Cappadocia, located in the central Anatolia region of Turkey, is a geological oddity of honeycombed hills and towering boulders, formed as a result of the eroding rains and winds over thousands of years. People have long taken shelter underground utilising the soft stone, leaving the countryside scattered with fascinating cavern dwellings, fairy chimneys, fresco adorned rock-cut churches and underground cities. The accordian-ridged valleys colored from dusky orange to cream are perfect for hiking with many well worn paths in every direction. This region has been inhabited since the early 2000’s BC so the historical significance is a key reason for coming here, in addition to the otherworldly landscape.
A return trip to Turkey was not in our original plans however we realized that being so close and not going to Cappadocia would be something we would regret. A few friends have been to this stunning valley and raved about the experience, so we knew it was something we must do. Our itinerary included a visit to Bulgaria, and Istanbul is only a one hour flight away which made it easy to squeeze in a brief detour to Cappadocia. Our first visit to Turkey, last December, was spent entirely in Istanbul which we enjoyed tremendously. This time, we transited through Istanbul making our way directly to Cappadocia where our latest adventure awaited…I was beyond excited!!
We flew into the brand new Istanbul airport, stayed overnight at a nearby hotel and flew to Nevsehir airport at 6:35 am the next day. Now before going further I must say a few words about the NEW Istanbul airport for anyone planning on flying there. They are obviously open well before they are ready!! There is only one runway operational. Upon arrival our pilot drove around the airport taxiways for over 35 minutes before coming to a stop NEAR the terminal, at which point we exited the airplane and boarded a bus for a ride to the terminal. Not exactly what one would expect from a brand new airport. Inside, it is huge, shiny and new, but most of the jetways don’t seem to be open. We had the same issues when we flew to Cappadocia, check in at the gate, bus ride to the plane, drive around the airport for 25 minutes before reaching the runway and taking off. Turkish Airlines obviously is aware of all this because the travel time on our ticket to Nevsehir was 1 hour 25 minutes and the actual flight was 53 minutes, so they are building in all the time spent taxiing around the airport ☹
However…back to the adventure. This trip is sort of a mini vacation because we are staying in hotels and doing touristy stuff, not how we usually travel. We arrived in the town of Goreme, Cappadocia early in the day allowing us time to explore before checking into our cave hotel. Yes, we are staying in a cave, how cool is that!!
Our hotel is up the hill from the main town of Goreme and from the hotel’s rooftop patio we have wonderful views over the valley and town below.
There is a sunset viewpoint on the top of the ridge opposite our hotel, below the flag in the above photo, which we walked to on our first day for even more spectacular views of the surrounding valleys. The town of Goreme, as you can imagine, is filled with endless tourist shops selling all manner of souvenirs, lamps, little balloons and of course carpets.
Day 2 we were up before dawn for a 4:00am, YES you read that right 4 AM, pickup by the balloon company. We booked our hot air balloon experience with Royal Balloons and totally splurged on the Royal King flight package…a once in a lifetime opportunity for us because I don’t envision coming back and doing this again. So yes, we blew the budget and spent 240 Euros each (268 USD) for a 90 minute hot air balloon ride!!!!! No dinners out for a while to recover from this splurge. But, hey, we got the t-shirt and a medal 😊
After our 4 am pickup we went to the balloon company office to pay for our excursion and have a hot buffet breakfast. Leaving the office we were taken on a roundabout journey to the balloon, I think our driver was misinformed about the location of our balloon. Once there, the 12 of us were arranged in the basket compartments and after a safety briefing it was lift off time at 5:50am. We slowly ascended over Goreme and drifted over the Cappadocia valleys wherever the wind took us, in actual fact not far at all. Our balloon pilot changed elevations depending on the winds, which were very mild, to keep us close to Goreme. Our highest elevation was just under 3,000 ft during the 90 minute flight. The sunrise and the scenery were so spectacular that words cannot express how amazing this experience was. Seeing all the other balloons up there with us was truly a sight to behold. We learned from our pilot there are 100 balloons allowed in the first takeoff and 50 more approx 30 minutes later, so a maximum of 150 balloons at one time can be airborne. These regulations were enforced 2 years ago after safety concerns with unregulated numbers of balloons taking off. Balloon operators are also regulated stating the wind speed at which none of them are allowed to fly. Takeoffs are banned at 10 knots and sometimes at 8 or 6 knots if the winds are projected to increase. Our 90 minute flight was filled with gorgeous breathtaking views and was over before we knew it. Following a perfect landing by our pilot we celebrated with sparkling wine, cookies and chocolate dipped strawberries with everyone receiving a medal commemorating our flight.
We were invited to help the staff deflate the balloon by walking on it, which was fun. We chose Royal Balloons based on reviews from fellow nomads Dave & Di and were very happy with our choice. We too can recommend this company if anyone is coming to Cappadocia, the company has a reputation of treating their customers very well. Our pilot Vural has been flying balloons for 10 years and we felt very confident in his abilities as he navigated us very close to some of the rock formations for a closer look. After the balloon ride we were back at our hotel by 8 am, just in time to have the breakfast included with our room 😊 After the second breakfast we were exhausted so had a 90 minute nap to rejuvenate us for an afternoon hike.
Leaving the hotel, we walked just over 2 km to the open air museum but it was teeming with tour groups. Looking inside the area we could see lines of people on the steps up to the caves so we decided to skip it, besides we had just seen it from the air a few hours ago. We walked further up the steep road and found a sign pointing the way to a hike through the Sword Valley, one of the smallest in Cappadocia, and decided to give that a go. It would appear I am not very observant in sign reading since I missed the wording about “narrow difficult sections and steep sections with ladders”. The pathway started off innocently enough but soon turned into an extremely narrow ravine barely wide enough for my foot, and yes there were a few sections where we had to scramble over large boulders and climb down wooden ladders anchored into the walls. Sheeessh, I need to get better at reading trail signs!!!
Blair quite enjoys these type of hikes and asked at the end if I had read the sign, no I replied, but he had!! We finally emerged from this very narrow canyon into the Rose Canyon, which was wide open with many old cave houses carved in the walls.
We continued walking but I felt we were headed further away from town so we climbed up one side of the canyon, spotting Goreme on the other side once we reached the top. An interesting climb down the other side, with more old cave houses to look at and we were finally on a road leading into town.
You would think the trekking around aimlessly would end there, but no, we saw another sign for a trail to the fairy chimneys and took that turnoff. I suppose most people would have walked to the chimneys, taken a few photos and walked back out, not us!!
I saw the ridge above the valley and realized it was where we had walked yesterday and that if we climbed up there we could walk down the other side straight into town, in theory a shorter route! It was not a difficult climb and the trail not too hard to find. Reaching the top of the canyon we found a footpath along the ridge eventually joining the road near the sunset viewpoint.
From there it was a straightforward walk down the old cobbled streets straight into the center of Goreme, and then up the other side of the hill to our hotel. We estimate our distance covered to be about 7 miles, but very little of that was flat so it felt a lot further, and my knees have a lot to say about today’s adventures!!
Day 3 we had planned to sleep in but the hotel is very noisy at 4am with people leaving to go on balloon trips, and a few early balloons floating overhead with their burners firing, so we got up a little after 6am and went to the rooftop patio where we could see the balloons floating in the valley. At 9:30am we were picked up by the tour company and began what ended up being a 10 hour day touring the fascinating Cappadocia region.
Our first stop was the Selime Monastery, almost 2 hours from Goreme. The Selime Monastery is one of the largest religious buildings in Cappadocia, with a cathedral size church, monks quarters, kitchen and alter. This monastery dates from the 8th and 9th century and has been home to numerous civilizations over the centuries. From the road, the climb to the monastery is up a steep and slippery sandstone hill. From the top of the monastery you get a great view of the surrounding landscape, which has been used in the original Star Wars movie and Ghost Riders 2 movie. The top section of the monastery has a fortress like structure with secret passageways, rock stairways and ladders. We were able to wander freely around the monastery admiring the construction of such a place as well as the views.
From the monastery we drove to the Ihlara Valley where we had lunch before a 1 hour walk along the valley floor. Our guide said this valley was second in size only to the Grand Canyon. We did not find the canyon size very impressive, what was more interesting were all the cave dwellings carved into the cliffs and a beautiful church we found along the way. The canyon is 14km long and has a depth of 150 meters but it’s history is the big attraction. In the 4th century this area was a main religious center and at one point hosted more than four thousand dwellings and a hundred cave churches furnished with frescoes.
