Full Lockdown in Turkey or the Best Time to Travel to Cappadocia

At the beginning of May 2021, I planed to go to Turkey for couple of weeks. The idea was to first explore the nature, captivating landscapes and early Christian monuments of Cappadocia and then to spend about ten days with my mother (she was coming from Russia) in some nice resort hotel in the coastal Antalya. The plan was perfect except for the fact that Turkish president Erdogan decided to combine the Islamic religious holiday of Ramadan with the full national lockdown (apparently, in an attempt to battle the increasing rates of COVID pandemic). Traveling between cities and towns has been prohibited, most shops and restaurants were shut down (except take out services), the sale of alcohol banned, etc.

I was about to abandon the trip (especially, after some of booked domestic Turkish flights were canceled), but then learned that all these lockdown rules and measures do NOT apply to foreign visitors. I thought: “This is actually perfect: perhaps, not only domestic Turkish tourists, but also many international travelers decided not to go. Which means, even better time to hit the road with much fewer competitors.” And so I left San Francisco, flew to Frankfurt, then to Istanbul, then to a regional airport of Kayseri. The minivan shuttle was waiting there to take me (about one hour drive) to a town of Goreme which could be seen as an informal “capital” of Cappadocia. Goreme was “discovered” by tourists relatively recently (about 20-30 years ago): it is a very appealing town, super-conveniently located to explore all sites in Cappadocia and – additional bonus – surrounded by captivating rock formations. This is how I first saw Goreme:

Approaching Goreme

When I arrived, it was dark already, but – after so many flights – I decided to take a stroll through the town. The first impression was: “indeed, very unusual architecture literally ‘blended’ into various geological formations.”

Goreme in the evening

It was a very long day of travels, but one more “adventure” was still waiting. When picking up accommodations in Goreme (and selection is abundant), my ultimate choice was a small family-run pension Luwian Stone House. I found it on AirB&B, but then looked up on Google maps and other platforms (Booking.com, etc.). All reviewers praised this place for the genuine hospitality and feeling of being in a “home away from home.” Another “selling point” was that breakfast – included in the price – consisted almost exclusively of the products grown in the garden and prepared by the family who owned this pension. The only problem was that I usually do not eat breakfast, but it was resolved by asking my hosts to serve breakfast for dinner on the evening of my arrival. And a real feast was awaiting when I finally came home

Everything is from the family garden and produced by my hosts except bread, cheese and oranges.

My room was simple but tastefully decorated and with super-comfortable bed.

I spent here four nights and slept like a baby.

First Day in Cappadocia: the “Green Tour.”

The next day I met the entire cheerful family of the Luwian Stone House owners. Yusuf (on the right, with eyeglasses) studied economics in Antalya university with the hope to get a job in finances in the regional government, but…it is Turkey where nepotism reigns. Yusuf did not have influential relatives and did not get the job. Hence, instead he runs Luwian Stone House and does it very nicely. His mother (in the middle of the picture) is the “queen” of the garden and kitchen. And she is a “five stars” cook as I personally experienced while at Luwian Stone House. Finally, the younger (but significantly bigger) brother, Mahmud, is like a “gate keeper:” he is normally always at reception and makes sure that everything has been taken care of and all guests are happy.

Family crew of the Luwian Stone House

Fast forward, during four days in Luwian Stone House, I spent significant chunk of time on this shady patio, right in front of my room either having coffee in the morning, or supper in the evening, or discussing a wide range of political, cultural, historical issues with Yusuf. Sometimes, this was done sitting at the table and, sometimes, laying on a mattress covered with Oriental rugs.

Yusuf was also a great source of advice on “what” and “how” to see in the area, and – in case of commercial tours and activities – was able to get for his guests the best possible price. My choice for the first day was the so-called Green Tour. It is a full day trip (40 Euro/50$) in a minivan with a small group of people (8-10). Lunch in a local restaurant is included. Even if you stay for a few days and plan to discover area by yourself, I still recommend to take the Green Tour. You will visit a number of sites and get a good sense of Cappadocia’s history, landscapes, and culture. We first went to a great overlook over Pigeon Valley, where our guide Fatin presented a short lecture highlighting most unique geological aspects of Cappadocia.

