THERE are spectacles of natural wonder, like Antarctica or Amazonia. There are places of historic and artistic wonder, like Florence or the Parthenon. Rarely do such categories coalesce in one destination, however. Cappadocia, in central Turkey, is one of those exceptions.
It is dark when I collect my rental car at Kayseri airport, but it comes with GPS in English, and driving to the town of Uçhisar, along the modern highway, is a breeze. The owner of the eight-room Sakli Konak is already in bed when I arrive, but a note in the entrance points me to my room, and the key is in the door. Sleep descends in a jiffy, in a bedroom which I later learn was once the cow shed of a rich villager’s homestead.
Breakfast has to be a leisurely affair, such is the gargantuan spread: three different cheeses, jams, breads (all home-made), figs, walnut, olives, a pie, eggs. The solicitous owner, Riza, draws me a map of local attractions, and only later will I come to appreciate its outline shape.
Uçhisar is the place to stay in Cappadocia, because here, thanks to its incredible rock citadel, the highest point in Cappadocia, you can gaze over the unique landscape of the region.
Volcanic eruptions, erosion, and the sculpting of layers of tufa (a form of limestone) by the elements have, over millions of years, resulted in strange-looking rock formations: conical-shaped towers topped precariously with basalt caps; and tapered pillars and pointed columns. They are often referred to as “fairy chimneys”, and, given their outlandish appearance, the term justifies itself poetically.
To experience the surreal scenery close up, I follow the well-trodden five-mile walking trail through Pigeon Valley between the towns of Uçhisar and Göreme. I walk down past quince and damson trees and gardens of pumpkins, pepper, and beans, into the valley surrounded by eccentric stone architecture. The cubed holes in the rock were carved by villagers as homes for pigeons (the droppings are used for fertiliser), hence the valley’s name. The walk is not demanding, and taxis are readily available for a speedier return journey. For longer walks, there are many hiking trails in the vicinity.
Göreme is the region’s travel centre, replete with tour agents, restaurants, and shops selling trinkets and the like. The rustic town of Ortahisar, only a few miles away, is also well worth a visit for its cave complexes and picturesque setting.
But tourism has been dealt a heavy blow in Turkey, a combination of terrorist attacks in Istanbul, and internal politics after the attempted coup in 2016. The effect has been that European visitors are thin on the ground. But Göreme — with all its potential for being a tourist trap — is ticking over nicely on a steady stream of tour groups from China.
Sean SheehanHabitation for people and pigeons (the smaller square holes) were carved out of Cappadocia’s soft rock
HOT-AIR balloon rides at dawn are a big draw in Cappadocia. My alarm was duly set for 4.45 a.m. — and the sight of 50 or more variously coloured balloons rising and floating in the air above Cappadocia’s moon-like landscape (with the stratovolcano Mount Erciyes also in the distance) is certainly a stirring sight.
I’m not sure, thought, whether being in a basket with nearly 30 camera-phone-toting travellers is the best return on a travel budget. Especially when compared to the small entrance charge to the unmissable ancient churches, and their murals, at the Göreme Open-Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
By the end of the second century, a large Christian community, with two bishoprics, was well established in Cappadocia, and, by the fourth century, three saints were associated with the region: St Basil (The Great), his brother St Gregory of Nyssa, and another St Gregory (of Nzianus).
Sean SheehanA church mural at Göreme Open-Air Museum
THE carving of homes out of the soft rock — best seen at Kaymakli “underground city” (a 15-minute bus ride from Göreme) — was extended into the shaping of places of worship. Incidentally, at the Göreme Open-Air Museum there is actually no “museum” as such, but a series of spectacular cave churches, built to a barrel-vault design, with a single nave, and a three-storey monastery where the different levels are connected by tunnels.
Here, traces of iconoclastic art are visible, but what holds me transfixed are the astonishingly well-preserved murals depicting moments from the lives of Christ and notable figures such as St Basil, St George, Constantine, and his mother, Helena.
