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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Captivating Cappadocia

At the end of each summer sailing season we like to do a bit of inland travel before heading to the UK for a long winter working.  Travelling by boat is fantastic but you often are restricted to seeing the coast and coastal towns unless you make an effort and venture inland.
After a fantastic few months sailing in southern Turkey in 2008, we opted to leave Bandit in Marmaris, which presented opportunities for exploring inland.  We’d heard lots about the Cappadocia region and decided it would be a good place to head.  People had spoken about the amazing landscape, strange rock formations and cave houses…..but nothing quite prepared us for this spectacular place.
The only bus from Marmaris to the town of Goreme in Cappadocia was an overnight one but the service was said to be luxurious.  We’re always dubious but were pleasantly surprised to find a huge air conditioned bus with reclining seats, television screens and waiter service.  It would have been fine if the locals hadn’t chatted the entire trip or watched the movie with the volume turned high. With all that happening as well as several toilet stops and the waiter parading up and down the aisle with apple tea – we didn’t get much sleep.
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We arrived in Goreme at 5.30am – just as the sky was lightening. Our hotel wasn’t expecting us until 9am so we sat at a cafe sipping apple tea weighing up our options.  Didn’t take long for us to be spotted by an eagle eyed hot air balloon tout who offered us a dirt cheap dawn ride.  Seemed as good a way as any to start the day!
He whisked us off to a paddock on the outskirts of town where the very first balloons from the pre-dawn flight were landing.  They made a spectacular sight as they glided over the landscape before gently coming to earth.  Before we had a chance to change our minds (or check safety issues) we were being ushered into the big cane basket.
Hot air ballooning is huge in Cappadocia – the balloons are a magnificent sight as they fly at dawn and dusk weather permitting.  It’s an almost ethereal experience to drift above the amazing lunar landscape.   We got pretty high in our balloon which gave a panoramic view but it was more fun when we dropped low and glided between the phallic like limestone towers that dot the area.
After the hour long ride we landed smoothly in a paddock and were served a champagne breakfast.  What a fantastic start to our magical week in Cappadocia.
We’d booked our cave hotel on the internet and got a pretty good deal and were stunned to find our room luxuriously appointed and the rate ($40) included a huge breakfast of fresh fruit, nuts, cheeses, meats and breads as well as plenty of hot options.  There were some great areas to just chill and enjoy the wonderful views.
Cappadocia presents many hiking opportunities and, armed with a good map, we set off on several long walks through amazing gorges and lush valleys.  On one walk we stumbled across a Turk in the middle of nowhere brewing up apple tea over an open fire and selling it for $1 a cup.  Enterprising but he was hardly doing a roaring trade!
One day we hired a motorbike so we could explore further afield.  We discovered a town where fruit grown throughout Turkey is stored in huge underground caves.   Because the fruit is stored in a natural environment with even temperatures it lasts for ages which probably explains why we can buy delicious stone fruit all season.
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The country we rode through was astonishing – amazing sculpted rocks shaped and weathered by thousands of years of volcanoes, rain, sun and wind.  Everywhere you would see holes in the rocks where people had carved out caves.  Many of these cave refuges were used by villagers as cold storage or wine cellars.  In some areas hiding places were carved into the tops of towering rocks and it is said the religious people hid here to avoid persecution from invaders.
Some rock formations looked as if they had been created for a movie set and in fact one of the first Star Wars was filmed here. 
Another day we took an organised tour to an area of extensive underground villages.  These were built so the residents could hide when there was a threat of invasion.  The underground villages were amazingly complex with kitchens, sleeping areas, areas for animals and all accessed through narrow, winding tunnels and steps.
We also visited a vineyard – the hot and dry climate of Cappadocia is perfect for growing grapes.  Cultivation was mostly done by hand and not many of the grapes we saw were trellised.
We absolutely loved our time in Cappadocia and one of the highlights was eating out and sampling the regional foods.  A specialty of Cappadocia is food slow cooked in a clay pot over hot coals.  The pot is brought to the table and broken open.  Other times we’d go for mezze which was always a magnificent selection of beautifully prepared and presented vegetables such as marinated eggplant, olives, fried peppers, stuffed tomatoes and vine leaves.

What surprised us was just how basic life in Cappadocia is.  We often saw women gathering firewood, picking fruit or vegetables and men tending small flocks of sheep or goats.  Few had cars – most seemed to use horse and cart, ancient tractors or just hoist things on their shoulders.  In fact the only people who appeared to be affluent were the dozens of carpet sellers who ran fairly slick operations.
From Goreme we flew to Istanbul where we enjoyed a few days wandering the Grand Bazaar, visiting the Blue Mosque and soaking up the sights in this east meets west city.  Highlight was visiting the magnificent underground Basilica Cistern – a complex water storage tank right underneath the streets of Istanbul.  Built from marble in the 6th century, during the prosperous east Roman Empire rule, it was used to store water carted in from a spring 80 km away.
We did get a bit sick of being hassled…mainly by those aforementioned slick carpet sellers!  But, when the price was too good we refuse, we couldn’t resist picking up a few pieces to add to the collection rapidly filling Bandit’s storage lockers.
Then it was onto London for another winter house and animal sitting.