Overlooking Pigeon Valley.

Guvercinlik Vadisi (Pigeon Valley) earned its name from the countless man-made dovecotes (Pigeon Houses) that have been carved into the soft volcanic tuff. Since ancient times Pigeons have been used in the Cappadocia region both as food and the source of fertiliser for the infertile soil. While pigeons no longer play such an important agricultural role, their rocky homes have still been maintained by locals and can be found atop rock pillars and inside excavated cave houses and churches. They are particularly numerous in this valley. The best way to see Pigeon Valley is from above via a hot air balloon tour, but, unfortunately, all hot air balloon tours were canceled because of lockdown measures (don’t ask me how such tours are related to COVID Pandemic).

The next destination was Uchisar. Uchisar is both the name of the town and the natural rock citadel/castle which is the tallest point of Cappadocia. Being 60-metres-high, the castle-mountain is visible from a great distance and has the form of a large cylindrical tower. It is crisscrossed by numerous underground passageways and rooms, some of which can still be visited. In Byzantine times (6-7th century AD) Uchisar castle served both as residencies as well as cloisters. About 1,000 people lived then in the castle. The landscape around Uchisar is also marked by the scattered fairy chimneys.

The mountain-castle of Uchisar

After Uchisar, we went to Derinkuyu Underground City. And it is, indeed, a real ancient multi-level underground city. Derinkuyu has six levels of rooms and extends to a depth of approximately 85 metres (279 ft). It was large enough to have sheltered about 20,000 people together with their livestock and food stores. It is the largest excavated underground city in Turkey.

The entrance into Derinkuyu Underground City

The caves at Derinkuyu have been initially built in the soft volcanic rock by the Phrygians in the 8th–7th centuries BCE. When the Phrygian culture died out in Roman times, the new inhabitants, now Greek-speaking early Christians, expanded the caverns to current multiple-level structures adding the chapels for Christian worship and Greek inscriptions. The city was fully formed in the Byzantine era, when it was used as protection and escape from Muslim Arabs during the Arab–Byzantine wars (780–1180 CE). Derinkuyu was and remains connected with other underground cities through many kilometers of tunnels. These underground cities continued to be used by the Christians as protection from the Mongolian invasions of Timur in the 14th century and from the Turkish Muslim rulers after the region fell to the Ottomans. Cappadocian Greeks, used the underground cities as late as 20th century to escape periodic persecutions. In 1923, the Christian inhabitants of the region were expelled from Turkey and moved to Greece in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey: this was the time when the caves were abandoned by humans.

60m/180feet tall ventilation shaft

Unfortunately, the pictures taken in these cave rooms and corridors cannot convey the feel of this place: the mixture of “captivating/breath taking/grim.” But go there and wander in both horizontal and vertical directions. Explore what used to be wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, chapels, and even (yes!) cemeteries. Unique to the Derinkuyu and located on the second floor is a spacious room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. It has been reported that this room was used as a religious school.

The “religious school” room
The entrance into “cemetery” room.

Here, on this picture, you can get somewhat more information about Derinkoyu and some other underground cities.

Our guide, Fatin, has promised to take us for a lunch to some special place. As it turned out, his choice was a restaurant situated on the bottom of Ihlara valley. Ihlara Valley is a canyon with a depth of approximately 100m/300 feet which was formed by the Melendiz River. It begins at Ihlara village and ends with Selime Monastery at Selime village after making 26 bends along 14 kilometers.

Ihlara Valley from the top

Today, you can comfortably hike all 14 km following several trails winding along the stream. Clearly, there is no way to get lost as you can move in only two directions. It is believed that the valley housed more than four thousand dwellings and a hundred cave churches decorated with frescoes. Around eighty thousand people once lived in Ihlara Valley. Hiking towards our restaurant, we visited a number of cave churches with quite impressive frescoes.

