Monday, July 9, 2012

The Wild West, Turkey Style

Twenty years ago a travel book club friend mentioned her recent trip to Cappadocia and described the marvels of its fairy chimneys. Once she clarified for me what a fairy chimney was, I mentally added it to my list of must-see places.

Our early morning flight from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (which miraculously managed to feed us breakfast and serve us coffee on a quick 50-minute flight) arrived in central Anatolia at the thoroughly modern airport at Neveshir set on a vast, arid plain ringed by distant mountains. We had landed in the middle of nowhere. The airport transfer van took us across the lowland to the east with nothing to see for miles until the green of the vineyards started to appear.

“Look, grapes!” I exclaimed, “There must be wine.”

Joe, ever the optimist, replied without a beat, “Or jelly.”

We soon reached two-lane country roads where we slowed behind horse-drawn Cappadocian produce carts and passed farmers tilling spacious farms with mule-drawn wooden rudders. Like the rustic scene of a Millet painting, sturdy, sun-burned farming women in heavy babushkas covering their heads and outfitted with long, stifling woolen skirts wielded hoes in the scorched fields. It was difficult to believe that the rural scenes we were witnessing were actually taking place in the twenty-first century.

Continuing our drive through the sprawling, nondescript terrain, we at long last reached the flat-topped mesas and sinuous valleys we’d first seen on the horizon. In an approach reminiscent of the somewhat unremarkable move towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon, with the scraggly olive trees of Turkey standing in for Arizona’s scrub pines, the earth suddenly opened up and the extraordinary landscape miraculously appeared. We’d reached the heart of Cappadocia and there they were in front of us: forests of dreamy, delicate fairy chimneys sprouting across acres of moonscaped terrain tucked into curvy, sandstone cliff faces. The tall, thin, stone columns, some like elongated teepees and others textbook phallic formations, are the vestiges of volcanic eruptions whose lava flows the elements sculpted into eerie, pointed creations. Four thousand years ago, ancient Hittites chiseled homes into the gigantic anthills that look as though they might crumble to the touch but are actually hardened, solid cones of stone. The original inhabitants paved the way for future residents: Byzantine Christians seeking refuge from persecution first by pagan Romans and then marauding Muslims, cave-dwelling hippies in the 1960s and today’s chic boutique hotels. Gazing at the fascinating structures in their surreal setting, I kept waiting for oversized desert insects to crawl from the pointed tops. Surely the creator of the Flintstones took a trip to Cappadocia for visual and atmospheric inspiration because there we were, smack in the middle of the Turkish Town of Bedrock. I continually fought the urge to break into song: “’s a page right out of his-to-ry.”

Our accommodations in the busting frontier town of Göreme were in one of the aforementioned cave dwellings turned boutique inns, the beautiful and accommodating Kelebek Hotel, set high along a ridge and dug dramatically into the volcanic rock. It was a lovely all-stone property with rock-hewn archways and cozy panoramic porches covered with soft Turkish carpets and strewn with overstuffed pillows for making ourselves comfortable as we surveyed the valleys. We spent two relaxing evenings on the unique loggias enjoying the troglodyte lifestyle sipping crisp Cappadocian white wine while gazing over the otherworldly rock formations.

We hiked the scenic Red Canyon just outside Göreme and the following day, through the distant Ilhara Valley. Ancient dwellings called pigeon houses – traditionally used to collect bird droppings to be used as fertilizer -- and carved directly into the walls of the canyon riddled the sheer rock faces. The remnants of medieval monastic settlements and tiny, frescoed, vault-ceilinged chapels cut into the base of towering cliffs lined the tranquil, green valley from the 11th century days when Christians hid and practiced their faith in the difficult-to-discover gorges. Simple but effective giant stone wheels that could easily be rolled into place as a last line of defense to shun attackers peeked out beside the entryways. At the end of our valley hike, we enjoyed a simple outdoor lunch at a brookside restaurant that included a delicious bowl of white lentil soup (our third version of this scrumptious potage), eggplant and tomato stew and plain yogurt drizzled with honey for dessert. Turkish yogurt is a bit sour -- mouth-puckeringly sour, in fact – and while refreshing, is not quite up to par with the thick, creamy version we enjoyed daily in Greece.

Beneath Cappadocia’s Star Wars-like landscape is an intricate network of subterranean cities. The local Christians used them to hide from the ever-present hostile forces; they went underground, in quite a literal sense. Each of the subterranean systems housed up to 10,000 people at a time and the largest yet discovered are ten levels deep, with tight passageways connecting the floors like so many hamster burrows. We stooped down and squeezed through the narrow tunnels, fighting waves of claustrophobia with every step and saw smoke-blackened kitchens, handy indentations for storing spices, undulating ventilation shafts masquerading as wells and chambers near the top for housing farm animals. They were extraordinary labyrinths dug to respond to frightening times and we gratefully breathed the fresh air and deep sighs of relief when we finally resurfaced.

Cappadocia was the Wild West, Turkey style. Its landscape and spirit were so evocative of the American Southwest – places like Mexican Hat in Utah with its funny rock formations and the deeply spiritual Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. There were towering buttes and squat mesas, horses, dust and the unmistakable feeling of a border town. I had a powerful urge to saddle up and head for the hills and had we more than just two nights in captivating Cappadocia, we just might have done so.

Pictures of our adventures:

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