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In the earlier morning twilight, a glow of the impending sunrise begins to outline the mushroom shaped rocks of Gorëme in gold. As I stare out of the van window, my heart races with a combination of excitement and dread. Along the road, giant heaps of deflated balloons lie on their sides. As they begin to fill and expand, the globes flash with brilliant light across the landscape like giant fireflies. To the right and to the left of me, as far as the eye can seen, the balloons are flashing and expanding.
Our van stops at our balloon, which it the first in a line of other balloons. It is four o’clock in the morning. I have booked a balloon tour for me and my family with Urgüp Balloons. For many tourist visiting Cappadocia, the vast plains of central Turkey, a balloon ride is the main reason for the visit. I will admit, I too was drawn to Cappadocia after seeing beautiful photos of brightly colored balloons over the strange and surreal landscape of Cappadocia. However, unlike other tourists, I booked four days in Cappadocia, not just one in order to ride a balloon. For the past four days, I have fallen in love with this beautiful region of Turkey that is filled with history, natural beauty, delicious food and the nicest people on earth. At this point, the balloon ride is just the cherry on top. In this post, I will share with you all of the other wonderful things that you can do while visiting Cappadocia, including a once in a lifetime experience of riding in a hot air balloon.
The Beauty of the Balloon Ride
We all squeeze into the wicker basket that hangs from out giant inflated balloon. Just over my head, I can hear the roar of the flame and feel the heat as our pilot sends the flames into the belly of the balloon. We begin the rise and my heart leaps as I feel out basket disengage from the ground. All around us, over 150 other balloons are slowly floating skyward all across the landscape. As the balloons ascend, the sunrise slowly turns the sky from indigo to pink to orange to blue. But for the occasional distance roar of a flame, the balloons are so quiet, like a swarm of jellyfish floating in a vast sea.
About 30 million years ago, volcanoes spewed ash over this landscape. Eventually, the ash solidified into rock, called tuff, tens of meters thick. In the millions of years that followed, wind and water eroded the tuff into odd shapes, including spires, cones and even a camel. The Central Anatolian Plateau was once largely covered by great lakes, which dried up. The present Tuz Golü (Salt Lake) is a remnant. In more recent times, a different force went to work on the rocks of this region. The tuff was soft and easily worked, and people made this place home, hollowing out the rocks, and carving windows, doors, and curving stairways. Locals even carved churches into the rock. In 1985 Cappadocia’s Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As we rise, this landscape unfolds beneath us. Göreme is in a vast valley of fairy chimneys. My throats burns and my eyes tear up with the overwhelming beauty of the scene. The sun greets us as it rises over the flat plateau in the distance. As far as the eye can see, balloons fill the horizon in the quiet beauty of the morning sky. For an hour, I am mesmerized by the surreal and silent choreography of the balloons, descending and lifting, passing and circling, in the buoyant aerial ballet. At the end of our journey, our basket gently nestles onto a truck bed. We climb out of the basket and drink a champagne toast.
A balloon ride over Göreme is a once in a life time experience. I booked our ride on line a month in advance with Ürgup Balloons. The classic flight cost 195 Euros for a one hour tour that includes a shuttle pick up and drop off at our hotel. I would recommend booking well in advance if you want to ride a balloon. I also recommend that you book your ride for your first day in Cappadocia as the balloon companies will cancel if conditions are not absolutely safe. You will get a full refund if they cancel, but if you want to try again the next day, it may be hard to reschedule if you have limited time. A family staying at our hotel went home disappointed because their balloon ride was canceled and they only came for two days.
Enjoy a Private Hamman
The town of Mustafapaşa was formerly called Sinosas during the Ottoman Empire. During that time, it had a mixed population of Greeks, Turkish speaking Christians and Muslim Turks. In 1924 the Greeks and Christians were forced to relocate to Greece because of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. They were replaced by Macedonian Muslims and Turks from Kastoria, a town in northern Greece. During the exchange years the town of Mustafapaşa lost its former prosperity.
Today the small town has a beautiful new luxury hotel called the Seraphim Cave Hotel. This hotel is built around the original house that belonged to the Seraphim family. The Seraphim cave now houses the rooms of the hotel. The central building of the hotel has an indoor pool, a sauna, a massage room and a Hamman, otherwise known as a Turkish bath. I immediately indulged in my first Turkish bath when I arrive at the Seraphim Cave Hotel. The onsite restaurant serves an impressive Turkish breakfast which is included in our stay. Some of the cave rooms have a delightful amenity, a private Hamman. We are lucky enough to have one of these rooms. However, the best aspect of the Seraphim Cave Hotel is the friendly staff. After four days at Seraphim, they gathered outside to say goodbye to us as if we were family.
