The troglodytes of Cappadocia

Visit the surreal rock-hewn caves of Cappadocia in Turkey and come away reeling
The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia
The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia

This looks straight out of a Flintstones&rsquo movie," I joked to Isha, one of my fellow travellers to Turkey, as we gazed out of our mini-van window on to the surreal landscape of Cappadocia, an endless sun-baked stretch of towering phallic formations, bizarre rock-hewn caves and craggy castles. As our vehicle snaked its way across the lunar terrain &mdash a kaleidoscope of colours shifting from golden to pink, ivory to olive &mdash I had to wonder why Cappadocia isn&rsquot listed among the natural wonders of the world.

Set deep in the heart of Turkey, within the Central Anatolian region, Cappadocia&rsquos astonishing contours owe their existence to ancient volcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago. These volcanic deposits, essentially a soft, malleable layer of ash called tufa, were flung far and wide, thus covering the area entirely. Over the ages, wind and water erosions have been the principal carving force creating yawning chasms, precipitous cliffs and giant conical structures &mdash the latter giving the region its inimitable character. "Fairy chimneys," said Baris, our Turkish guide, as we pulled over to a wide bend in the road to take some photographs. "Early inhabitants of this territory believed that fairies lived underground and that these cones were their chimneys protruding from the earth. For them, there was no other explanation."

I edged along a gorge from which rose what looked like oversized toadstools soaring perpendicular columns wearing gently rounded caps that looked as though they had been shaped by man. "The caps are made of basalt, a hardy substance that is more resistant to erosion than the tufa columns on which they sit. So, while the forces of nature easily eroded the tufa, the sturdier basalt remained, forming these protective caps," Baris enlightened us.

What adds to the interest is that these caves were inhabited. Over the centuries, people have carved dwellings out of yielding rock, giving you the feeling of having stepped back in time to the Stone Age. Today&rsquos cave-dwellers, however, are mostly owners of cave hotels/restaurants these are spaces artfully designed to integrate the natural contours and features of the caves they occupy and give vacationers a sense of adventure.

A strong sun beat down on us from a hard blue sky. It was 9.30am and we were fresh off the flight from Istanbul, and on our way to our hotel. I was eager to be housed in one of the rock hotels, but the one we were going to was only modelled on them, an old house restored as a hotel. "It&rsquos very pretty, though," Baris added quickly, sensing my disappointment.

A half-hour later we pulled up outside our hotel in Uchisar, a sleepy little town enlivened with colourful kiosks. Baris had been right the lodge was lovely. The fort &mdash a natural rock formation riddled with hollows and also Uchisar&rsquos chief attraction &mdash loomed before us like a gigantic anthill. Inside, stucco walls hung with hand-painted ceramic plates wooden floors displaying antique Turkish rugs and kilims in vibrant weaves, indigenous pottery and artefacts...everything captured the rustic aesthetic of Cappadocia. Upstairs, my room was a treat. Intimate and quaint, it had an almost fairytale quality about it. A rough stone bed that looked like it had sprung from the floor dominated the space while embroidered patchwork wall hangings accessorised the granite walls. More antique kilims underfoot, an old-fashioned brass telephone (yes, it worked) and a kilim-upholstered stool added decorative touches. But the best part a private sit-out that afforded great views of Uchisar and of course its fort.

I barely had time to dump my luggage and run a brush through my hair before Baris came around knocking with his customary, "Let&rsquos go, chicas." It&rsquos a good thing I had my sneakers on, because no one had warned me of the serious muscle work entailed in scaling the fort. It was a hot, exhausting climb, which above all forced me to acknowledge how completely unfit I was. Once up there though, I was rewarded with magnificent panoramic views of Cappadocia. In the far distance, a hot-air balloon was floating across, giving some very lucky (and rich) people the ride of their lifetime. "Quickly, please," said Baris as our cameras clicked furiously, "lots to see," in a tone that betrayed a resoluteness to make us see the whole of Cappadocia in less than 12 hours.

Hardly a kilometre later, in absolute contrast to standing atop Cappadocia, I found myself descending deep into its belly at Kaymakli. I hadn&rsquot anticipated anything like this. A vast, subterranean warren of tunnels and rooms sank as far down as eight storeys, and I was in one of the largest of several ancient underground cities that excavations have revealed. Do these number 30, 40 or even 100 No one knows for sure. Built predominantly around the 4th century AD as hiding places by Christians escaping persecution at the hands of the Romans, some of these cities are believed to date back to 1800 BC or so, when the Hittites, an early Anatolian tribe, first settled here. We half-crawled through a constricted passage that was once a storage room for grain, sometimes used as a wine cellar. Lower and lower into the earth&rsquos interiors we descended, the air growing progressively chilly, the corridors tightening around us. We suddenly entered an opening that had me straightening my back in relief. "Were these toilets" I asked, indicating a neat row of small depressions at one end of the room. "Possibly," answered Baris, "for this was the cleaning area." I stared around in fascination, down another tunnel which widened into yet another opening perhaps the communal living room. There was a time when a few hundred or more people lived together in this dank, sunken labyrinth &mdash cooking, sleeping, washing... even the imagination faltered.

Next stop, the district of Goreme for its open-air museum. Today a World Heritage Site, this cluster of medieval chapels, churches and monasteries carved by Christian monks between the 10th and 12th centuries AD, is one of the finest testaments to Christian faith in the region. Though architecturally very basic (no different from the crude lines of the underground city), the museum draws visitors for its arresting frescoes.

There was a nip in the air that suggested sundown was close. Fatigue was slowly taking over, and I longed for a hot bath and a comfortable bed. Somewhere in between we had managed to squeeze in a quick meal of veal/lamb kababs and ayran (aka lassi). But more Turkish delights awaited us. The Red Valley, some good Cappadocian red wine, and then, sunset. An hour later we sat at the peak of an enormous rugged cliff, sipping wine and looking down on &nbspa rose-tinted valley, its dramatic surface glinting shades of ochre, green and even pale blue under some brilliant lighting. "It gets its identity from the rich clay deposits of the nearby Kizilirmak river...," Baris had started on another illuminating speech. But I wasn&rsquot listening any more. I had been here a day and could claim I had seen it all. Yet, somehow I got the feeling that even if I stayed on for months, lived here perhaps, this weird beautiful land would continue to surprise.

The information

Getting there

Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from India to Cappadocia. I flew Turkish Airlines to Istanbul for Rs 29,850 (return, after taxes). From Istanbul only two airlines fly to Cappadocia &mdash Turkish and Onur Air &mdash and they both land in Kayseri, one of Cappadocia&rsquos main cities. Turkish Airlines offers three flights, and Onur two (tickets range from &euro38 to &euro77). Kayseri has several bus services to central Cappadocia.

Where to stay 

My base was Uchisar, which was within easy driving distance of most tourist spots. I stayed at a mid-range hotel, Ahbap Konagi (&euro65-120,, but budget options are available at Erciyes Pension (&euro11-22, and La Maison du Reve (&euro15-30, www. However, the most centrally located bases are Goreme, Urgup and Avanos, all of which offer budget to top-end accommodation. Goreme has the charming Anatolian-style hotel Goreme House (from &euro55, and in Ugrup, Yunak Evleri (from &euro85, is a fascinating place with cave houses and rooms dating to the 5th and 6th centuries.

Where to eat 

Uchisar has a range of decent eateries. For some good beer and Turkish staples, visit the House of Memories (&euro8) or Centre Cafe and Restaurant (&euro10). The kababs, in particular, are excellent. A more expensive option is the stylish Elai (&euro15-20,, where you will be treated with international cuisines, five-star service and lovely views of the surrounding region.

What to see & do

> Museums The open-air museum at Goreme, for its medieval frescoes inside the chapels, churches and monasteries. Zelve Valley, which was one of the earliest-settled monastic valleys, was vacated only as recently as 1952 before being converted into an open-air museum in 1967. Visit for its 40-feet high fairy chimneys and churches that date back to the Iconoclastic Period.

> Underground Cities The exact number of underground cities in Cappadocia remains unconfirmed, but the best-known are at Kaymakli, Derinkuyu and Ozluce, which is smaller than the other two.

> Pottery Avanos is the handicraft centre in Cappadocia. Famous for its pottery, it has close to 300 pottery schools, many of which follow the old Iznik tradition in ceramics. If you&rsquore in the mood to shop, check out Chez Galip (, where you can also learn pottery-making.

> Hot air-Balloon Ride One of the best ways to view Cappadocia&rsquos fantastic landscape. Try Kapadokya Balloons (, or Goreme Balloons (, both of which offer a one-hour ride with 20 passengers for &euro160. Note that balloon rides start at dawn.

&gtDaglar National Park A must-visit in Cappadocia, this park is known for its rather surprising trekking/excursion routes along rugged limestone ranges lined with waterfalls. If possible, take one that includes the Kapusbasi waterfall on the Zamanti river. Rafting trips are also organised here.

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