cappadocia, turkey

So we spent two months this past summer in Turkey (the end of June through the end of August).  Let me enlighten you if you missed me mention it 39 times over the past six months - we spent our weekdays working at an English summer camp in Istanbul, and our weekends exploring the city.  Two of those weekends, though, we planned ahead and went a bit further afield - in July we went to Cappadocia, and in August we went to Pamukkale and Ephesus.  

Turkey is a large country, no doubt, but the distance from Istanbul to Cappadocia really isn't that far - it's only about eight hours by car (I mean, according to Google Maps, I haven't done the drive myself), but we flew because doing so would allow us to spend the most possible time in Cappadocia.  Our plane was very delayed boarding, but once we finally were allowed on, Danny and I found that we had been, for the first time ever, upgraded to first class!  It was a really fun and special surprise, and we thoroughly enjoyed everything, from the raspberry juice as we waited for everyone to get situated, as well as the meal which took almost the entirety of our hour-long flight.  

D - I am so unaccustomed to flying in first class that the very first thing I did, right in front of the flight attendant, is try to put up the cupholder that is the middle seat so that I could sit next to my wife.  Apparently that is supposed to stay down because people in first class like their space.  Very embarrassing rookie mistake...

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We arrived long after sunset due to our delayed flight, so we weren't really able to get a feel for where we were at all (although, of course, I had a decent idea of what things would be like based on research, the internet, Instagram, etc., etc. - nothing's really much of a surprise anymore is it?).  Regardless, waking up and looking out our window, and then seeing the views from breakfast...we were pretty stoked about it all.  I mean, Danny was maybe more excited about the breakfast buffet than anything else, but that's to be expected.  The food was really good.

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We stayed at the Koza Cave Hotel that I had read about here and thought, "Eco-friendly?  Views?  Plus a cave hotel?  This is NOT the kind of place we can afford, but I'll let my eyes glaze over while looking at their website anyways."  Well, lo and behold, it was well within our price range and we could not have been happier with our stay there - I literally cannot recommend staying there enough if you visit Cappadocia. 

Tourism has plummeted throughout Turkey since the terrorist attack on one of Istanbul's airports and the failed coup attempt, both of which happened within about three weeks in the summer of 2016.  American and European tourists especially have been steering clear, and as a result, the prices of certain things (hotels, for one) have dropped and most people were ecstatic to see us, which really worked to our advantage this summer.

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During the weeks leading up to our trip, we went back and forth about how to get around the Cappadocia area.  I believe it was my original suggestion that we rent a scooter and use that to see different sites in the area, but we also considered a car as well as doing a guided tour.  After a member of the hotel's staff let Danny try out his scooter, the three of us decided to skip that and get around by foot exclusively on the first day and just do a one-day car rental for our second day.  It was ambitious, walking around everywhere, and we really should have bought some sunscreen to go along with our plan, but we lived to tell about it. ;)

D - I'd just like to say that for it being my first time on a scooter, I performed quite admirably (thanks to the YouTube videos I had watched in preparation), but I agree that it was probably a good idea to stick with our usual car rather than risk our lives to save a bit of money and feel the breeze through our hair.  

Our first stop was Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a smattering of ancient churches, chapels, and monasteries cut into the rock, some of which date from the 3rd and 4th century BC.  Many are filled with frescoes and paintings - and just as many have been defaced by Muslims who believed that humans should not be depicted in art.  We were able to enter many of the caves and get our first taste for what Cappadocia is all about - I will say that it would have been hugely beneficial to have a good guide or guidebook though, as I learned the most about the museum in the last 15 minutes I spent reading various blogs and websites to get some info to add in here.  

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We walked from the open air museum to Red Rose Valley and on into Love Valley, and after we left the museum, we hardly saw any people until we made it to a restaurant for dinner (and even then it was pretty much just us and the staff the whole time).  We followed dusty, dirt paths, saw few signs here and there, rationed out our water and energy bars, and explored places that looked interesting to us - climbed up hills, peeked in caves, tried wild grapes, and mostly stopped in the shade as much as possible - it was HOT, and our skin told us as much the next day.

