Here is a recipe for an incredible travel destination:
Start with a whimsical, fairy-tale landscape of hoodoos, ravines, valleys and crazy rock formations. Add in a series of 2000-year-old underground cities, places where Christians took refuge during times of war with the Arabs, Persians and Romans. Sprinkle throughout the area 1000-year-old frescoes painted inside churches carved into the sides of cliffs.
Put all three together, add in a giant volcano, hot air balloons, friendly locals, mix in a delicious local cuisine, place it squarely in the Middle East, and you have one incredible travel destination.
Quite simply, you have Cappadocia.
We visited a claustrophobe’s nightmare at Kaymakli, an underground city used as a refuge by Christians during invasions by their enemies. The underground city, one of 200 in the area, was dug by hand and goes down eight stories through narrow passageways, through homes, kitchens, wells, churches and prisons.
The city housed thousands of people who lived underground for up to three months at a time. It must have been a miserable existence, but it was evidently the best option at the time. They did have several huge jugs for wine, which I’m sure was a necessity for mental health while in the darkness.
In the middle of this arid steppe, in churches carved out of rock, is something completely unexpected: dazzling, detailed frescoes painted over 1000 years ago.
Most of the frescoes are in excellent condition, with vivid colors and exceptional details. For some reason, photography was permitted in only one of the many churches (see photo below).
The churches and frescoes are part of the Goreme Open Air Museum about two miles from Goreme, the central town which most visitors use as a base. Standing in the churches, I tried to imagine attending church in a cave back in the day. Then I was elbowed by tourists pushing through to see the frescoes and such imagining had to cease.
The rugged terrain in the area is ideal for outdoor activities like mountain biking and hiking. I loved Cappadocia but my legs hated it. We hiked about 30 miles in 4 days and my legs are still tired.
(Even if you are reading this two years later, I assure you, person of the future: my legs are still tired.)
Several trails leave right from Goreme. We hiked Rose and Red Valley, Pigeon Valley and Love Valley, so named for the phallic rock formations.
Aside: The locals call them “chimneys;” the technical term is “hoodoo,” but the less mature call them “penises.” (Full disclosure: I refer to them as penises.) There are two “Love Valleys” in the area.
I asked an Australian guy, who is living in Goreme, which Love Valley he’d recommend.
“I prefer the short, fat penises me-self,” he said.
We didn’t take his advice, and instead headed out to the other Love Valley with longer rock formations. We enjoyed our Love Valley. To each his own.
To add one final touch of magic to Cappadocia, each morning hot air balloons take flight over the surreal landscape. On day one, as we drove to Goreme at sunrise, about 50 hot air balloons soared overhead. It was a stunning display, with huge, scattered, ominous clouds creating dramatic light play, as sun rays illuminated the balloons and rock formations while casting dark shadows across mountain peaks and valleys.
Another morning while watching the sun rise, I saw one pilot, who was obviously very skilled, drop his balloon down in a valley and rise up through the hoodoos within a few feet of me. I could have jumped onto the balloon James Bond style and rode along for free, but I chose not too.
Note: I would never ride a hot air balloon. As awesome as it would be, I have a crippling fear of heights. My fear of heights isn’t the real issue. The fact that I would certainly fall to my death is the real issue. There is no way around it: I would fall out.