Yilanli (Serpent) Church
Yilanli (Serpent) Church

Quite honestly, however, for me, the best part of visiting Ihlara Valley were not the ruins and historical monuments, but simply the stroll along the creek: the air was fresh and invigorating, the sound of various birds was powerful and yet peaceful, the scenery was unbelievably green and alive. The whole hike was somewhat close to a deep walk-meditation.

Trail through Ihlara Valley
Taking rest on the hike in Ihlara Valley

And finally we reached some rustic looking buildings which was our restaurant.

Clearly, I enjoyed the meal after all previous activities, but I equally “savored” the view while chewing on the grilled trout.

The day and Green Tour was not finished yet. Our final destination was multi-level Selime monastery carved into the slope of the rocky mountain.

The top of Selime monastery

Besides being an astonishing rock-cut construction, Selime monastery is also largest religious structure in the Cappadocia which has changed hands several times. The layers of several civilizations have been discovered at the ancient site including Hittites, Persians, Romans, Early Christians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks and Ottomans. Overall, this place was inhabited between 9th century BC and 16th century AD. As you climb to the top of Selime, a feel emerges that this place dominates the entire area.

The view from Selime monastery

The Christian inhabitants of Selime cut into the volcanic tuff a Cathedral Church (i.e. it used to be a Bishop’s seat). Inside, original frescoes are intact. The church is separated into 3 sections by two rock columns. Kitchens and stables are also present as well as monks’ living quarters.

The entrance into Selime Cathedral (from inside)
Altar with remains of frescoes at Selime Cathedral

One column has a carved-in sizable seat. Not sure if it was thought to be a Bishop’s chair, but I sat there for a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere of the Cathedral and picturing myself as a priest serving ancient Liturgy.

Before heading back to our minivan and returning to Goreme, I climbed to second level of Selime Cathedral to take the last truly “commanding” view of the surroundings.

When we returned to Goreme, it was supper time. Because of the lockdown, all restaurants served only “take away” meals. Yusuf, my host at Luwian Stone House recommended the place called Anatolian Kitchen and I was not disappointed. For about 10 US $, I was served two delicious items. One was gozleme – the layered flatbreads stuffed with many things. My choice was goezleme with potatoes and spinach. The second dish was selection of seven different Turkish “mezze” (appetizers). The day ended up with another feast.

Gozleme with spinach and potatoes (right) plus selection of “mezze” (left)

The Second Day in Cappadocia: Goreme Open Air Museum and Hiking Through Love and White Valleys

I am not a big fan of ethnographic open-air museums. Usually, for my taste, they are too “polished” and “over-restored” plus inevitably attract crowds and bus-loads of tourists. But I decided to make an exception for Goreme Open Air Museum given the fact that for several centuries this settlement was the cultural and religious heart of Cappadocia. I also hoped that because of lockdown regime much fewer tourists would come there. And this was a good decision. Goreme Open Air Museum is situated only about 1,5 kilometres / 1 mile out of current town of Goreme. The hike there along the road offers nice scenery

On the way from Goreme town to Goreme Open Air Museum

So, what actually “Goreme Open Air Museum” is? In short, it is an impressive residential, monastic and church complex with most structures being either carved into the rocks or situated in the natural caves. While this complex traces its history back to 4 th century AD, most still existing churches are from 10-12 th centuries.

A fragment of Goreme Open Air museum.

The names of three Early Christian Church Fathers are related to Cappadocia. All of them lived in 4th century AD: St. Basil the Great, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Supporting each other, these three men created a new unity in Christian way of thinking and living. In particular, St. Basil the Great is credited with creating a new model of Christian settlements where the emphasis was given on communal living and regimented worship under supervision of a priest. Often, in such early Christian communes, both the monastics and lay people lived together. It is believed that what has become Goreme Open Air Museum used to be one of such church/monastic settlements

The view from one of former residential buildings overlooking the neighboring valleys

Goreme Open Air Museum also attracts tourists because of many beautiful frescoes adoring the walls of the churches with colors still retaining their original freshness. There are about 15 churches that can be visited. All of them are interesting and having couple hours you can them all. However, three have become my personal favorites: Apple (Elmali) Church, Dark Church (you need to pay extra fee to visit), and Buckle (Tokali) Church. Take a look at the random selection of pictures taken in these churches

