You need a minimum of two days to see the top places in Cappadocia and appreciate its unusual rock formations and its rich history. It is absolutely spectacular!
As I mentioned in my previous blog about the Top Places to See in Istanbul, remember that you have mornings and evenings in addition to your tour times to see more and to experience more. It feels great to absorb the Turkish culture in its own setting and take walks on your own to feel the beauty surrounding you. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes.
I had a two-day visit to Cappadocia with my family in 1997. That was a blur to me since we did most of the touring ourselves. Last spring, Spring of 2014, I was lucky to have a three-day tour of Cappadocia arranged by Efendi Travel and hosted by their sister company, Hit the Road Travel (HTR Travel). The whole experience was spectacular. I cannot thank them enough for giving me this opportunity.
Before you read any further, please watch the video posted at the Captivating Cappadocia blog site.
History: The name Cappadocia comes from Katpatuka; in Old Persian it means “Land of the Beautiful Horses” .
Go back nine million years ago, and imagine that the mountains surrounding the Cappadocia region erupt and ashes cover a vast area of land, from the Taurus Mountains to the mountains on the Black Sea. And, watch this for six million years. Thick ashes turn into soft rocks, some claim 150 meters in thickness. The rocks are so soft that you can carve them with a spoon, but strong enough to build underground cities that can hold 20,000 people. This rock is called tufa. With the wind and water erosion, nature creates wonders and an ever-changing beautiful landscape emerges. It literally looks like a scene from another planet (actually part of Star Wars was shot here).
Many sources claim that the settlements in Cappadocia started with the Hittites, followed by the Persians, Macedonians (Alexander the Great’s army), and early Christians hiding from the Roman invasions. Later, Romans, Byzantines, and Turks rule the area. All the settlers add to the landscape by carving their houses, churches, monasteries, castles, storage houses, stables, underground cities, and most recently, cave hotels. Now, it is a must-see” place to and millions of visitors come every year, year around. However, if you want warm days to enjoy the tours, come between April and October.
Estimates on how many underground cities in Cappadocia vary between 40 and 200. Only six of these sites are open for visitors. Two of them: Kaymakli and Derinkuyu are the two most popular ones. Some archeologists, until December 2014, claimed that these cities started during the Hittites around 1800 BCE. However, a new underground city, assumed to be the largest found so far, has been discovered in 2013 and was made public in December 2014. Experts estimate that this unnamed site might date back to 3000 BCE and might have 3.5 miles of tunnels. It will be several years before any one of us will have a chance to visit this marvel.
Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia have been declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985, because of its rocky landscape with networks of ancient underground cities and great Byzantine frescos at the churches.
Hotels: Most hotels are in Urgup and Goreme. However, you can also find hotels in Avanos, Cavusin, and Uchisar. I highly recommend checking out the cave hotels. This is the place where you can have the unique experience of living in an ancient cave room, with modern amenities and tastefully decorated. I stayed at MDC Cave Hotel in Urgup.
The day tours described below are quoted from Efendi Travel’s website.
DAY 1 IN CAPPADOCIA
Morning: Make sure to sign up for a hot air balloon tour for your first morning in Cappadocia. The tour companies are very careful and follow weather forecasts by the hour, and if there is even a slight chance that the weather may interfere with the ride, the tour gets canceled. If you are not lucky to take the ride the first day, at least you will have the next morning to take it.
Waking up before the roosters may not sound great at first, but you will change your mind as your van takes the mountain roads following the trucks carrying the baskets and the balloons while the first signs of daylight start marking the eerie outline of the valleys and the hills dotted with fairy chimneys, caves, and rolling hills.
All hot air balloon tour companies pick you up from your hotel and take you to their headquarters for a quick breakfast. After a short briefing, you are ready to go. After the world-famous Cappadocia Hot Air Balloon Ride and a glass of delicious champagne with strawberries, you will be brought back to your hotel. You will have plenty of time to have another breakfast at your hotel before you take your tour which starts around 9 am.
North Cappadocia Tour: “Start the day visiting Devrent Valley, also known as “Imagination Valley”, this is the most surreal-looking landscape.”
“Your next stop will be Pashabagi (Pasabag) called also the Monks Valley because Christian hermits chose to locate hermit cells and churches in these three-headed pinnacles symbolic of the Holy Trinity, It is possible to see all the stages in the formation of fairy chimneys at this spot.”
“Proceed to Avanos (Venessa) the pottery center of Cappadocia: this village is set on the banks of the Kizilirmak/Red River. The river gets its name from the red clay it deposits. You can watch the potters at Chez Galip Pottery (http://www.chezgalip.com/) at work using kick wheels, the technique which has remained unchanged for generations.”
“After lunch continue to Göreme Open Air Museum. The world’s most important Byzantine cave churches are found in these once remote valleys where monks and nuns pursued monastic life from the 3rd century on. Here you can see the best preserved Byzantine cave wall paintings and frescos from the Iconoclastic period through to the end of Seljuk rule. Icons with scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament above portraits of Church Fathers and saints depict the structure of the Byzantine universe. “
“Also see the panoramic view point at Esentepe. With a spectacular view over Goreme from Esentepe see the complete view of the Goreme valley and Goreme village: fairy chimneys, rock formations and cave houses. End your day with Uchisar Castle. This tall rock, the highest point of the Goreme region, is a 25-floor beehive of cave rooms forming an underground-type city reaching into the sky. It was used as a citadel during Roman, Byzantine and Seljuk times. The view of the Cappadocian countryside from here is just brilliant.”