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We made it through our epic day of walking - for about nine hours straight in the 90°+ heat - and were more than happy with what we found at Sakli Konak, a restaurant connected to a hotel that serves authentic Turkish food (at least that's what we've heard, since we're not experts on Turkish food by any means), and also has many vegetarian options.  We ate outside on the terrace as the sun was starting to set, and sampled a variety of different dishes...I didn't like much of the Turkish food I tried while in Turkey, but I would repeat this meal without much convincing. :)

D - Yeah, as Shannon alluded to, the hike took us much longer than we both thought it was going to take and, not gonna lie, we were both a bit miserable by the end of it.  Thankfully, our dinner that night was great!  A good meal can really be a game-changer and make or break the overall tone of a day.  

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We had booked a spot on a hot air balloon ride for the morning before (Saturday), but when we arrived at our hotel on Friday night, we were told that all the flights for the next morning had been cancelled due to strong winds.  We were disappointed for sure, as most photos and tours of the Cappadocia area include hot air balloons.  To be honest, I was secretly a bit pleased, because these hot air balloon rides don't come cheap, and the companies generally insist on being paid in euros, something we hadn't brought a lot of to Turkey, for obvious reasons.  Much to our delight (mostly ;)), we were able to be rebooked for Sunday morning, and so there we were, eating breakfast at 5am with a couple hundred of our new closest friends before being taken out to a field for our much-awaited ascent into the sky.

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We unloaded from the vans and were told before too long that our flight was cancelled due to wind - others were allowed to go ahead but as our balloon hadn't been inflated yet, we could walk around and look at other balloons, and then head back into town, and of course, get our money back.  Again, I felt just a slight bit of relief over the amount of money we wouldn't be spending - plus we got a free breakfast! - but you don't have to scroll down much farther to see Danny in the basket with a double thumbs up...you better believe the balloon company did everything they could to get happy (paying) customers who would go home and list the hot air balloon ride as the highlight of their trip to Turkey.

D - I was really excited for our hot air balloon ride (I mean it's a real bucket list item, who wouldn't be?) so when our pilot poked his head in our van and told us we wouldn't be able to fly that day, I was devastated (or positively gutted as my British friends might say).  This next series of photos doesn't really do justice to the pain that I felt.  I'm not a cry baby (okay, yes I am) but I seriously felt like crying.  

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As you can see from the plethora of photos I've included below, seeing Cappadocia from the air is really special.  Although we missed most of the sunrise due to being in the second flight group of the day, as well as the delay caused by all the uncertainty as to whether or not we'd be able to actually go up, it was still pretty great - a true once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'm really, really thankful we got to have (plus, since we went at a time when tourism in Turkey was incredibly light, we paid less than the website advertised, all while using one of the most highly recommended companies in the region, Butterfly).

D - Butterfly did a wonderful job! I'm glad that they made us practice the landing position as it came in handy when we had a bit of a rough landing and our basket tipped over! It wasn't as dramatic as you might think but that didn't stop one of our fellow passengers from letting out a bloodcurtling scream as we slowly went horizontal. The crew took it in stride and even offered to take pictures of us in our crash-landing position. Afterwards, we celebrated by trampling on the balloon to symbolize our victory over gravity and death with some champagne and strawberries. Then we were each presented with a certificate that I will forever cherish have already lost. Now how am I supposed to prove I went on a hot air balloon ride? Oh well, what can you do?

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After our early hot air balloon start, we stopped by our hotel for a quick shower and breakfast (our first had been so early and the hotel's was just so good!), plus we picked up our rental car for a day of exploring some of the farther out spots in Cappadocia.  

