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Living the Troglodyte Life in a Geologic Wonderland

August 16-22

Temenni Hill, Urgup

Temenni Hill, Urgup

Ever since we put Turkey on our trip itinerary, we were really excited about arriving in Cappadocia. Cappadocia is a region in Central Anatolya about 3.5 hours east of Konya. It's famous for its strange geologic features as well as for its ancient rock dwellings carved out by humans thousands of years ago. We had made advance hotel reservations to post up in the town of Urgup for five nights. We ended up loving the area so much, we stayed an extra night and considered staying even longer. Our expectations were not only met, but far exceeded, by the spectacular natural scenery as well as the wonderful place where we stayed, the Esbelli Evi Pension. More on Esbelli Evi later. Let's take a look at the Cappadocia region first...

Near Zelve

At the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys

There is nothing that can really adequately describe in words the bizarre, incredibly weird volcanic landscape that exists in Cappadocia. You can look at pictures all you want, but nothing can prepare you for your first sight of the multi-hued volcanic rock which has been carved by erosion into tall "fairy chimneys," tufa cones, and peculiar, wavy-faced hillsides. Adding to these amazing natural features are mysterious cave dwellings which people carved into the landscape many centuries ago. The Cappadocian countryside is something like the Flintstones meets the Moon meets a Salvador Dali painting. It's weird, it's amazing...it's utterly mind-boggling!

Fairy Chimneys

Fairy Chimneys, near Urgup

You can thank good old Mother Nature for the strange natural landscape here. About 10 million years ago, three giant nearby volcanos erupted, burying the area in a thick layer of gray volcanic ash. Later eruptions spewed out large boulders of harder, darker andesite and basalt, which landed randomly on top of the already-deposited layer of ash. Over time, the ash hardened into a soft volcanic rock called tufa. The hard boulders which sat on top of the tufa protected the underlying tufa from erosion, ultimately creating comical-looking "Fairy Chimneys" -- tall columns of gray or pink tufa capped with large, dark boulders. There are entire valleys of these fairy chimneys, the best of which lies near Zelve, about 7km away from Urgup.

Goreme Valley

Weird Goreme Valley

Mankind has added to the unique character of the region by carving cave dwellings into the hillsides and larger tufa cones here. The ancient Phrygians were probably the first to discover that the soft tufa was easily carved out into rooms and passageways. But it was the early Christians, several centuries later, that really seemed to "go to town," so to speak, building houses and even entire underground cities out of the soft rock. As you drive through the many valleys of Cappadocia, you see many ancient windows and doorways peeking out from the rock faces, but in a few areas, the work is especially interesting. The Goreme Valley, by the town of the same name, is loaded with tufa cones which have been carved into dwellings. Many of them are still inhabited today, and some have even been converted into hotels and pensions where you can sleep in an authentic cave room!

Esbelli Terrace

On the Terrace at Esbelli Evi

On our final day in Cappadocia, we visited the remarkable underground city of Derinkuyu, where a population of thousands actually lived sometime between 2000BC and 500AD. Derinkuyu is the largest of several similar underground cities in Cappadocia. Nobody is really sure who originally built these cities or when, but one theory holds that the Christians probably happened upon the remains of an ancient Phrygian complex here, and then expanded on it. They were then able to retreat into their completely-hidden subterranean city to hide from Arab raiding parties. The place is really amazing. There are some eight levels of underground rooms and passageways totalling some 1500 square meters discovered so far, with more exacavation work yet to be done. The troglodytes (underground dwellers) who lived here invented ingenious ventilation and defensive systems for their city. Dozens of hidden air vents reach to the surface, and large disc-shaped rocks weighing many tons could be rolled into place to block off the entry passages, making the city virtually impenetrable to outsiders. The troglodytes could hole themselves up in their underground cities indefinitely, leaving through secret passageways only to tend their fields when necessary. Taking a walk through the labyrinth of tunnels and rooms was like being in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Where are the hobbits?!

The lunar landscape of Cappadocia is deceiving -- although it looks barren at first glance, its volcanic soil makes it a very fertile area. The valley floors and irrigated areas are green with apricot orchards and vineyards. In fact, Cappadocia produces some fine grapes which are made into several local varieties of wine. Cappadocian wines won't be winning any international quality awards anytime soon, but they certainly make good, drinkable table wines.

