I was born in this room” - Okhtai tells me as I marvel at the cavernous interiors of the room chiselled from the soft tuff rock formed millions of years ago by the eruption of the volcanoes that once dominated the landscape of Cappadocia. The lava flows had formed tuff rock, which the wind and the rain sculpted into winding valleys of craggy cliffs and conical fairy chimneys dotted with pockmarked caves and towering ravines.
The earliest settlers in this part of Central Anatolia had curved their humble homes in these caves — a tradition followed till date. And many of the Cappadocian homes, like that of my host Okhtai, have been converted into boutique cave hotels when tourism in Cappadocia got a boost a couple of decades ago.
For my three-day sojourn in Cappadocia, I am staying at such a cavern hotel in the small town of Goreme, which has a history that is as fascinating as its landscape.
The establishment of the earliest settlement around Goreme has been traced back to 1800 BC, and for many centuries the area was a watershed between two mighty empires – the Greek and the Persian. But the most illustrious phase of Goreme began in the middle ages when Byzantine Christians fled from the marauding Arabian armies and took refuge in the cliffside chambers tucked deep in the folds of this surreal moonscape. The religious Christians not only built their rock-hewn living quarters but also a collection of rock-cut chapels and cavern churches, which are housed in a vast monastic complex — Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Late in the afternoon, we take the 1.5-km walk from Goreme village centre to the museum. Despite centuries of weathering and vandalism, many of the beautiful frescoes of the cave churches are breathtaking with their freshness of colours. Built around 10th to 12th centuries, they mostly depict scenes from the Bible and the life of Christ, lending a Biblical solemnity to the barren splendour around.
Next morning, we drive first to Devrent Valley. The lunar landscape looks like a painstakingly made sculptural amphitheatre. The clustered collections of volcanic cones and pinnacles strangely resemble camels, crocodiles and serpents, and a little inside, Okhtai shows us a gigantic human hand and a kissing rock-couple! The next pit stop is Pasabag, also known as Monks Valley, where bizarre, mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys rear up from the surrounding vineyards. Our next destination is Uchisar Castle, a royal rectangular crag, and the highest point in the whole of Cappadocia. The stunning panorama from the upper floors, reached by a winding outer stone staircase, leaves us spellbound; but the town disappoints a little.
The large and trendy hotels, incongruously constructed across the undulating valley, look like eyesores amid the outlandish landscape and we hurriedly move on to Avanos. The Red River quietly flows by the small town and as we stroll through the labyrinthine alleys, lined with grand, crumbling Greek houses of a bygone era. We cross the small river a few times before stopping at a pottery shop. Typically painted in turquoise or the earthy browns and bright yellows, the beautiful pieces are traditionally shaped by men and painted by women. We collect a couple of pieces as souvenirs and settle for a late lunch of grilled trout and pitcher kebab at a riverside restaurant before heading back to Goreme.
Breakfast, the next morning, starts at the ungodly hours of 4 am. That too an elaborate spread of ham slices, pastries, salads and fruits. We gulp down some piping hot coffee to ward off the last vestiges of sleep and watch the 30-metre-tall balloon in the field getting inflated with power fans. The pilot beckons us and we hop in the open balloon basket just as the first shot of power flames from the propane burner is injected into the balloon envelope. And off we soar, the subtle motion of flight exhilarating our senses.
The mild breeze carries us over the town of Goreme and the valleys, a thin layer of early morning mist draped over the tall volcanic spires. The staggering panoramic view beneath leaves the 12 people in the basket speechless; and the silence is broken only by the periodic blasts of propane shooting hot air into the vast yellow balloon bag, gliding us further up.
We span up a hillside and dozens of balloons explode into view, a colourful mélange hovering above the valleys. After about 40 minutes of riding, our pilot deftly manoeuvres the balloon through a narrow cleft of a valley, landing smoothly, and we hop off the basket, a little breathless from the intense experience.
After lunch, Okhtai drives us to Kaymakli, one of the largest of Cappadocia’s underground cities built by the early Christians, where they had taken subterranean refuge in an intricate network of underground cities, each of which, with six to eight levels, could house 10,000 people. As we find our way into the depths of this ancient city, through narrow hamster tunnels and passageways, we pass by stables with tethers to hold the cattle, living quarters with blackened walls since they doubled up as kitchens, granaries with huge millstones and churches with frescoed altars.
The interiors are surprisingly cool and with a lot of air circulation. Okhtai shows us the ventilation shafts cleverly disguised as wells and points to a hefty rolling-stone with a hole in the middle. “It was the last line of defence against the attackers. They blocked the entrance with this and kept a vigil through this hole.”
A 1.5-hour drive from Kaymakli takes us to the small town of Cavusin, dominated by a cliff where a cluster of abandoned houses tumbles down the slope in a delightful disarray. We take the dusty, winding path that meanders out of town into the valley, and takes us across the most picturesque part of Cappadocia – Red and Rose Valley.
We hike deep into the valley and as we walk through a land that seems to be twisted out of proportion by an eccentric creator, dusk tints the honeycombed hills and towering boulders in an otherworldly glow of rust-red.
Okhtai points to a small hill and says, “The best views are from up there.” We clamber to the top and a stunning vista unfolds before us – rows after rows of jagged cliffs, their crimson contours blushing in the evening sun, fill the horizon. As the sun finally sets, the last rays filter into the nooks and corners of the craggy ridges, exposing bizarre shapes and designs on furrowed rock faces. We retrace our steps in the twilight as the hills around slowly turn from their ochre red to a soft creamy palette.