In the dry, dusty centre of Turkey, as the first light hits a strangely sculptural sandstone landscape, a giant nylon orb peeks over tall, spindly stone fingers. Then another, then scores more. Within minutes, the dawn sky is filled with 100 hot-air balloons; a candy-coloured kaleidoscope that is as mesmerizing as the strange moonscape above which it floats. This surreal vista – a bizarre animation that perhaps Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam could have created – is a daily occurrence in Cappadocia, which is now one of Turkey’s tourism hot-spots, despite its remote location.
Situated in Nevsehir Provence in the Central Anatolia region, this rugged terrain, pock-marked with severely eroded hills and valleys has an ancient history. It was here that early Christians hid in the hills to avoid persecution from the Roman armies that ruled in the first century. These Christians dug caves in the sandstone as their refuge and, honouring their essential faith, they carved out stone basilicas inside the mountains. Several of these still survive – some have been ripped open by rockslides caused by earthquake and erosion over the centuries, but others can be entered through tiny doorways and explored.
Prominent among these is Kaymaklı Underground City, complete with a labyrinthine network of rooms once used as a winery, a bakery with chimney vents, and with large stone wheels that were rolled across doorways to block invaders in times of siege. Equally fascinating is the Göreme Open Air Museum, which includes caves bearing a former monastery and the vast Tokali Church, boasting striking, colourful murals of Jesus and Christian saints. Their faces were chiseled off by Ottoman Muslims in the 14th century, who deemed offensive the images of these religious figures.
A walk through the nearby Pigeon Valley floor shows off many of these caves carved high in cliff faces, and also reveals evidence of their later use as pigeon coops. Local peasants would spread grain in the vacant caves to attract birds, and then collect their droppings and sell it as fertiliser – the only type of agricultural stimulant available in this stark area for many centuries.
The most prevalent ancient crop that survives is wine grapes, including some of the oldest shiraz vines in the world, still being tended by horse-drawn ploughs that scrape furrows in the silt-grey sand. These grapes are mainly used by local farmers for their own wines, and are mostly very crude, flawed by oxidative handling and questionable storage. Local restaurateurs do not seem to care; they are proud of the local vinous handiwork and offer it by the glass on most menus. I found it undrinkable.
Much more appealing are the bizarre rock sculptures that ring central Cappadocia, given a smooth shape by melting snow following the frigid winters that grip the region. It results in many precarious steeples that locals call fairy chimneys – derived from folk tales suggesting that magical fairies live underground and have shaped this unusual landscape – and you see these formations from extremely close range during hot-air balloon flights at dawn. The joyflights have soared in popularity within the past three years – so much so that authorities finally legislated maximum numbers as a safety measure, putting a limit of 100 balloons in the sky at any one time. Most mornings see all the baskets filled with excited tourists.
Fortunately, within such a crowd, our vastly experienced pilot Tolga Tekgul, from Urgup Balloons (one of scores of companies operating in the towns of Urgup and Goreme), had the skills and smarts to quickly draw away from the throng. He performed deft pirouettes around peaks, dipped into the valley floor just metres above the ancient shiraz vines we walked beside the previous day, and concluded the flight by landing the basket deftly on a steel trailer attached to the towing vehicle, which was perched atop a vineyard ridge.
As the balloon slowly deflated, the flying party celebrated with 7am sparkling wine (sadly it was made with an unfortunate mélange of local grapes and a lot of residual sugar), a gaudy certificate to commemorate the flight, and a camera full of extraordinary images that reinforce the strange and captivating beauty of this most unusual landscape.
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved