Flintstone country

Sleeping in caves carved into mountain cliffs is nothing out of the ordinary in Turkey's Cappadocia. What is extraordinary is what they've done with them.

Turkey balloon 88 224  (photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
Turkey balloon 88 224
(photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
'In case of a rough landing, bend your knees and hold tight to the red rope attached to the basket," warned our pilot, Sarhan Leki, as we boarded the hot-air balloon to explore the lunar landscapes of Cappadocia. "The region is an ideal destination for hot-air ballooning, since it combines spectacular views and consistent temperatures. During the high season you can spot more than 15 balloons in the sky every morning" As we climb up in the air for a scenic flight among the strange rock formations, it's hard to tell who is more excited - me, making my inaugural flight, or Sarhan, one of seven hot-air balloon operators around Cappadocia, who is so enthusiastic about his job. Hasan to the west and Erciyes to the east are the two ancient volcanoes marking the boundaries of the fascinating region of Cappadocia whose landscapes were carved over centuries by wind, rain and its inhabitants. The eruption of the two volcanoes millions of years ago covered the area with a thick layer of lava, ash and mud that have eroded away creating tufa, a soft stone that hardens through contact with air, leaving a surreal vision of hard cap rock on tall pillars known as fairy chimneys. Cappadocia, translated as "land of beautiful horses," is covered in ocher soil: a monochromatic palette. It has a unique natural landscape including pastoral valleys, a number of subterranean towns and an abundance of rock-hewn churches decorated with frescoes of scenes from the Bible. For decades these sights have attracted travelers - mostly archeologists and backpackers - but by putting up several new khans and reconstructing ancient caves into boutique hotels within the triangular area bounded by Avanos, Nevsehir and Urgup, the region has recently become a great escape for the young and more sophisticated crowds. Located in a strategically critical area, important trade routes - including the Silk Road - crossed throughout Cappadocia. As a result, the region was a complex web of historical and cultural influences. No wonder then that it has been frequently invaded, raided and many times conquered by different armies. To protect themselves, the local inhabitants chose to escape to the region's caves that eventually became subterranean cities, some of which date back to before the Christian era. "WATCH YOUR heads," repeated our guide Mustafa Ajar as we toured the underground city of Kaymakli, one of 36 subterranean settlements many consider to be the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Opened to the public in 1964, Kaymakli is regarded as the largest and most beautifully constructed. At 73, Ajar, born in the nearby village, is one of the city's most experienced tour guides. "As a child I used to play hide-and-seek with my friends inside this system of caves," he said as we crawled under the low ceilings of food depots, wine cellars, water reservoirs, bedrooms and even temples. "It's believed to have been built by the Hittites, but the Romans, the Byzantines and even the Proto-Hittites lived here," he continued, lecturing passionately as we were already four floors beneath the ground. But apparently when he noticed that at tiny passageways most of the group were not exactly happy campers - to say the least - he decided it was time to head to the exit for a breath of fresh air. Yes, as interesting as the historic city is, it's not for the claustrophobic. Fear not: A short drive from Kaymakli in the direction of Goreme will take you to Uchisar, a spectacular site with wealth of gentle winds, 1,000 meters above sea level. Another of Cappadocia's attractive sites, Uchisar is located to the left side of the Nevsehir Urgup road. The houses of this little town were first built around the castle, and with population increase - and erosion - habitation moved toward the lower parts of the valley, leaving the citadel in the middle of town. A short and easy climb to the top of the citadel will reward you with a spectacular vista of the surrounding valleys. Near Uchisar is the Pigeons' Valley which became popular with hikers for its scenic route. Named for the hundreds of pigeon houses carved into the rock, the valley has one of the greatest collection of pigeon lofts in the world. In Cappadocia, pigeons have long been a source of food and fertilizer, and some of the local farmers still maintain their lofts because they insist that the reputation of the region's fruit is entirely due to the pigeons' droppings. IF YOU'RE into something a little more adventurous, the Ihlara Valley trail is a wonderful place for exploration. The valley was formed by the Melendiz River which carved a 150-meter-deep canyon. The 14-km. tranquil trail passes through olive groves, oak trees and a number of churches caved in the volcanic rocks. Due to the availability of water and the possibility of creating an easy-to-hide structure, the place was the first settlement of Christians escaping from the Roman soldiers, and later sheltered them from the Arab invasions in the seventh and eighth centuries. The hike through the canyon's green bushes while listening to the constant murmur of the water was a delight. It provided us with a change of scene from the somewhat monotonous landscape of Cappadocia.