(CNN) – It is a landscape that looks almost strange. Soft tufa that was spat out from volcanoes thousands of years ago to create a series of ethereal “fairy chimneys” sculpted and sculpted by nature. This is Cappadocia.
This historical region rises above the Anatolian plains in central Turkey and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They attract thousands of tourists every year. Many soar into the sky in hot air balloons when the sun rises, so the better to get a glimpse of the rock formations whimsically known as “fairy chimneys” and come in all shapes and sizes – cones, pointed, even some suggestive.
Nature may have created this landscape, but it was ancient civilizations that turned it around and adapted it for their own purpose. The local people have worked hard to preserve this history and the traditional cultures that have grown in its wake. And nowhere is this more evident than deep beneath these towering limestone peaks.
Dive into the ground
Balloons are the ideal way to experience the serene landscape of Cappadocia.
The soft rock here with its winding cave systems and a number of natural caves made Cappadocia famous for its underground cities in the Middle Ages. When marauding armies arrived here, thousands of people fled and survived underground, sometimes for months.
Derinkuyu is one of the largest and deepest underground cities in Turkey and extends over 18 floors to a depth of 85 meters.
Omer Tosun is a local antique collector and owner of Cappadocia’s first luxury hotel. His mission is to introduce fascinated visitors to all facets of Cappadocian culture, especially in Derinkuyu.
Stepping onto the fairy chimneys begins a journey of discovery in this unusual place.
“Imagine that,” he says, standing in a former underground stable. “People farm outside and when an army attacks, these people take all of their animals and come in.”
Omer explains that up to 20,000 people hid in these narrow passages for months when Mongolian forces roamed overhead. They would have used hundreds of storage rooms, living quarters, and even communication tunnels through which they could shout messages and relay messages about what was happening above the earth.
The luxurious museum hotel has 60 caves and 10 buildings, some of which are 1000 years old.
The caves are decorated with original works of art. A spectacular sultan’s suite has a hot tub overlooking the fairy chimneys.
“It’s like Eden Garden,” says Omer. “We have many beautiful birds nearby and they come and welcome you,” points out a pair of peacocks in love.
What this amazing hotel and these ancient cave towns show is how the landscape shaped the people of Cappadocia and how they too shaped them over the past millennia.
The Dark Church is a treasure trove of ecclesiastical beauty.
There is no better place to understand this connection between nature and people than the Göreme Open Air Museum. Originally considered a Byzantine monastic settlement before becoming a pilgrimage site in the 17th century, the numerous chapels carved deep into the rock are home to incredible arts and crafts.
While each of them is beautiful, the Dark Church is the most amazing of them all. The inconspicuous outside of the cave hardly gives any indication of the ecclesiastical beauty hidden inside. Known as the Dark Church because it has no windows, the lack of light has resulted in its exquisite frescoes being fully preserved. The colorful depictions of Christ on the cross and the betrayal of Judas date from the 11th century. Just like with Derinkuyu, it is worth expecting the unexpected.
Land of beautiful horses
Cappadocia is said to get its name from horses.
Wild horses have roamed these mountains for centuries. Legend has it that it was their presence that gave Cappadocia its name.
“Cappadocia means the land of beautiful horses,” confirms Irfan Ozdogan. Irfan is a modern Turkish cowboy, the owner of a small corral in the middle of this rocky wonderland, from where he takes tourists on a ride through this wondrous landscape.
Irfan’s horse rides offer breathtaking views of the fairy chimneys and allow visitors to slow down and enjoy the pace of exploring the area on horseback. As the Turkish proverb says: “He who does not have a horse has no foot.”
Irfan Ozdogan is a modern Turkish cowboy.
The landscape of Cappadocia doesn’t just offer postcard views of the most famous natural phenomena or an underground wonderland. The Kizilirmak River, which runs through the pretty town of Avanos, is another example of nature working with locals to create something beautiful. This river and the mud it produces have provided generations of artisans with a characteristic red clay that made Avanos famous for its ceramics.
Galip Lorukcu is a master of the art. His work was celebrated across Cappadocia and beyond. With a traditional kick bike, it’s obvious that he learned his trade at a young age.
Potter and hair collector Galip Lorukcu.
“I learned it from my father. My father learned it from his father and so on,” he says as he works. He is, says his wife Lilian, at least the fifth generation of his family who work with the beautiful clay that is produced by the nearby river.
The speed, precision and dexterity of Galip are exceptional and have been improved over many years of learning and practice. “If he worked all day, he could make about 150 pots,” says Lilian. Even with Galip’s helping hand, it’s impossible to make something that even resembles a pot the first time you try the kick wheel, let alone imagine works he’s exhibited in showrooms and in his own shop.
Strange, wonderful and unique
Avanos Hair Museum: Possibly one of the strangest collections in the world.
There are more than 16,000 curls from all over the world here. This is less of a collection than a shrine to female castles. It’s hard not to shake the feeling that everything is a little bit strange.
“I don’t force them to give, they give by themselves,” says Galip. “Who should I tell if it’s strange or not?”
Women, including Lilian, have been donating their hair to Galip for over 30 years. “I’m so used to it because I live in it,” she laughs. “But I remember thinking at the beginning it was very funny.”
Centuries-old traditions add to the rich experiences and modern magic of Cappadocia in Turkey.
The hair has at least one purpose. Everyone who donates their castles leaves a label with names that are randomly chosen for a free week of catering, accommodation and pottery classes. One, albeit slightly different, opportunity for Galip to pass on his pottery skills.
All of this is not to say that Cappadocia is not marked by more traditional Turkish activities. In fact, it is one of the best places in the country for its most famous export: carpets. And few know more about her than Ruth Lockwood, a carpet connoisseur from New Zealand who came to Turkey more than 30 years ago.
She says that while the tradition of making, selling, and haggling carpets remains strong, things have changed “tremendously”.
“When I came here it was wild. It was like the Woodstock of carpets and people will still say to me, ‘Oh, you weren’t here then, were you?'”
Lockwood explains that vendors are bringing out large numbers of carpets and tapestries to entice tourists into parting with their money. The key, she says, is not to get too excited when you discover something you like.
“It’s always best not to look too excited when you buy,” she says. “Because they know they love it. And of course the price will go up.”
Lockwood has learned to choose the best vintage carpets that tell the story of Cappadocia. Instead of considering them used, she says that they are “… beautiful vintage. They are antique. And they represent a history and a tradition that we cannot go back to.”
“Every area, every region, every village, every tribe has sizes, colors and designs that belong to this group.”
This love for the special, the ornate and the beautiful sums up Cappadocia. It’s a complete one-of-a-kind piece. There is a unique landscape with unusual and enriching experiences.