Mustafapaşa is a sleepy little town as compared to Göreme which is tourist central. However, I preferred the peace and quiet and the authenticity of staying in a real Turkish town. Both Göreme and Ürgüp are only thirty minutes away by car. A minibus called a dolmuş also connects these little towns and comes every hour. You can ride the dolmuş for 3 or 4 liras. This mode of transportation is how the locals get around so it is a fun way to travel like a local.
Although Mustafapaşa is small, I ate some of the most delicious food at the local restaurants here. We ate kahvaltı, the traditional Turkish breakfast, at Hanimeli Cappadocia Cafe. The family who runs this restaurant used to live below the restaurant which is located on a terrace on the upper level. The restaurant is still run by a son and mom team. If you have more time, they also offer cooking classes.
Eleni’s is located near the town square. Eleni’s serves a delicious white fish, meat casserole and beef shish. Of course, they have kayısı, Turkish apricots, a regional speciality.
Take the dolmuş to Ürgüp. It will take you about twenty minutes. Once you arrive at Ürgüp, climb to the top of Temenni Tepesi or Wish Hill. An ancient legend holds that a slave wished for his freedom on this hill. As his wish was granted, it is now traditional for people to go to the top of the hill and make a wish. At the summit is a tea house where you can by a çay and enjoy the panoramic view.
A bit further down the hill is a traditional cave home, Buyukakten Temenni YeraltI Evi, that is open for tourist to explore for a small fee. You can walk through the house as people perform everyday tasks like cooking and attending to livestock.
Get Lost in an Underground Maze
Cappadocia typical color codes its tours. There are Blue, Red and Green Tours. Each tour encompasses different stops. We opted for the Green Tour because it covered the largest geographical territory and included a hike, which I love to do. When I book the tour, I find out that the “tour” mainly just includes a guy driving us to our various stops. If we want a “guided” tour, that is extra. I figure we don’t need a guide for our hike, so I just hire a tour guide for the underground city portion, the first stop on our Green Tour.
Our first stop was Derinkuyu Underground City where we met with Nadir, our guide. Nadir grew up in Cappadocia playing hide and seek as a child in the vast underground city we were about to explore. Derinkuyu was built by the Hittites about 4000 years ago who carved out this vast underground labyrinth that housed over 5000 people on 8 different floors under a vast mountain. After the Hittites, early Greek speaking Christians came to Derinkuyu, fleeing the persecution of the Romans. During times of peace, the Christians would live in the cave city and cultivate crops and raise their animals in the sun. However, in times of war when they were threatened by various waves of invaders, they would live underground for months at a time.
In 1985, Derinkuyu became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, only the first four floors are open to visitors. I was glad we had a guide who knew these tunnels from the games of his youth, otherwise, we would have been hopelessly lost. I was surprised by how cool and refreshing the air was inside the caves. Nadir explains that the temperature stays a consistent temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit inside the caves no matter what the temperature outside. During the hot Cappadocian summer, a visit to the caves is a cool alternative. The air is also fresh due to the airshafts that run from the lower floors all the way to the top of the mountain.
Explore Ihlara Park
Our next stop on the Green Tour is the Ihlara Valley, a deep slice of green serenity cut into the volcanic rock by the Melendiz River. Ihlara is about a forty minute drive from Derinkuyu. It is time for the hike portion of our Green Tour. Our driver deposits us at one end of the valley with directions to meet him in Belisrma village, approximately four kilometers away.
We descend the more than 300 steps down into the valley floor. Ihlara Valley is so green. The air is filled with little puffs of white, butterflies and purple dragonflies. The sound of the song birds and the croak of the frogs punctuative the constant melody of the rush of the creek. The tall poplar trees reach up towards the sky. Along each side of the gorge, high walls of pink rock are dotted with caves. A tortoise lumbers across our path on his way to the stream.
This tranquil valley was also inhabited by early Greek-speaking Christians who caved numerous cave churches into the walls. We hike up to the Dark Castle Church, one of the hundreds of Byzantine era churches that used to serve this valley that was home to more than 80,000 people. However, today, we feel like we are the only people here in the middle of this green oasis. The people of this valley were also forced to leave in 1923 as part of the population exchange.
Get’s What’s App
Okay, so we were supposed to meet our driver in town. I got that much from our conversation. He did not speak any English. I speak very limited Turkish even though I spent 9 months learning Turkish before our trip. I have been serving as the family interpreter. I really thought he said meet me in town. (Şehre gidin.) We emerge from the valley into the town of Ihlara and our driver is nowhere in sight.
Luckily, we have downloaded WhatsApp. Everyone in Turkey uses WhatsApp. Not only is everyone on this app, but WhatsApp is far, far superior to Google Translate when it comes to translating Turkish to English and visa versa. WhatsApp also has a life saving feature, “Share my Location.” When our driver is nowhere in sight, no worries. I contact him on WhatsApp, share my location and within 20 minutes, he shows up to fetch us.
