Disclaimer: Today’s summer travel destination isn’t exactly the most widely recognizable corner of the world. In fact, some of you seasoned travel vets out there might be scratching your heads and searching for the nearest world map. But we’re guessing that after a few hundred words or so, we’ll have you dreaming about a trip to Cappadocia.
We’re not talking about the small town of the same name in Central Italy, but rather an ancient region of eastern Anatolia, and part of modern Nevşehir Province in Turkey. Cappadocia, pronounced something akin to Kapadokya, is distinguished by its spectacular landscape of fairy chimneys, cave dwellings and expansive underground cities.
Accessible by either bus or plane from Istanbul, Cappadocia is one of the undeniable highlights of any Turkish grand tour. The centerpiece is Göreme National Park, which was designated in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and protects rock carvings dating back to the Roman era. Another major draw is the town of Ürgüp, where you can bed down in a Flintstone-esque hotel carved right out of the rock face.
Although human settlement in the region began in the Bronze Age, written references to Cappadocia first appear in Persian texts from the 6th century BCE. Cappadocians are also directly referenced in the New Testament as one of the tribes that received the gospel of Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost.
In terms of architectural contribution, Cappadocia left its most significant mark during the era of Roman occupation. Prior to the acceptance of Christianity as an officially recognized religion, devotees were forced to worship in secrecy. As such, many turned to the troglodyte lifestyle, and fashioned vast underground cities complete with cavernous worship halls, intricate alters, rock-hewn pews and hand-painted frescos.
Surreal as it may sound, the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı wouldn’t be at all out of place in the Lord of Rings!
Both cities are entered via unassuming tunnels that gradually descend into the depths of the Earth. There are also obvious signs along the way that past residents were hostile to intrusion. Boulders could be rolled out from hidden pockets to crush bodies and seal passageway. And if you pause briefly to look above, you’ll see holes in the ceiling that not only provide ventilation, but also provide convenient openings for pouring buckets of hot oil!
Only select interior rooms and corridors are open to the public, yet it is obvious that Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı could have easily harbored thousands upon thousands of refugees. There are enormous mills and presses for making food and wine, sealed storage rooms with jar placements for safe-guarding supplies and numerous alcoves that would have allotted individual families with ample privacy for living and sleeping.
Although Christianity was eventually adopted by the empire, regional instability and the eventual arrival of the Turks were major factors in the continued occupancy of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. With that said, above ground settlements in Cappadocia also flourished, and applied troglodyte building techniques to the local geology.
The village of Göreme lies at the center of a vast open-air museum of truly monumental constructions. In the surrounding hills, you’ll find everything from simple cave dwellings and multi-room residential complexes to elaborately-carved monasteries and enormous churches awash with religious paintings. In order to reach some of the more remote sights, you will need to scale ladders, traverse rock bridges, scour cliff sides for handholds and perform other Indiana Jones-worthy moves.
Even where there are no obvious signs of prior human occupation, Cappadocia still manages to astound with its unique natural formations. Of particular note are the fairy chimneys, which have similar characteristics as the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. These towering spires of rock typically have soft sedimentary bases in various states of erosion, as well as harder, less eroded protrusions at their tops. Some of the largest specimens reach heights well over one-hundred feet!
Arguably the coolest part of exploring Cappadocia is spending quality time in any of the cave dwellings that have been converted into luxurious digs. In the tourist gateway of Ürgüp, you’ll find a large number of boutique lodgings that manage to squeeze a good number of creature comforts in between hard rock walls. If you’re feeling posh, you can Jacuzzi in the middle of a cave, and then bed down on a King size mattress strewn across a stone frame.
In the winter months, many of the cave hotels come equipped with fireplaces for staying warm in light of the frequent snow drifts. In the summer months, they stay surprisingly cool, providing you with a well-ventilated refuge from the rising mercury. Modern conveniences aside, it’s not too hard to imagine why people were keen to live inside the rocks generations ago.
Cappadocia is also home to troglodyte-style bars, hookah lounges, restaurants and full-on dance clubs. At the end of a long day of sight-seeing, you can spelunk to whichever venue takes your fancy, and savor a proper Turkish meal, a bubbling water pipe or a glass of local wine. A burgeoning tourist scene of Brits, Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis and savvy North Americans ensures a lively time is had by all.
And now, here are the nitty-gritty details….
Turkish Airlines, alongside most major carriers, connects US and Canadian cities to Istanbul. You can then either continue to Cappadocia by domestic flight, or take advantage of Turkey’s excellent long-distance bus network. Night buses withon-board stewardesses,overhead movies and reclining seats are surprisingly comfortable, very safe and all-together affordable.
So, what are you waiting for? When it comes to summer travel, you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere more exotic that Cappadocia.