Minor (100 metres), Ihlara Valley is the ideal hiking spot. Pack a picnic and plot your route through the 14-kilometre-long stretch of land, where poplar trees sway in the wind, the Melendiz River babbles, and frogs croak just like a scene from Enchanted. The charming village of Belisirma is a great stop-off point for some local fare.
In the pink
The triple eruptions of Mount Erciyes, Mount Hasan and Mount Melendiz created a stunning series of fertile valleys, with Rose Valley one of the prettiest. We’re talking pastel pink, yellow, and orange cliffs, softened by mother nature over millennia and sprinkled with fruit orchards and local farms.
On the hoof
Also known as the ‘land of beautiful horses’, if you’d rather ride than walk then horseback exploration on the back of a native Anatolian or Arabian steed takes you into Cappadocian cowboy territory. Trot, gallop and canter your way across the landscape, through Swords, Meskendir, Rose and the slushily named Love valleys for a visual surfeit of abundant natural beauty.
For dinner with a side of drama, order the traditional clay pot stew called Testi Kabab, where the meat, tomato, veg and chilli combo is sealed with dough then slow-cooked for hours before being ceremoniously cracked open to let the rich broth run out.
CHIMNEYS AND CASTLES
Funghi or fairy?
Let your imagination run wild in Paşabağ. It’s here that Cappadocia’s famed mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys dot the landscape, soaring as high as 40 metres. More fact than folklore, these iconic geological formations owe their unique shape to volcanic eruptions and natural erosion. A haven in times gone by for local hermits who wanted to distance themselves spiritually from the material world, they carved shelters into the chimneys, creating 15-metre-high rooms that can still be seen today.
A 10-minute drive from Göreme, Devrent (aka Imagination) Valley is Cappadocia’s very own zoo, but you won’t find any real animals here. The lunar landscaped menagerie of camels, snakes, seals, alligators and dolphins is formed entirely from soft volcanic rock. There’s even one outcrop said to resemble Napoleon’s bicorne hat.
On the rock
No fairy tale is complete without a castle fit for a princess and perched on Cappadocia’s highest point is Uçhisar. Hard to miss, this is your legs’ workout for the day, with the 45-minute climb including 120 steps. It’s entirely worth it for awe-inspiring valley views as far as distant Mount Erciyes; and while a lot of the castle is off-limits due to erosion, its pattern of honeycombed doorways punctuates the sandy rock, with many of the remaining rooms converted to dovecotes. Go at sunset for the best pictures and a choir of cooing pigeons.
Baby soft skin is the end goal of a Turkish hammam experience. Start with a steam or sauna before a vigorous top to toe lambs’ wool kese mitt scrub-down. Final step? A soothing bubble massage on a heated marble slab
Try Cappadocia’s signature dish, a regional take on ravioli known as mantı, at Zeytin Cafe ve Ev Yemekleri in Ürgüp. The name is a mouthful but the small squares of meat or cheese stuffed pasta, served with a garlicky tomato sauce are so good that it’s a draw card for locals.
A Göreme favourite in a gorgeous stone courtyard setting next to the Cappadocia Cultural Centre, Seten Restaurant showcases classic Anatolian and Turkish cuisine. Portions are winter warmer substantial; we rate the clay pot lamb, stuffed squash blossoms and brick oven rice pudding.
Nestled amid 200 hectares of kitchen garden goodness and helmed by renowned chef Çağrı Erdoğan, Lil’a occupies pride of place in Üçhisar’s elegant Museum Hotel. Specialising in modern interpretations of classic Turkish dishes, it’s fine dining with sustainable flair. Culinary standouts include the roast duck with honey, lavender and sour cherry sauce, and the divine vine leaf-smoked lamb tenderloin with eggplant purée.
The pottery heartland of Cappadocia, Avanos’ local artisans use the vibrant red clay of the Kızılırmak River to create signature earthenware and ceramic items hand-decorated with colourful, intricate patterns. Try your hand at a workshop or marvel at the collection at Guray Ceramic Museum
WHERE TO STAY
Cappadocia Abras Cave Hotel
A former seminary carved into the Ürgüp rock face, this 600-year-old building oozes history from every stone pore. Colourful rugs and authentic artefacts add warmth to the cosy rooms and ramp up the heritage vibe. Wrap up and enjoy the outdoor terrace with uninterrupted views of the landscape.
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Doors of Cappadocia
With just 17 highly individual cave-themed rooms and suites, make a play for the King Suite with its heart-shaped bath and circular bed. A family-run hotel in a quiet area of Göreme, head to the upper terrace to watch the aerial parade of hot air balloons. Hardy travellers can take a dip in the rooftop pool.
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Ariana Sustainable Luxury Lodge
An eco hideaway in the hills of the Uchisar Valley, this peaceful retreat makes the most of its canyon setting, with its sun terraces the ideal spot for a yoga session or al fresco massage. Down time is guaranteed: the lodge features just 11 rooms and one restaurant, an American-diner style eatery that sources many of its ingredients direct from the hotel’s garden.
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