Eat in a House over a Stream
When our driver takes us to Belisirma for lunch, we eat at the Çinar Restaurant. This restaurant consists of little houses built on the river, each little house with its own round table, rugs and cushions. We take off our shoes and climb into our private little house to relax on the pillows.
Of course we have çay, Turkish tea served in slender, figure eight glasses. We eat the traditional food of Belisirma: trout, meat casserole, fresh fruit and salad. After a long hike, there is no better way to relax than in your own little thatch roofed house over the musical stream. After lunch, we dangle our feet over the side and cool our toes in the creek as we eat our dondurma, Turkish ice cream.
Discover Ancient Churches in Göreme
Göreme is, as I said, tourist central. Everyone wants to stay in Göreme. As a result, it feels a bit like a Turkish Disneyland. However, Göreme has two very important places to visit. First stop is the Göreme Open Air Museum. The Göreme National Park was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. The Göreme Open Air Museum contains a large number of early Christian cave churches. Inside the cave churches, you can see Greek letters spelling out the name of the saints depicted in the frescoes. Sadly, the faces of many of the frescoes are scratched away and no longer visible. A man who sits guarding the Apple (Elmali) Church tells us that a mob descended on these churches and defaced the frescoes in the name of Islam. Today, he educates visitors who come to marvel at the history and the beauty of these ancient churches. The man meticulously points out to us the frescoes depicting the life of Christ including one fresco that depicts Christ as a teenager.
When visiting many early Christian cave churches, I notice similar defacement, leaving the frescoes of the saints faceless. However, today, the Turkish government guards and protects these ancient churches from erosion, vandalism and flash photography. Although Turkey is a largely Muslim Country, it contains a vast number historic sites of rich history of the early Christians, Greeks and Romans. Cappadocia is filled with ancient sites of early Christian settlements. It warms my heart to see a past of destruction and intolerance give way to a present-day of preservation and respect.
Eat on the Roof
Göreme is also a beautiful town filled with rooftop dining. If you would rather have you picture taken with the balloons in the background rather from a basket in the sky, you can enjoy breakfast at one of these rooftop restaurants. However, you have to get up really, really early. You need to be on the roof by 5:00 AM to see the morning parade of balloons.
We instead choose to enjoy lunch on the rooftop. We eat at the Roof Lounge in Göreme. We enjoy the pomegranate berber salad and the meze plate. Even without the balloons, the view is breathtaking. The Dr. Seus landscape of fairy chimneys encompasses our view. It is a surreal and unique landscape that invites my imagination to run wild with interpretation.
Go to Turkish Nights
The Turkish Night Show is great fun. For 50 Euros, we enjoy an all-you-can-eat feast and unlimited wine as we watch Turkish dancing in a giant cave. The dancers take us through a history of central Turkey through dance, music and costumes. The dancers begin with a portrayal of a bride choosing a husband. The bride wears her red folk costume and sizes up her potential grooms based on their strength and dance skills. My favorite part was when the belly dancer led my husband onto the dance floor and tied a purple scarf with jingly coins around his waist. The music and costumes were worth the price of admission.
As I said, there is so much more to Cappadocia, “the land of the beautiful horses,” than balloons. If you venture to this beautiful part of Turkey, give yourself time to explore this vast area filled with nature, history and surreal landscapes. By all means, come to ride a balloon, but stay for a couple days and explore.
If you are thinking of traveling to Turkey, check out Planning a Family Trip to Turkey and Greece for travel planning advice. If you are thinking of adding Istanbul to you itinerary, my advice is Yes, Americans Should Visit Istanbul.
Helpful Turkish Phrases
Also, please do take some time to learn some Turkish. Unlike Istanbul, you are more likely to run into people who speak little to no English. A little Turkish and WhatsApp will go a long way to establish a beautiful and meaningful connection with the gracious and kind people of Cappadocia.
If you are curious about the Turkish Language, check out Fun Facts about the Turkish Language. If you want to try to learn Turkish on your own, check out Learn Turkish with Podcasts at TurkishClass101.
Helpful Turkish Phrases:
- Teşekkür ederim = Thank you
- Lütfen = Please
- Günaydın. = Good morning.
- Benim adım ____ = My name is____.
- Memnun oldum. = Pleased to meet you.
- Nasılsın? = How are you?
- Neredesin? = Where are you?
- Bir çay isterim. = I’d like a tea.
- Özür dilerim. = I’m sorry.
- Yakında görüşmek üzere! = See you soon!
- Güle güle. = Good-bye. (When you are staying and the other person is leaving.
- Afedersiniz, tuvalet nerede? = Excuse me, where is the bathroom?
- Ne kadar? = How much does it cost?
- Kahvaltı var mı? = Do you have breakfast?
- Biraz türkçe biliyorum. = I know a little Turkish.
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Live it with your head in the clouds and your heart filled with wonder.