By noon I was done with Goreme Open Air Museum and after quick lunch went on a hike through the Love and White Valleys which connect Goreme and Uchisar (I wrote already about Uchisar castle describing first day). Love Valley is one of the most hilarious creations I’ve seen from the Mother Nature. Over millennia, various types of rock, including volcanic ash, have eroded to create dozens of massive, phallic-shaped formations, technically known as hoodoos. Love Valley eventually evolves into White Valley, which is a deep canyon with perfectly white walls on either side. The hike itself is mostly gentle, and can be completed in about three hours. Also, unless you go by car, this hike is the best way to get from Göreme to Uçhisar Castle. There is a trail marker to enter Love Valley which is a few kilometers out of Goreme town: for about 40 lira / 5 US $ you can comfortably get there by taxi.

As you begin hiking into Love Valley, you are essentially walking on a small country road — it is possible one or two cars may pass you. I saw some small sheds and people working on their land, but otherwise it was completely void of humans.

In less than one kilometer you begin to see the massive phalic rock formations looming up everywhere.

The phallic formations are only at the beginning of the hike and soon I was into the portion known as “White Valley”. It felt like a magical fairy tale land, which was aided by the fact there was no one else in the valley!

Most of this hike is fairly flat. Near the end of the valley, you begin to gain a bit of elevation, and the gorgeous white rock walls become truly panoramic and visible.

Eventually the valley/canyon becomes very narrow. At this point, you need to keep your eyes to the left and look for various trails that lead up to the edge of the valley and to a road that is barely visible from the bottom of the canyon. By the end of this climbing, the upper portion of the side of canyon is quite colorful.

Once you are on the country road winding along the edge of White Valley, you will see Uçhisar Castle in the distance.

I walked to Uchisar castle and – being this time just myself unlike first day – wandered through the streets of this peculiar town.

Rather than waiting for a bus to go back to Goreme, I tried to hitch-hike and was almost instantly taken by some local pharmacist. After coming back to Luwian Stone House, I assembled a nice dinner plate with two types of gozleme, some local “basturma” (very thin slices of dried beef meat), and fresh vegetables. But then Yusuf came and brought a quite interesting addition to my meal. It turned out that the leaves of some wild plant – somewhat similar to wild dandelions – are widely used by the locals instead of “commercial” salad. I was given a substantial portion of it to try. Despite original skepticism, it turned out to be very tasty. Look at this perfect present from the nature on the top of my plate.

Day Three: One of the Best Hikes of My Life (Red and Rose Valleys)

The hike through the Red and Rose Valleys is relatively easy and short: just about 10 km. Technically, it can be done in 3 hours. However, the landscapes along the trail are so diverse, captivating and picturesque that you can easily spend the entire day exploring and savoring this area. The starting point is at Kaya Campground – a few kilometres from Goreme.

Overlook of Red and Rose Valleys at the beginning of the trail

Once you find the beginning of the trail, it is pretty much straightforward and in just a few hundred meters it will descend into Meskendir Valley.

Going down into Meskendir Valley

Although less known compared to Red and Rose Valleys, Meskendir is a charming, narrow canyon full of caves and tunnels. You follow along the riverbed with steep walls on each side.

Mount Erciyes erupted approximately 2.6 million years ago, covering the entire area in volcanic ash and lava. They evolved into a soft rock that is easily carved out to create houses and churches. Early Christians in the area created thousands of structures throughout the hillsides of Cappadocia. And you will see plenty of these dwellings when hiking through Meskendir Valley.

I was also very lucky to be here at the beginning of May – the short window of time when vegetation is unbelievably green, lush and blooming.

The turning point from the trail along Meskendir Valley into Rose Valley is at a set of vendors (they sell fresh Orange juice, coffee, tea, etc.) marked as “Bufe” on Google map. There is a well visible trail which branches off to the right and this is the way you should follow. As you walk, keep your eyes to the left and look for the sign indicating Direkli Kilise (Column Church). The entrance in and facade of it looks like this:

Column Church is absolutely a MUST to see. This cave church has several stories, fitted with perfectly carved columns across multiple floors and rooms. It is breathtaking.

