I wasn’t blushing, honestly – my cheeks were just rosy from the sun. I raised a hand to shade my eyes and squinted up at the rock formations: at least twenty towering pillars, each one rising up, up, to a big bulbous head. Silhouetted against the cornflower blue sky, they looked tall, slim: the height and girth, say, of Nelson’s Column – but with bulging mushroom tops. I smirked, and a little giggle escaped. Was it just me, or were we in a forest of phalluses?
“Welcome to Cappadocia,” said Serdar, flinging his arms wide to emphasise the scale of the landscape – and perhaps the scale of my embarrassment.
“It’s like something the naughty kid would make in a pottery class, isn’t it?” he mused, straight-faced, gazing out at the view while I shuffled beside him. I’d always known Turkey has beautiful beaches and exotic cities, but who knew its countryside was quite so fruity? There were so many jokes I wanted to make, so many silly photos that were simply begging to be taken, but I’d only known Serdar, my Turkish guide, for a few hours – and it was just me, him, and penis-shaped rocks as far as the eye could see. Let’s not make this any more awkward…
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My best girlfriend and I, bored of European city trips and not quite flush enough for a blow-out spa weekend, had been craving a short break with a difference. Cappadocia, almost slap-bang in the middle of Turkey, had sounded like the perfect tonic: the brochure promised gentle walking trails between “fairytale chimney-shaped” rock formations (a-ha!), fascinating history, local vineyards – and an absolute bargain, just £210pp for three nights, including a guide. But unforeseen events had forced my friend to cancel at last minute. I’d be heading to Turkey alone.
While planning the trip, my friend and I had pored over photos of Cappadocia’s hot air balloons, floating like party decorations over chasms and canyons – a sight so wonderfully weird it was surely Photoshopped. But at 6am on a Saturday morning, I found myself soaring over that very same landscape in a wicker basket – the dawn light bathing everything in a golden glow, with only the roar of the burner to break the silence.
We’d lifted off into the dark, rising slowly with the sun, along with hundreds of other balloons. Below, a huge Turkish flag fluttered atop a plummeting, sheer-sided cliff, surrounded by hundreds of spiky pyramid-shaped peaks. Above, a rainbow of soaring orbs, their tiny baskets dangling beneath. What an invigorating start to the weekend.
I’d arrived late the night before, in the dark, so was delighted to discover that my hotel had fabulous views too. The roof terrace, scented with huge rose blossoms, was the perfect post-ballooning breakfast spot: I looked out over downtown Goreme – a tiny cluster of houses, markets and restaurants sandwiched between towering pumice-stone peaks. My hotel was right on the edge, with rooms actually carved out of the rock. Cool yet cosy, they were like mini caves – albeit with en suite bathrooms and double beds. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” chuckled Serdar as I marvelled at my rock-hewn digs. And he was right.
‘Goreme Open Air Museum’ is a misnomer: this isn’t your average staid museum – it’s a jaw-dropping warren of cave churches carved into the cliffs overlooking the town. Each one is decorated with ornate biblical scenes: vast, dramatic religious frescoes, many of which are daubed straight onto the rock. The caverns date back to the 11th century, carved by hand from the soft pumice rock. I traced my fingers over the cool, rough walls and shivered: whether the weather is -4°C or +40°C outside, it’s always 15°C inside.
In many caves, almost every inch is covered in bright, ornate paintings: the Virgin Mary standing serenely, St George spearing a dragon, and – in one particularly colourful cavern – a naked, hairy hermaphrodite, surrounded by saints. At least the chill spared my blushes this time.
But as well as being light work for chiseling, the soft pumice is also being sculpted by the elements outside: centuries of wind, rain, ice and snow have created this peculiar landscape – and in some cases, the rock is being eroded right through to the caverns inside.
We drove to another village, surrounded by a lush patchwork of fruit farms, where the cliffs look like honeycomb: the caves that were once hidden inside have been exposed by the elements – like a house missing its entire front wall. Serdar knew a shortcut, so we climbed up through the dusty, ancient cliff dwellings to peer over the valley below. Very Indiana Jones.
These caves were even older than the churches. “This is where Christians would have hidden from crusaders in the tenth century,” said Serder as he pointed out thousand-year-old chisel marks in the rock. “Love of god and fear of death – it’s amazing what they’ll make people do.” I nodded quietly, my mind boggling at the palpable sense of history and humanity. An average Saturday this was not.
Happily, like every great weekend, food was high on the agenda. For lunch, we feasted on Turkish pide (like pizza, loaded with black olives and spicy lamb mince) at a rustic restaurant, in a courtyard garden shaded by trailing grape vines. It was fresh, crispy, delicious – and Serdar and I swapped stories between bites.
This thirtysomething guy was a veritable encyclopedia on Cappadocia: he’d grown up near Istanbul, but had come here to work because “it’s such an amazing, strange place – like another world.” Over tiny glass cups of sweet black tea, we discussed everything from pets to religion, and swapped notes on our favourite TV shows.
The day unfurled in a happy rhythm of eating and exploring: a trip to a pottery workshop, more tea; a visit to a beautiful cave mosque, more tea. Eventually, we pulled up at Turasan, a family-run winery serving tasters of locally-grown wine. I was impressed by the crisp, dry whites: who knew Turkish wine was so good? Serdar was driving, but I was free to swig the gamut of glasses – a Saturday afternoon pastime I was glad to uphold.
Before dark, there was just time for one last stop. “Can you see that camel? – Or the turtle over there?”, Serdar asked as we strolled between the twisting pumice formations of Devrent Valley, that have been eroded over the centuries into animal shapes (if you squint hard enough). “The more wine you’ve had, the more animals you see,” he quipped. “These are Cappadocia’s more, erm, family-friendly rock formations.”
Tomorrow, yet more discoveries awaited: an ancient underground cave city to explore, a whirling dervish performance, Roman ruins to see… But for now, on this Saturday night, tipsy on wine and the thrill of adventure, I was just happy to sit back and take in the view. “I think that’s a penguin?”, I ventured. “Nah, that’s the naked hermaphrodite from the church”, said Serdar, bursting into laughter – all awkwardness of the morning long forgotten. What an unforgettable weekend – and a lovely, unexpected new friend.
The author travelled with Intrepid Travel, on the Cappadocia Short Break trip. From £210pp including guide, accommodation, all transport, entry to all sites, and some meals. The author stayed at Guven Cave Hotel, a simple yet comfortable family-run property with a choice of cave rooms and rooftop suites.
All images from Alamy, unless credited otherwise.