We began at Pasabag, or Valley of the Monks.  This was a quicker stop for us, but Danny really took his climbing to the next level here.  It's also worth noting that Pasabag is free to visit, is right on the road, and you don't have to do much walking to see most of the formations and caves (have I mentioned how hot it was when we visited at the end of July?), so all those factors together probably created a perfect storm for why we encountered more visitors here than at other sites - and why we didn't stick around for long.  

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Our next stop was one of my favorites of our trip.  Zelve Open Air Museum wasn't the first place we'd visited with different structures carved into unusual rock formations, but it was one of the only places we went that we felt like the only visitors.  Up until 1924, both Christians and Muslims lived together in homes carved into the Zelve Valley, worshiped in churches and mosques cut into the rock, and used a grindstone for various tasks (pictured below), among other things.  The Christians were forced out in 1924, and in the 1950's, it turned into a ghost town as it became too dangerous for daily life due to erosion, but Danny and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hours going in and out of former homes, churches, mosques, and so on, as well as climbing around to really get a feel for the place - it was a really massive community and I don't think we could've gone much faster than 2-3 hours.

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I took care of the flights and accommodations, but Danny planned what we actually did while in Cappadocia (and as you can see, he did a smashing job).  I honestly didn't know that there was much to do beyond hot air balloon rides and walking around the rock formations, so when Danny told me an underground city was in the plans, I have to say that I was a bit skeptical, especially because he said it was highly recommended that we hire a guide to show us around and give us explanations of everything we were seeing.  I really prefer places where signage is good enough that guides are unnecessary, or else guides come with any entrance fees paid.  I think that's just the stubborn American in me, but I just really dislike having to choose and pay for a guide on top of an entrance fee (there's usually pressure and bargaining involved as well...). 

Long story long, we hired a guide to tour Kaymakli Underground City (with the euros we saved from the hot air balloon being cheaper than advertised online!), and while we didn't end up with the most gregarious one, I think we were both glad we did have one.  We walked through many of the tunnels and rooms across four levels (there's eight but only four are available to visitors), and saw cellars, stables, churches, kitchens, living areas, and ventilation chutes.  It was truly a remarkable construction and amazing to think of people (and animals!) living in Kaymakli for thousands of years, beginning perhaps in the 8th century BC until 1923 when Christians were forced out of Turkey and the city ceased being used, until the 1960s when it was opened to tourists.  

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Our final stop in Cappadocia was in Üçhisar, a small town in the Cappadocia region well-known for its tunneled 'castle' that has been useful as a place of refuge for centuries, and is now a popular spot for taking in the views - the outcropping can be seen for miles.  In my opinion, paying six Turkish lira to climb the stairs to the top if you decide to skip the hot air balloon ride, while certainly not the same as floating over the whole area at sunrise, isn't a bad trade, and will save hundreds of euros.  I know we certainly enjoyed both, and it was close to Sakli Konak, the restaurant we had dinner at on Saturday, and decided to eat at again on Sunday before leaving for Istanbul.

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Üçhisar was our last stop in Cappadocia, and after we dropped off our rental car at the hotel in one piece (a major relief, as we were a bit worried about driving in Turkey, but all went very well - so well we went on a three-day road trip a month later ;)), we took a bus to the airport, a plane to Istanbul and after a bit of effort trying to find some WiFi in the heart of Istanbul around 1am, an Uber back to campus.

Cappadocia was (and is!) amazing.  If every day we spent in Turkey, aside from the two we got in Cappadocia, were the worst days ever (and they really weren't - I have so much good left to share), then it would have been worth it, because walking among the otherworldly formations, eating amazing Turkish food, exploring caves and churches and underground cities, taking a hot air balloon ride, interacting with kind and helpful Turks, and being some of the only people around as we did our touring made those two days so memorable.  

See more of our time in Turkey...day trips to Buyukada and Kilyos, and a few (chronological) posts about the summer, things like our daily life, some challenges, what I learned, and so on: here, here, here, here, and here.