The Cappadocia area also offers many outstanding hiking opportunities. One day, we took a walk down the road which leads to the Goreme Open Air Museum. We checked out the vast museum, full of early Christian rock churches (many with nicely intact frescos on the walls), then took a hike down one of the nearby valleys. There are plenty of tourists in the area of the Open Air Museum and Goreme town, but you don't have to walk far to get away from them. It seemed we had this one valley, full of fairy chimneys, all to ourselves for our little hike!

Uchisar Fortress

Uchisar Fortress

Near Goreme lies the town of Ucisar ("ooch-EE-shar"). Ucisar has the most amazing rock-carved fortress, which sits right off the main road. One afternoon, we parked our rental car off the side of the road and walked over to take a look. The sun was low in the sky, close to setting, which bathed the fortress in a beautiful orange light. After taking a few pictures, we noticed signs for a cafe located inside a tufa cone nearby. We couldn't resist the opportunity to go inside, so we climbed up the ladder and through the tiny entryway. What we found inside was like something out of a fairy tale -- the interior of the cone had been carved out into six levels, each connected to the next by ladders. Each of the levels contained a couple of small rooms (again carved completely out of the rock), the walls decorated with traditional Turkish kilims and the floors comfortably furnished with Turkish floor cushions. We sat in our own little room next to a tiny rock window with a view of the Ucisar fortress and took up the Turkish pasttime -- sipping delicious tea -- while again wondering when the hobbits or perhaps the Dr. Seusses' Whos would come down out of the rooms above to join us.

Our Room at Esbelli

Inside our Room at Esbelli Evi

Esbelli Cave Room

Outside one of Esbelli Evi's Cave Rooms

We're not in the habit of mentioning places where we've stayed on our trip, but the Esbelli Evi Pension, where we stayed in Urgup, really deserves special recognition. The pension (which is really more like a boutique B&B) is the result of many years of hard work by its owner, Suha Ersoz. In the 1980s, Suha who bought up two adjoining old rock houses in Urgup, restoring and adding to the existing rooms to create Esbelli Evi. It's a remarkable, relaxing place with all of the creature comforts you could possibly want, yet with a very rustic, homey atmosphere which makes you feel as if you are the guest in some sort of elaborate castle-like home. There are only 10 rooms here, and many of them are original cave rooms from the 5th century AD! We were fortunate enough to get one of these cave rooms. Where else in the world can you stay in a comfortable, beautiful cave room that's also 1500 years old? Esbelli Evi is considered by many to be the best place to stay in all of Turkey, and yet it's priced not far beyond what most three star hotels charge in Turkey. It's a real treasure, and we had a very hard time making ourselves leave! Suha's staff, Sebnem, Koray, Turkah, and Serife were all very helpful and pleasant, doing their best to make us feel right at home. To see more of this outstanding place, visit Esbelli Evi's web site at www.esbelli.com.

Family in Urgup

A Family Picture, Urgup

Another nice thing about staying at Esbelli Evi is that it's a bit outside of Urgup proper, in an old part of town with very few hotels and pensions, but with lots of locals. Every time we walked the cobblestone street which led down the long hill to town, we caught a unique glimpse of local life. One day, as we descended from Esbelli Evi, two small children out playing offered to pose for a picture. The next thing we knew, the family matriarch was yelling for the rest of the family to come out for a picture . "Bebek! bebek!" she shoulted to her daughter, the mother of the two cute kids we had met. Bebek is the Turkish word for baby -- Grandma wanted the newest member of the family in the picture, too. Mom came out of the house with kid #3 in tow, a tiny little baby only a few months old. Since all the men were away working (it was the middle of the day), we got a picture of all the women and the kids. We promised to mail them all a couple copies of the pictures we took once we got them developed. Another unexpected case of Turkish friendliness in the back streets of Goreme!

As you've probably guessed by now, Cappadocia was a real highlight in our journey through Turkey. Should you find yourself in Turkey on holiday, you must visit. A few days is sufficient to see most of the sights, but it wouldn't be hard to spend a week or more here without getting bored.

From Cappadocia, we traveled northeast to the city of Sivas....

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