Goodbye to Cappadocia

At first sight Göreme was charming. The village emerged from caves carved into cliff-sides, fairy chimneys dotted about the town! After spending a few days in Cappadocia, I thought it wasn’t nearly as lovely as I’d first thought. The town was a typical tourist hub, full of cheap things, lots of hotels and tour agencies. But then on my last evening I was charmed again by the cars I saw while walking around town.

The parked one was a beauty. But earlier in the evening, while searching for a place where could taste the Cappadocia wines, we’d come across another beauty. A 1953 Studebaker Starlight coupe? Not quite that classic, but a beauty nevertheless. I passed another classic convertible. I may sometimes miss a car, but a convertible makes The Family stop and look every time. This was no exception. I also admired the look of the Göreme Cafe; there was not a single person there below the age of seventy. This wasn’t the place we were looking for.

Later, after a tasting a couple of wines we walked back to our hotel. Most shops had closed. We passed one of the many carpet shops in the town, just as it was about to shut. The next day would be the beginning of the month of Ramazan, a time when nights become more lively. Very early the next morning I heard drums on the road announcing the approach of sunrise. This is an old Turkish custom, warning people during Ramazan that they have to finish their pre-dawn breakfast, Sehri, before the sun rises.

I could get another hour of sleep before leaving to catch our flight on to Izmir and the Aegean coast. I caught a breakfast at a small kiosk (a word which changed meaning as it came into English from Turkish through French) at the airport. After choosing a freshly pressed orange juice, a coffee, and a fresh-baked pretzel I stepped back to take a photo. The shop had everything that a traveler might need: food, souvenirs, even some luggage. I clicked a photo of a charming piece of luggage elsewhere in the airport and sent it to the Youngest Niece. Her instant response, “Cute!” She’s at the age when this word is over-used.

Flavourful Cappadocia

I hadn’t thought I would love breakfasts in Turkey so hugely. Turkey lies at the boundary between Mediterranean and west Asian food zones. The breakfast was a wonderful mix. I have a tendency to overdo the meat, but I could not neglect the varieties of feta, the olives, tomatoes, and herbs, the moussaka, and the wide varieties of bread, and the yoghurt and olive oil. All this with uncounted cups of Çay. Breakfasts were the most self-indulgent parts of my days in Turkey.

The other big surprise were the wines of Cappadocia. We had read about the ancient tradition of wine-making in this region; even the underground cities of the early medieval age had winepresses. But the history of wine in this region is much older, can be extrapolated back to about 3000 BCE. Fatigue had driven this out of our minds on the first two nights, but on the third night The Family and I found a quiet open-air bar which we liked the looks of. Seeing a local Göreme red wine on the menu we ordered it out of curiosity and were blown away by the complex taste. I noted the names of the grapes: this one was a mixture of Öküzgözü and Boğazkere. Both these varieties of grapes are local and have a long history. I would meet Öküzgözü several times later. The barman was willing to give me a taste of the white Narince, which was also complex. We went with the red wine. I noted the name of the winery, Kocabağ, and asked for it every time we had wine elsewhere. It turns out that this is a highly regarded winery with a small production run, and is not so easy to get. We struck lucky on our first try of Cappadocia wine, but we were to discover much more later.

Three volcanoes

As we came in to land in Kayseri airport, I was surprised to see snow-covered peaks. A quick check told me that the cones of three dormant volcanoes poke out over the 1000 meter high plateau of Cappadocia: Erciyes, Hasan, and Melendiz. What we saw from the bus as we transferred to Göreme was the highest of these: Mount Erciyes, whose peak is at an altitude of 3917 meters. In mid-spring it was still fully covered in snow.

We had views of the peak again the next day (above). The volcano last erupted about 80,000 years ago, but is not supposed to be dead yet. Since Kayseri is only about 25 kilometers from it, you might have to avoid this airport in case of Erciyes becomes active yet. I looked at the smooth white flanks of this peak and wondered about skiing, and then was not very surprised when someone told me about the resorts on the slopes of the mountain. Can you climb to the peak? The answer was not very clear, but I guess you could if you wanted to, but it is not commonly done.

