Week 35 – A Rich Slice of Anatolia

Week 35 21st – 27th April 2014

Week 35 sees us in Goreme, one of the Crown Jewels of the Turkish tourism trail.  Goreme has given itself to the trade, and, nestled in a valley of its iconic wind-form rock towers, and peppered with man-made caves, is gearing up for another season.

Rockville

As a protected natural area, the town merges into a landscape criss-crossed with trails and valleys, which can be explored in a depth suitable for all manner of travellers.  After an early start to watch the sun rise, and the multicoloured cloud of a hundred or more hot air balloons which drift into the pre-dawn air, we sat and munched breakfast and mused on our good fortune.

With a couch to surf for the evening, we packed our bags in the now-familiar routine and slapped on hats, stepping out for one of the shorter valley walks, suitable for an array of little legs.

We followed the Rose Valley walk, or such of it as we could recognise from the signs spray painted onto the rock walls.  Our stroll took us south, briefly along the main road into the village, before veering east and plunging into the wilderness of rock chimneys and sculpted valleys.

The landscape is dry, and scattered here and there with tiny orchards and vineyards.  A corner is turned, a pinnacle of rock looms up, an ancient skyscraper riddled with tunnels, light shafts and dark stairways.  It is a place for scrambling and clambering, for exploring and, in our case, testing the angle at which shoes grip onto dusty inclines.  We climbed up, half-slid down, and ended in a tired and white-smudged heap or two.  Great fun.

The sun dimmed our adventure, as a dark rain cloud lumbered across the sky and we scurried into a hanging cave to watch the rain lash the dry earth.  Prunella engaged in some chimneying, locating a nice second level single room apartment with a great view…proof a troublesome knee is pretty much up to scratch.

The rain cleared, and we covered the short walk into Cavusin, stopping for a late lunch of sizzling aubergine and a game of backgammon or two in the snoozy afternoon shade.

Later we transferred from Goreme up the hill to Uchisar, and into the home of Jay, a long haired couchsurfing host.

Balloonatics

In the morning at 0430, Graham and Lucas dress and head out – we have a special mission.  A good opportunity for a balloon ride emerged, and as a late birthday present for Lucas, and an early fortieth for Graham, we decided to seize it.

We were driven down back the hill to Goreme (a mere six kilometres), and from there to the take off ground at the top of Rose Valley.  In these familiar hills, a hundred or more 20-person balloons are being fired up, gently emerging among the rocks, with an occasional crackle of the radio and the roar of the burners.  Well-drilled teams manoeuvre and wrangle each of the semi-tamed man-made beasts into a launch position, and the passengers climb aboard.  With a few simple instructions on safety and landing positions, the ropes are released and we join the cloud.

For both Lucas and I, this is our first experience of lighter-than-air flight, and it is a marvel to see the ground ever so gently drift away, the steady hand of our pilot twitching the control ropes and teasing the burner, so that we ascend in a graceful course, not touching the other balloons, and skimming within a few feet of the spines of rock.  A quarter of an hour later, the wind nudging us ever so slightly south, he opens the burner and we smoothly climb to a few hundred feet, warmed not only by the two metre long propane flame, but now also the sun, breaking free from its rocky horizontal prison.

The balloon-cloud thins out – frankly our skyborne counterparts create as spectacular a scene as the rocks themselves – and we bob over ridge and peak.  All too soon the talk on the radio is of aeronauts selecting their landing place – looking for flatter fields among the rocks – down on earth an attendant gaggle of trailer towing four wheel drives have been following the air-filled behemoths.  Our pilot selects his spot, and we drift downward.

“Landing Positions, please!” he barks, and we grab the rope handles and half-squat, ready to absorb any bumps.  We needn’t have been concerned:  our balloonatic settles the canvas beast gently in a scrubby meadow, scraping a few inches of the topsoil not much bigger than a footprint.  Instantly our team of attendants is working the safety ropes.  A touch more burner, a skilfully reversed trailer, and we bump down once more on the balloon trailer itself.  We scramble out, shake each others hands, and in minutes are standing in the morning sun, sipping on the proffered champagne (or juice) served with a flourish by the pilot.

A rare treat, so often thwarted back at home by risk of fire or, dare I say it, exorbitant cost.  Lucas and I have shared a father son experience, and this lifts us both.

Uchisar, Goreme’s quiet cousin

Back in Uchisar, we are enjoying the relative quiet in comparison to Goreme, and decide to stay a little longer, transferring to a lovely pension overlooking the Pigeon Valley and Goreme  below.  Behind looms Uchisar’s mountain ‘castle’, in realist less of a fortress and simply the highest of the inhabited rock towers.

We enjoy a slow day or two, basking in the warm sun and quiet streets of Uchisar.  More cave exploring in the ‘underground city’ at Derinkuyu, sampling the spiced raw ground beef çiğ köfte and more hiking in the otherworldly landscape.

Back in the Real World

Finally the Sabretoothed Chickens say goodbye to Cappadocia, and we load our bags on a minibus for Kayseri – an industrious Turkish city one hour and a world away from the tourism hub.  Overlooked by the nearly 4000m Mount Erciyes, an extinct volcano ever clad in snow, Kayseri bustles along just fine, mixing a university population and modern amenities with a solid foundation of conservatism in a uniquely Anatolian way.

We are welcomed to this city in the comfortable apartment of an astronomer, Aziz, whose enthusiasm and perspective is informed and enlightening.  Aziz and his friends are a fascinating generation of Turks: positive and connected and free flowing with their hospitality.  Kayseri, often bypassed by tourists on their journey to Cappadocia, has an energy all its own.  The call to prayer echoes around sprawling expanses of modern apartment towers, whirring tramways and solid reminders of a past which demonstrate the city’s place as a crossroads on this sweeping plain.

Aziz takes us on a walking tour of the centre, which demonstrates a broad knowledge of his adopted city:  the ancient cemetery; chunks of the city wall; the ivy clad lyceum which came within a whisker of hosting the National Assembly when the Greek Army advance on Ankara; Mosques, Hospitals and Kayseri’s Grand Bazaar.

We enjoy games of Uno, Monopoly and lessons on cosmic gravity,  a trip  to the cinema and ten pin bowling…our time in Kayseri is fresh and modern, fun and friendly – the week ends having travelled little more than a hundred kilometres but yielding a rich slice of Anatolia.

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