Cappadocia day tour: Panoramas, peaks and pigeon poop

On our last day in Cappadocia, Marlon and I signed up for a day tour through our hotel. The tours are pretty standard (with a standard color-code system) throughout all the various tour agencies in Goreme. We opted for one that would take us to sites that were further from Goreme and would thus require the use of a car.

Our first stop was a nearby lookout point with a beautiful panorama of Goreme. Remember the flat-top mountain in the distance from our hot-air balloon ride?

Then we drove about thirty minutes to the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu. Built in the 8th century B.C. and enlarged in the Byzantine era, Derinkuyu was an underground refuge where entire towns, complete with their livestock and possessions, could weather enemy invasions. Though its series of chambers, tunnels and stairs extend eleven stories into the ground, only 10 percent of it is accessible to the public today.

Confession time: I’m claustrophobic. I braved the first room on the first level, but after attempting to walk further in I knew I couldn’t handle it. So I stepped out and decreed Marlon our official representative and photographer.

We worked up our appetites for lunch with a hike through the truly stunning Ihlara Valley. A 16-km gorge cut deep into the mountainous landscape, we hiked only about a fourth of the way through it (4km, which took about an hour to an hour and a half). Four kilometers was not too bad at all. Remember, I like hiking now!

Hike along with me, after the jump!

We began our hike with a visit to one of the many old churches carved into the walls of the canyon. The pattern junkie in me loved these ancient frescoes on the ceiling and walls.

Then we were off at a rather fast clip. Again, I felt like a character in an adventure novel.

… walking amidst scenery taken right out of an epic fantasy.

I almost expected a pair of unicorns to come galloping down this stream. Very Legend, circa 1985.

This was definitely the most active day tour I’ve ever been on—because more hiking and climbing followed after lunch! This time, it was up the mountain to the stronghold of the Nome King (Return to Oz, 1985)… or the Selime Cathedral in real life.


The Selime Cathedral is steep and requires effort. No handholds or stairs here. I struggled, but a German couple on our tour just hopped all over this thing like a pair of mountain goats.


It’s worth the climb, though, to access the hauntingly lovely complex of monasteries, churches and refectories carved within these rocky peaks.

The view of Tattooine from the top is a big bonus. The tour guides are very emphatic in correcting the myth that parts of Star Wars were filmed here, but you can see why people would think that.

On the way back to Goreme, we stopped for a view over Pigeon Valley.

It’s called that because all over this valley, the rocky peaks have been turned into pigeon houses. Pigeons were very important in Cappadocia, which is largely an agricultural region, because they provided fertilizer for the crops.

Of course, no agency-organized tour can end without a big selling opportunity. For our last stop, we were taken to a workshop that processes onyx, a mineral mined in this region. Some of the onyx baubles were pretty, but stone is not really my thing.

However, I did win an onyx egg for answering a trivia question. (Marlon couldn’t believe I know who the founder of the Republic of Turkey was. He thinks he’s married to Hermione.) So at least I got my Cappadocia souvenir without having to spend a cent.

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After catching up on sleep post-balloon flight, Marlon and I took a ten-minute walk out of Goreme town proper to see the Goreme Open-Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I’m not the biggest fan of walking, but there is a lot to see along the way, from spiky alien foliage to the cutest little tag-along pups to camel rides (and the quirky signs advertising them).

The open-air museum is a sprawling monastery complex built by early Orthodox Christians between the 8th and 12th centuries.

Exploring the site takes about three hours at a leisurely pace. You can’t exactly speed through it since there is a lot of uphill walking and climbing involved.

Like most everything in Cappadocia, these churches, refectories and monasteries were hewn out of rock, taking advantage of the natural shelter afforded by these caves.

It’s not just the raw beauty of these rock formations that makes this place a treasure…

 … but also how they represent a rare successful collaboration between man and Mother Nature. These caves have served as natural vaults for the paintings and decorations made by the early Christian monks, keeping them safe for centuries. (Given the region’s bloody and tumultuous history, I’d say they did a pretty good job.)

