Crazy for Cappadocia
Cave Hotels among the fairy chimney rock formations of Cappadocia, Turkey.
If you can imagine a world of magical mushroom-shaped rock towers and hobbit-like underground cities, then you have a picture of Turkey’s Cappadocia region. Marcus Brewster and photographer Mark Leach returned spellbound
Any traveller to Turkey who doesn’t visit the surreal landscape of Cappadocia in central Anatolia is missing out on something spectacular. Covering a small area (around 300km²), the topography of Cappadocia was created millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions depositing ash which solidified into a substance called tufa. Highly prone to erosion and the tunnelling capabilities of humankind, the extraordinary scenery that has borne witness to the past 30 million years is a result of wind, rain, rivers and the extremes of winter temperatures which have caused the rocks to contract, expand and ultimately disintegrate.
Chief among Cappadocia’s signature attractions are the “fairy chimneys”, natural columns reaching up to 40 metres, so named by the earliest inhabitants because they believed them to be the chimney stacks of fairies that lived beneath the ground. The idea of a subterraneous race of beings proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy since there are several troglodytic cities to explore in the region (some 36 exist but only a handful have been excavated).
Most impressive, most accessible and therefore most popular is the settlement of Derinkuyu. Extending to eight levels underground, Derinkuyu (meaning ‘deep well’) was home to some 20 000 people and contains stables, wine-presses, kitchens and churches – not to mention ventilation shafts. This multi-layered bunker was thought to have been linked by a 10km tunnel to a similar ant-hill city called Kaymakli.
Apart from marvelling at the ancient construction prowess of the two sites, you have to wonder what cataclysm – or threat thereof – motivated such an elaborate bolt hole. Was it a horde of marauding barbarians or an ice age that incentivised an entire city to tunnel for their lives? Interestingly, access to both settlements could be shut off by massive recessed millstones which rolled into place and which were engineered to only be opened from the inside to protect inhabitants from invaders. Fear of what evil could have made the good citizens of Derinkuyu take such elaborate precautions and implement such self-preservation strategies. This wasn’t a disaster of the order of the collapse of the euro, this was more like the sky falling on their heads.
These days, the only invaders of the region are awe-struck tourists and although staying in an underground city is not yet a hospitality option, staying in a cave certainly is. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find lodgings in Cappadocia that don’t offer a variation of the cell-like cave room carved out of the tufa outcrops.
In Urgup, a town now synonymous with the troglodyte cities hollowed out during the Byzantine era, there are a number of pensions offering between five to 12 rooms but almost nothing of any scale above. Thus it was with great pleasure that we sojourned at Urgup’s newest establishment, the MDC Hotel, the latest stellar addition to Urgup’s star-rated accommodation.
Built in a private valley overlooking a working farm (Urgup is renowned for its grapes), the MDC is significantly more in touch with the needs of luxury travellers than any other hotel in the region. Over 20 large rooms each with jacuzzis, restrained artisanal decor and an excellent restaurant distinguish the property. Make sure you try the incir tartlisi, a dessert of walnuts stuffed with figs, for a touch of indigenous culinary flavour.
The hotel’s capstone will be the construction of a swimming pool on the highest rock terrace behind the property in time for the 2012 season. Temperatures can soar in the summer months, as anyone who has ever travelled in the Mediterranean in July or August can testify, so this will give the MDC a further trump card in a winning hand.
Quite different in character is sister property, the Cappadocia Palace Hotel. Located next door to a monastery, the building retains a sense of its centuries past history when it originally served as lodgings for pilgrims visiting the adjacent seminary. Still fulfilling a hospitality function, the Cappadocia Palace has a monastic charm and is very conveniently located in striking distance of the village square.
Despite being in the heart of the region’s touring centre, Urgup has lost little of its old town appeal and still yields layers of Roman and Seljuk history to the patient traveller.
Urgup’s ancient name was Assiana and was later known as Bashisar under the Seljuks. There is plenty to see and do including the 13th Century remains of a Kadikalesi (castle); a museum containing ceramics, statuary, weapons, textiles, costumes and books; the Nukrettin mausoleum; the Altipali tomb and the Tasinaga library, named after a 19th Century village squire. However, these are amuse-bouches to the region’s banquet attraction – the Goreme Open-Air Museum.
To get the full impression of the area, every visitor must rise– literally – at dawn. That’s when great fleets of hot-air balloons lift off to drift across these weirdly wonderful landscapes. As one ascends and the magical enchantment of the valleys is touched by the softest pastel shades of breaking light, the human spirit glides upwards – to bear witness to the artistry of the devout and this spellbinding countryside which inspired them is enough to make one a believer. If not in God then at least in fairies!