While most of our tour group slowly meandered along the river, we saw a sign for St Georges Church and detoured up a very long, steep staircase to a church carved high into the cliffs, followed by a few others from our group. It was well worth the effort!!! The church was decorated with frescoes from the 13th century which are in amazing shape considering they are exposed to the elements. It felt like we found something special which our tour guide did not offer to show the group. I suppose they tailor the tours to the participants they have, and we definitely did not have the right group for the climb to the church, one reason we avoid large groups.
Our next stop was at the largest excavated underground city in Turkey, Derinkuyu. This subterranean city, discovered in 1963, is estimated to be 18 levels deep with a capacity to house over 20,000 people. Of the 18 levels, only 8 have been excavated and are open to the public. Below is a cross section drawing of what a few levels of the city looked like.
There is an 8km tunnel linking Derinkuyu to another underground city in Kaymakli. The age of the city and who built Derinkuyu is uncertain, but the Hittites are know to have dominated the region from 1600 to 1200 BC. Personally, one of the biggest “how did they do that” moments was passing by the stone doors used to close off a tunnel. The large circular stones are up to 5 ft in diameter and weighing up to 1,100 lbs. How did they get it in the tunnel? How did they get it in a slot sideways to the tunnel?
The majority of the tunnels are only one person wide, for protection purposes, and most are very low forcing you to crouch to pass through. This feature makes it virtually impossible for an attacker to successfully enter and capture the city.
I must say, it was one of the most interesting places we visited in Cappadocia, and the busiest. It would be worth it to hire a private guide and get there as soon as it opened, if possible, to be ahead of the crowds. We found it difficult to observe many of the amazing features of the city due to the narrow tunnels full of people and the need to keep moving. Still, it is a place we recommend visiting. Blair felt he could spend the better part of a day down there looking at all the details of how it was constructed.
The penultimate stop of our tour was a viewpoint overlooking the Pigeon Valley. The valley is located near the town of Uchisar and named after the thousands of pigeon houses carved into the the soft tufa rock. These days food is placed in the pigeon houses to attract the birds for their droppings, used as fertilizer for the regions vineyards and farms.
Since no tour would be complete without the obligatory shopping stop, we ended our day at a leather store and were presented with a fashion show of leather products followed by a tour of the sales floor. The salesmen were quite aggressive and we could not get out of there fast enough, despite the products looking amazing. We don’t have space in our one and only suitcase each for a beautiful but impractical leather jacket!!
We eventually made it back to Goreme by 7:15pm, dashing off the bus to get to a restaurant we had a 7 pm dinner reservation at. No worries as we cruised in at 7:20 for a lovely and relaxing dinner to cap of a history filled day of sightseeing. Whew, we jammed a lot into one day on the Green Tour 🙂 We booked our tour directly with our hotel at a cost of 33 Euros each (36.70 USD) but every travel agency and hotel offers the same tour. Our group was 24 persons, but even if you book with a smaller group operator, it would not matter with numerous buses at every location. There is no escaping the crush of tourists in Cappadocia!
Our final morning was very relaxing after a busy few days here. We got up at 6am in the hopes of seeing the balloons in flight however the winds were too strong for balloon flights and the sky was devoid of balloons 🙁 No doubt every person booked was extremely disappointed because there is very little chance to re-book, every day the available spaces are fully booked at this time of year. We feel fortunate that our flight went as planned on a calm, sunny morning.
Leaving Goreme we flew back to Istanbul for a 6 hour layover at our hotel, picking up our large suitcases we had left in storage with them. This brief a stay was the result of a small planning error, we misread the departure time of our flight leaving Istanbul as being 1:55pm when in reality it was 1:55am 🙁 Fortunately this was merely an inconvenience before we carried on to our next destination, and a new country for us, Bulgaria…..
We stayed at, and can recommend, the Harman Cave Hotel booked here on Hotels.com The hotel arranged our tour directly with their agency in Goreme and it worked out well. The hotel also arranged our transfers to and from the Nevsehir airport which is just over 30 minutes away.
We booked our balloon flight here with Royal Balloons and highly recommend this company.