On our last day in Cappadocia we traveled southwards, past Nevşehir. The horizon was then dominated by the two peaks of Mount Hasan (3253 meters high) and Mount Melendiz (2963 meters in altitude). Most of the time I saw them as two distinct peaks close to each other, although they are about 40-50 kilometers apart. Apparently Mount Hasan erupted about 9000 years ago. A painting, which was moved from the neolithic Çatalhöyük to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, is said to be a representation of this eruption. Some call it the world’s first landscape painting. Ankara and the the World Heritage site of Çatalhöyük are both in our bucket list for future visits to Turkey.

My favourite view of the double volcano came when we looked down at the Valley of Doves which runs between Göreme and Uçhisar. The combination of the fairy chimneys carved below our feet into the landscape and the distant snow-covered peaks rising above the horizon is a sight that encapsulates Cappadocia. I wish I’d come here in better light.

The first Turkish dinner

When we were preparing for our trip to Turkey, The Family, who usually disdains the preparatory stuff that I read, picked up the article on food and read through it. Two phrases that she repeated were lokanta and ev yemekleri. We were to find out that a lokanta could be anything between a Turkish equivalent of a good dhaba and a reasonable self-service restaurant. Ev yemekleri was more interesting, since it meant a place which served home-cooked food. So, after two days of airline food, when we were in Göreme, looking for our first Turkish dinner, coming across a place which was both was a stroke of luck.

An Indian will find some things quite familiar in a Turkish menu: Çorba (pronounced shorba) clearly means soup, köfte are obviously meat balls and Çay (pronounced chai) is, of course, chai. The family running the restaurant was welcoming and all smiles, and if the boisterousness of the man was not fueled by a little Raki, then he was the most outrageously extroverted person I’d ever seen. We chose to start with the lentil soup, Mercimek çorbası. You can see this in the featured photo. It became an instant favourite.; The Family and I oscillated between this and the tomato soup through the rest of our trip. An order of köfte was an instant follow up. A basket of soft white bread appeared on the table, and was a lovely way to soak up the gravy.

The evening had turned a little cold outside, and the stove in one corner of the lokanta kept the place cozy. A couple of pots on the stove were clearly being kept simmering. When we asked we were told that this slow-cooked meat was a specialty of the house. It takes eight to ten hours to cook, and what we saw here was the next day’s meat being left overnight to be done. Today’s was ready in the kitchen. Both the husband and wife spoke English, although the man was more fluent. We liked the vegetables and meat being cooked together, so we asked for a plate.

This came with a rice and salad. I would get used to this combination of salad over the next few days. Every plate of rice would have a glob of chopped onions with parsley and another glob of chopped cucumber and other leaves. The tomatoes were served either on the plate, as here, or separately. Combining a curry and rice with chopped salads is a fairly standard way to eat in India, so I guess most Indians who eat meat will not find Turkish food very alien. The tastes are pleasantly different though.

The lady came along to tell us that the Çay would be on the house. We’d had Çay for breakfast and knew that it is unsweetened. The Family asked for şeker (pronounced sheker), an easy word to remember. I have tea without sugar, so şekersiz was fine with me. The lokanta was very basic, furnished with plastic chairs and tables, but the food was excellent. We would go on to try many different kinds of places, but this first experience made us come back to lokantas again. We never found a reason to regret it.

The first three notes just happen to be…

Göreme. Gö re me fa sol la te. I would have whistled as I walked if I weren’t so tuneless that The Family objects to it. Our first long walk in Cappadocia turned out to be full of wonderful sights. The fairy chimneys that the region is famous for are hollowed out with caves in which people used to live, and apparently still do. Göreme had several such caves still in use. The path was beautiful, full of the wildflowers that you can see in spring, and lots of sparrows and magpies.

