Three thousand years ago, people carved dwellings, churches, and storage units into the soft volcanic soil here in Turkey’s heartland. They created underground cities, reaching eight stories deep and home to thousands. Many modern-day residents still live in cave dwellings, and even offer one of the most unique overnight accommodations in the world - cave hotels.
The first time I laid eyes on this land was at night, in a shuttle bus from the airport. I was awestruck, speechless. The hillsides of the rock dwellings were bathed in an eerie soft yellow glow, more like candlelight, magic. The town of Goreme in Cappadocia, Turkey, is one of the best places to set up base to see this amazing land. (www.goreme.org)
A Hiker’s Paradise
There are days worth of hiking to be found right here in the multiple radiating valleys that extend out from the town like the spokes of a wheel. Frequent local buses enable you to shuttle back and around. You can easily spend a week and only want more. I brought my son, Bryce here for his college graduation present. We wanted to make a memory. From the window of our mini bus, I knew this would be an easy task.
The vast land surrounding Goreme is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park (www.whc.unesco.org). For the most part, hikers are free to wander in the valleys and amongst the formations and ancient dwellings, exploring and traveling at your leisure.
The rock formations are sedimentary and deposits from ancient volcanoes, 60 million years ago. This unearthly landscape was formed by erosion, and varies according to the hard and soft layers of rock. Minerals within the rocks are responsible for the different degrees of color.
Much to Discover
Between 300-1200 AD, Goreme was a monastic center, where monks chiseled into the soft rocks of volcanic tuff of the pillars and minarets, to hide and worship. Later, the area was a haven for Byzantine Christians, who fled from the Roman empire before Christianity was an accepted religion. Later, they dug to escape Arab invasions. Over 800 churches alone were dug in this region. A visit to the underground city of Kaymakli, a short bus ride away, is helpful to gain a clearer vision of how this area was created and why. The tour takes you through many of the nine levels explaining their sophisticated system of water transportation, waste management, and network of whispering holes to communicate about enemies.
The nearby Goreme Open Air Museum is another worthwhile excursion to better enrich your knowledge and understanding. In this monastic community, more than 30 carved-from-rock churches and chapels can be seen with bright frescos covering the walls, dating back to the 9th-11th centuries.
This “land of beautiful horses” (in Persian) can be explored on horseback and many tourists also view this fantastic landscape from an overly priced hot air balloon ride. But you can get much more intimate with the land by wandering through the pinnacles, crawling through the washes, and get even higher than the balloons on some of the mesa trails.
The most famous valley to walk and explore near Goreme is Rose & Red Valley, with its water-sculpted tunnels, surreal shaped ridges, and narrow basins. Painted arrows on the rocks make it an easy place to explore and wander. In the middle of the canyon, where it widens a bit, you might find a “café”- a picnic table covered with a colorful Turkish cloth, where a checkerboard lures you to rest and play a game while the proprietor offers to squeeze you a fresh pomegranate juice.
The cooing of a dove is the sound of Cappadocia, and dovecotes can be found up in the narrow valleys. Tiny squares are chiseled into the rock, creating hidden dwellings for doves. Their droppings are harvested to fertilize the vineyards and gardens as they have for thousands of years. Their facades are decorated with folk art symbols, using paint made from dyes extracted from plants and flowers, then mixed with ferrous oxide. Zinc plates cover the entrances and prevent foxes and martens from eating the eggs and babies.
We found directions for our valley walks on local maps, and by asking advice from a four-wheeler outfitter. There are experienced guides who can share their knowledge and enhance your understanding, but most trails can be tackled by the independent walker. Cappadocia is a place to visit when you want to make a big memory, celebrate life, and be amazed at what nature and man can create.