Inside these rock walls is a truly special site: the Dark Church. For an extra 8 TL (which is well worth it), the stunning frescoes within (some damaged, many still vivid) take you back to what it was like to be a Christian in the 12th century. No photos are allowed inside so this is as far as I can take you.

For a Catholic like myself, the experience was like stepping into an alternate universe (or have I been watching too much Fringe?), a could-have-been. Though we share the same central figures and events as the Orthodox Church, I noticed that the frescoes placed heavy emphasis on saints we barely know—St. Basil and St. George are two of the most important ones.

It made me wonder what history would have been like if the two churches had never parted ways. What would I believe today? Would it have been better for all of us? I guess we’ll never really know; the beauty of a place like Goreme is that it helps us imagine, ask, and wonder.

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Up, up and away

I knew Marlon and I were going to arrive in Goreme past midnight. I also knew that we would have to be picked up at the hotel before dawn. So I knew there was more than a slight chance that I would look back at my 30th birthday pictures and think that I looked like the biggest living eyebag that ever walked this earth. But I knew, more than anything, that I wanted this to be the first thing I did upon turning 30.

So I went for it. My first hot-air balloon flight! And because there are times when even pictures are not enough, I made a video so you could all come along for the ride.

I was stumped for a soundtrack until my wonderful friend Jeline sent me a link to “One Day Like This” by Elbow. It’s awesome to have friends who have great taste in music. Thanks Jeliney!

Oh, and I think it’s so cool that the date of my 30th birthday is printed right on my flight certificate.

Some notes on the flight after the jump:

I have a fear of heights. Observation decks? With glass floors? Hate ’em. So I was a bit worried about how I would respond to this flight. But hot air balloons are now my favorite way to reach the skies. The takeoff is unbelievably gentle. It helps that you always feel something solid—the basket—under your feet. I didn’t even feel the balloon leaving the ground.

Speaking of heights, I had the misfortune to be riding with the loudest, most annoying woman in the world. She just wouldn’t. Stop. Talking. Everything, and I mean everything she saw triggered a barrage of verbal diarrhea.

“Ohmygodlook, a Ford Everest. I want a Ford Everest, honey I really want one of those. Beth tells me they give great mileage. Ohmygod, a cat. So cute. There are so many cats here. It’s unbelievable. Do you know why there are so many cats here? Ohmygoodlook, the balloons! There are the balloons, honey! Do you see the balloons? They look so scary! Ohmygodwait. Is that fire? Are they on fire? ARE THEY ON FIRE?!?! I don’t want to be inside the one that looks like it’s on fire!” Lady, there is a reason they are called hot air balloons. What do you think creates the hot air?

It got so uncomfortably loud in the van (“Small space! Loud sounds!” is what we used to tell our playgroup toddlers) that even her boyfriend/husband tried to shut her up tactfully by saying, “Wow. I didn’t know you were so talkative in the morning.” She retorted: “I’m only like this when I’m scared.” It was like this all the way until we got into the air.

All 16 of us in the balloon were the most unfortunate recipients of a blow-by-blow commentary on how nervous she was at any given moment. To the pilot: “So, you do know what you’re doing right? Have you been doing this long? I just want to be sure.” Pilot’s semi-sarcastic reply, delivered with a smile: “Oh yes. About two whole weeks.

While up in the clouds: “Down! Let’s go down. Down is good. Down is a great idea.” Lady, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t pay €150 for “down.” We all paid for up.

Here’s the clincher. The pilot attempts to reassure her with a few facts about flying. Her response: “Oh no, I know all about flying. I fly Cessnas. Back home in Arizona I fly planes all the time.” WHUUUT? Then why the heck would you be nervous about—oh, never mind! I’m 30 now, I can’t afford to create any more wrinkles.

For a blissful, soaring hour and a half, this hot air balloon ride made me feel like I was in heaven. Too bad I had to share it with the traveler from hell!

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