The trail is well-marked, and you don’t need to worry about getting lost. We passed a party in progress. We tourists require exoticism, and the party disappointed by being totally ordinary: normal people dressed up for a party, holding glasses of wine in their hands and taking photos of each other. I did a little ambush photography. It had rained in the day, and the sky was full of clouds. But the sunset was glorious, and lit up the landscape like an enchantment.

Fairy Chimneys

We flew in to Kayseri airport and ran through a thunderstorm to a bus which was to take us to Göreme. We dried off during the long bus journey as we looked out at the landscape which turned from green fields to the white rock chimneys which Cappadocia is famous for. Every guide and guidebook tells you how the word came from a Persian source which means Land of the Beautiful Horses, but a very interesting news story from four years ago throws some doubt on this etymology. Even Wikipedia, never known for scholarship, treads very gingerly around the issue of etymology. But it is a good story, and I don’t mind opening with a scene we came across in our first walk through the countryside which echoes it.

We dumped our baggage in our lovely room in the hotel, a modern house backed into a cliff of the volcanic material the area is famous for, and rushed out for a short walk. It was too late to walk to the nearby outdoor museum, but we took a side route into the Zemi valley and Görkündere ridge. This little-known walk is a wonderful introduction to the special landscape of Cappadocia. As you can see in the photo above, the flat landscape has been eroded into a succession of chimneys. Around Göreme you can see clearly the layers and varying colours of rock laid down in epsiodes of volcanism through the last 10 million years. Erosion can be seen today from about 5 million years ago. So the landscape would have looked roughly similar throughout human history. But of course erosion continues to this day. As evidence you can see at the bottom of the landscape, modern houses are several meters below the ancient rock-cut caves.

I love to see my landscape up close. The photo above shows the lovely textured rock which the free-standing chimneys are made of. It looks pretty friable, and I’m sure with a chisel and hammer I could make a pretty big dent in it. Many of the caves were probably carved out with these ancient tools. This mixture of pumice and compacted volcanic ash called tuff has a name; it is called Ignimbrite. This completely useless piece of information clutters up my mind. I hope that putting it down here will help me rid my mind of it. The darker rock at the top of the chimney is a harder cladding which protects the chimney like a roof.

The thunderstorm had left the place cool, and we needed our warm jackets over our tees as we walked. Now, when I look that this photo, I recall a guide’s story about why these structures are called fairy chimneys. According to him, people used to brew alcohol in these places, and sometimes the fumes would catch fire and be seen from far as a blue glow; so the name. Not very believable, but a nice story anyway. The huge vertical cracks in this rock will reduce it to rubble within a generation or two. Erosion is not always a slow process, nor is it uniform.

The walk was lovely; we saw birds, wild flowers, and insects, enjoyed the weather, and the slow change of light. The day had been stormy, and, as a result, the evening light was spectacular. One of the last things I could photograph was the light of the setting sun putting a lovely glow on clouds and rocks. Fairy chimneys? Enchantment? You better believe it.

Slipstream

Still in light sleep, I registered the fact that The Family had opened the door on to the balcony of our room in Göreme. It was just past sunrise, and the room was full of light in spite of drawn curtains. Then my muzziness was gone when The Family’s excited voice called to me to get up and get my camera. I rushed out with my phone in hand and saw a marvelous sight. There were silent presences hovering in the air above us. It was as if we were inside a story by Franz Kafka, and a tenth of the town’s inhabitants had been turned into delicate teardrops which floated above us.

After some discussion we’d decided against taking a balloon in the morning. It would have been a wonderful sight from up there, but the spectacle from down here was stunning. All the movies about alien invasions, where spaceships come screaming down from the sky, fail to imagine what a stunning sight it is to have a hundred huge things silently floating above you. I went back to sleep, and when I woke later, this was like a strange dream. Only my photo remained to prove to me that what I’d seen was real.