Two periods of Byzantine iconoclasm banned the painting of religious images, but the prohibition ceased to be enforced by about the middle of the ninth century. The artists of the church murals are unknown, but their work is a celebratory response to the demise of iconoclasm.
Tokali (Buckle) Church is the oldest. Carved at the end of the ninth century, it has a pictorial cycle of scenes from the life of Christ, and saints painted in red and lapis-lazuli blue. Through their antiquity and artistry, a sublime simplicity shines forth.
The 12th-century Sandal Church, named after two footprints on the ground under an inside figure of the Ascension, has a refectory on its lower level with a long table carved out of the rock and a niche with a depiction of the Last Supper. Karanlik (Dark) Church, with a small additional entrance charge, has particularly well-preserved murals in its three apses. An attraction in another church is its depiction of St George about to spear a dragon-like snake — one of the earliest depictions of a legend that found its way into Christianity in the West.
istockphotoMurals at Tokali church, Göreme Open-Air Museum
MY NEXT destination is Zelve Open Air Museum, another site of early Christian churches, some seven miles away and signposted off the road between Göreme and Avanos (a centre for the production of earthenware pottery since the Hittites).
Zelve is a monastery complex — a honeycomb of homes and chapels spanning three valleys. Its location was chosen for seclusion in the ninth century. Muslims and Christians lived here harmoniously until 1924, when the Christians left in the exchange of Greek and Turkish minorities after the Turkish war of independence.
In lieu of murals, relief crosses from iconoclastic times are clearly visible here. Amplified by a scarcity of visitors, they still emit a powerful sense of its ancient past.
Cappadocia is a place where history and geography come together in a fascinating and unique way. On the journey home, I pore over the map drawn for me by Riza, the proprietor of Sakli Konak. Only now does the penny drop: he has cleverly drawn it in the shape of a fairy chimney.
Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies from Gatwick to Kayseri, and from there it is a 90-minute drive to Uçhisar. Rooms at Sakli Konak cost from £35 to £90; at Taskonaklar Hotel, rooms are from £85 (Room 501 incorporates a millennia-old baptistery), and the views are spectacular. Balloon rides cost nearly £100 per person for an hour’s flight, including a light breakfast and transfers to and from your hotel. Entrance to Göreme Open-Air Museum is £5. For group travel, consider a professional guide, such as Nilay Yaramis (firstname.lastname@example.org), for about £75 for a day, depending on your itinerary. Visitor information at www.goturkeytourism.com.
istockphotoThe Pigeon Valley walking trail between Uçhisar and Göreme
Turkey might seem like a country perfect for tourism, but it also a country with a volatile present and an uncertain future, writes Adam Becket.
The failed coup in July 2016 allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to gain more control over Turkey. MPs on the foreign-affairs select committee warned last year that President Erdogan had used the coup to silence critics and suppress human rights.
The MPs said the Turkish government was “broadly suppressing, discrediting or punishing those who contradict its authorised accounts of sensitive events”.
Their report continued: “The powers afforded by the state of emergency — combined with a vaguely framed definition of terrorism, a pliant media, and a politicised judiciary — have allowed the government to silence a broad spectrum of critics by labelling them as ‘Gülenists’ or ‘terrorists’ on the basis of light evidence or broad interpretations.”
The Foreign Office advises travellers: “The situation in Turkey has calmed following an attempted coup on 15-16 July 2016. The security environment, however, remains potentially volatile and a state of emergency remains in place.”
Terrorism remains a threat: the Foreign Office says that it is “very likely” that attempts will be made in Turkey; but this compares favourably with the present threat level for the UK: “severe”, which means that an attack is “highly likely”.
The foreign-affairs committee report also warned: “Once held up as an example to the region, Turkey’s democracy and democratic culture are under severe pressure.”
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with civil liberties under threat in the country.
Amnesty International has said: “Freedom of expression in Turkey is under sustained and increasing attack,” and writers and journalists have been increasingly threatened by the government.
The most dangerous areas of the country are those in the east, on the border with Syria, where Kurdish groups and IS have carried out attacks in the past.