I spent about half hour in a state close to meditation, and nobody bothered me there. Continuing on the trail, about one kilometer after Direkli Kilise, you will dead-end into the other trail going to the right and left (think of T intersection). Essentially, in order to get into Red Valley, you need to go to the right, but…not so fast. Walk first a few hundred meters to the left in order to visit and see another cave church called Haçlı Kilise (Cross Church). You will find there a huge colorful fresco dating back to the 9th century.

Also, lift your head up and discover a huge cross carved in the ceiling: hence, the name of the church.

When I came to Hakli Kilise, two women from Russia were there. They played some recorded Orthodox Christian liturgical music and sang along beautifully. This was quite an experience. Then I was back on the trail heading into Red Valley. This portion of trail has probably the best views of the entire hike.

My hike ended at the so-called Panorama View Point. This is where you normally would run into a bunch of people since it is accessible by car and big tourist busses. Also normally there would be here a variety of food and drink vendors, but – because of lockdown regime – today, this place was almost void of people. I was tired, but very happy with both the entire hike and this last perfect panoramic view of Red and Rose Valleys

Similarly to previous day, I hitchhiked back to Goreme contemplating some abundant take-out feast, as I was very hungry. However, the day presented with another great surprise. My hosts, the owners of Luwian Stone House, prepared a perfect three-course meal consisting of yogurt-based soup with burglur, pumpkin stew, and sweet semolina cakes.

The Last Half-Day in Cappadocia: a Perfect Surprise for the End of the Trip

I needed to leave Goreme by noon in order to go back to Kayseri airport and fly to Istanbul and then, the next day, to Antalya. Still, there were a few hours left and I had one more destination in mind. I heard about the place called “Hidden Church,” another cave church with – apparently – beautifully preserved and abundant frescoes. Problem was that according to all information found on Internet this church was indeed difficult to find and also it was locked for the regular visitors. But one of fellow travelers suggested to go to the nearby El Nazar Church and talk to its caretaker who had the keys for and knew the trail to Hidden Church. I hiked to El Nazar Church which is situated couple of kilometers out of Goreme and is an interesting destination on its own.

El Nazar Church

Nobody was there when I arrived, but a few minutes later a briskly walking man showed up, the church’ caretaker.

I did not want to press the matter right away and first asked to show El Nazar Church. He was very happy to get such request because the church receives few visitors and he was clearly bored. After the tour, I mentioned Hidden Church and asked if he can help to see it. Without hesitation, he produced a key, but said that he needs to stay at El Nazar and simply explained how to find the Hidden Church. In fact, it is very close to El Nazar, bur its location is somewhat tricky. I followed his guidelines and was able to identify the entrance: the church is accessed from the slope of the mountain, with the stairs leading to a natural arch. After entering this arch, you will find the locked metal gates, but of course I had the keys.

The entrance to Hidden Church

I opened the church entrance and, hands down, saw the best frescoes from the entire trip to Cappadocia. The paintings were perhaps not the best restored but simply very well and naturally preserved.

I had this place, the Hidden Church, for myself only and stayed there for about one hour. And then I walked out and, from the church entrance, took this final look on surrounding area and landscape which was truly a quintessential Cappadocia

The view from the entrance to Hidden Church near Gireme

This was the end of this trip – my first visit to Cappadocia. I felt that it was too short and, also, that I really liked this part of Turkey. I will be back there. For sure.

One thought on “Full Lockdown in Turkey or the Best Time to Travel to Cappadocia

  1. Totally fascinating. Thank you Alexei for giving us this very unique view of a place that most of us only know from Church History. It is reminiscent of some of our Western National Parks (Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc) but on a more manageable scale! And this time of year, with everything blooming, is incredibly beautiful. I am more than a little sad that many of the beautiful frescos look as if their condition has deteriorated not only because of time and environmental conditions, but also human defacement. Whether or not it is the current religious faith tradition of the environs, it merits historical preservation and respect.

    Like

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