Evening: I have not tried it, but several people from my tour chose to be dropped off at a Turkish Bath (hamam), preferably in the same town as your hotel. I think it is a splendid idea after a long day of touring. Captivating Cappadocia gives a great review of all the hamams in the region. Depending on where your hotel is, either in Urgup or Goreme, choose one of the splendid restaurants serving delicious food. Captivating Cappadocia and Lonely Planet provide extensive list of the restaurants in Cappadocia. Or, you can choose to eat at your hotel and retire to your cave room early to get ready for your next day outings. One night I ate at the Ziggy Café, and the other nights at the MDC Cave Hotel. And every one of my dinners was delicious.
DAY 2 IN CAPPADOCIA
Morning: If you are not taking the hot air balloon tour today, I recommend taking an hour walk around the town you are staying at, marveling the cave homes still being used. You will be surprised to find that some of the owners are not just Turkish villagers, but people from Australia, Great Britain, Germany, and many other countries, who had visited Cappadocia years ago, and decided to give up everything and move there. They will have lots of stories to tell you and give insights about this marvelous region and its wonderful people.
South Cappadocia Tour : “Start the day with a hike along the Red & Rose Valley, the most breathtakingly and mysteriously beautiful valleys in the region. The valleys, with their fabulous volcanic rock formations, are in the heart of Cappadocia but well away from the mainstream tourist haunts. Our hike will end in Cavusin Cave Village, where we will see a rock castle and troglodyte dwellings where people lived until the 20th century.”
“After lunch in a local restaurant we descend towards the centre of the earth, with a trip to the Underground City of Kaymakli, one of the largest and deepest of Cappadocia’s many such settlements. This city is approximately 40m deep and contains all the usual rooms found in an underground city (stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, churches, wineries etc.) We will end the day with a visit to the Pigeon Valley where we will have a spectacular view of dovecotes, old abandoned cave homes and old Greek houses of Uchisar.”
Evening: Cappadocia Home Cooking, serves excellent regional home food. Five years ago, an American tourist suggested to its the owners that they start cooking classes. Now, it is a very popular spot. Their house is a traditional stone house located in the beautiful village of Ayvali, just 10 km from Urgup.
They have a morning class and an evening class. I recommend taking the evening class so it does not interfere with your day tour. The class starts around 5 pm and the restaurant can provide rides from and to your hotel. The class lasts about 3 hours and you learn to cook almost all the meals that you will be eating. What makes this place so special is that they host you at their home; they cook with their home-grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs, fresh eggs from their own chickens, honey from their own beehives, home-churned butter, and homemade yogurt. You live and breathe real Turkish hospitality as you blend in as a guest at their house. Believe me, there will be plenty of food to consume. Make sure you have plenty of space in your growling tummy.
After you are dropped at your hotel in the evening, and if you are not exhausted and the sky is clear, take a glass of Cappadocian wine, and stand outside and listen to the silence. Since there is no light pollution from any large city around, millions of stars will greet you accompanied by the sounds of the nocturnal birds or animals. At that time, your “alarm-clock” rooster is probably asleep, but the dogs might still be talking to each other. Your eyes will have a feast if there is moonlight.
EXTRA DAY IN CAPPADOCIA
If you happen to stay an extra day in Cappadoccia, I would recommend a few tours to pick from:
Ihlara Valley Tour: ” Start the tour with a spectacular view over Göreme from Esentepe. You will see the complete view of Göreme valley and Göreme village: fairy chimneys, rock formations and cave houses.”
“Continue driving to Derinkuyu Underground City, one of the best preserved and deepest Underground cities in Cappadocia. Derinkuyu is excavated to a depth of approximately 85 meters. It contains all the usual rooms found in an underground city (stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, churches, wineries etc.), a large room on the second floor was a missionary school with study rooms.” (Note: During invasions, it could hold 20,000 people. For more pictures and description please visit amazingancient.com.
Proceed to Ihlara Valley. This gorge is 16 km (10 mi) long and both sides are lined with rock carved churches, there are more than a hundred little churches and houses. You will walk about 4 km along the river in the valley exploring the hidden churches. At the end of your walk lunch will be served at Belisirma Village by the river.”
“On the way back visit Selime Monastery, carved out of the rock by Christian monks in the 13th century. The size of the church makes a visit here astonishing. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would’ve been like to attend a service in this magnificent building. That’s if they even do services here anymore, and if they don’t, I hope it’s not because they didn’t have enough media being driven to their establishment. If this is something that they want to pick up again in the future, they should probably find more information about how they can promote this amazing church to the wider community. I would definitely come here again if that’s the case because the church itself and its surroundings are truly breathtaking. Stop briefly at Yaprakhisar Panorama point for another view of this great Monastery (this is also the spot where famous movie “Star wars” was shot).”
A few other activities you might want to participate are:
Hiking: There are great hiking tours in various valleys (Zelve, Devrent Valley, Pigeon Valley, and many more) in Cappadocia. Please visit their site for detailed descriptions.
Bicycling: There are also mountain biking tours. Every year, at the end of June, International Mountain Bike Festival is held in Cappadocia.