Cappadocia is still the fairyland of rock formations you remember it to be, but close up… again, I hate to say it, mass tourism has taken over. Göreme, back then some sleepy little burg like the rest of them, has today been transformed into Backpacker Central, with all manner of hostels, restaurants, bars, travel agencies, trinket and carpet shops.
And although the nearby caves have been restored and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by the time we got around to having the time to actually visit them, we decided not to.
I don’t think we missed that much. Streams and streams of tour buses packed into an enormous parking lot, paying an entrance fee and walking around cobblestone paths and, because so many people are crammed onto the site at once, actually having to line up outside each church to get a look inside? I was five years old last time I was at Disneyland. No thanks.
Of course I’d seen the frescoes with you many years ago, and I wanted K. and the little red-haired girl to have a look, but they were as turned off at the idea as I was, so we didn’t bother. Quite frankly I’m beginning to think they should abolish this UNESCO designation altogether if the fame it brings simply makes it one more stopping point on the tour bus trail.
But what we missed in the caves we more than made up for on three of the most memorable hikes we’ve ever been on as a family. Slipping down the slope from our pension after breakfast we reached the floor of the Pigeon Valley for a four-km walk to Göreme. In warm sunshine we walked through autumn slashes of birch and poplar against an ever-changing backdrop of waving rock formations and impossibly placed stairways, passages, doors and windows. At one point the path actually led through a tunnel in the cliffs.
We stopped for tea around half way and enjoyed the view to ourselves.
The Love Valley hike was also stunning, though even there we couldn’t escape being reminded that we were never far away from the encroachment of tourism and technology. Munching down a few grapes at a rest stop we sat and watched as a dozen or so Israeli mountain bike riders blasted past. It looked so incongruous.
Imagine travelling far and wide to get to a spot as unique as Cappadocia only to do something you could do anywhere, really. When they get back home, what have they seen? I’ve nothing against mountain biking and have enjoyed it myself, but it’s like travelling to Paris and spending most of your time in the hotel room watching CNN. To each his own, but part of me felt like saying, hey guys: stop and take a look at what you’re going through instead of what’s just beyond your front wheel.
We capped off our Love Valley walk with a fresh-squeezed glass of orange and pomegranate juice from a man we spotted about 15 minutes away.
I know I had plans to poke around Ürgüp and maybe find our old hotel, but as soon as we stepped out of the Dolmus on the afternoon of our fourth day I realised it would be impossible. Trish, you would not recognise Ürgüp in the least. It’s still a provincial Turkish town, but they’ve let growth get out of control to such an extent that many parts have been ruined by some of the ugliest hotels you’ve ever seen. Simply awful structures, built to warehouse the tourists who probably thank God their itinerary calls for only one overnight in the place.
And that central square where we watched hours of folk dancing at a local celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Atatürk, the massive rock outcropping looming up in the background? They’ve besmirched the space by plopping some gaudy excuse for a clock tower off to the side, obliterating the rest by spreading a two-storey shopping mall over the remaining two-thirds of it.
We made up for it by enjoying a long lunch on an outdoor terrace on what’s left of the square at a very good restaurant, but didn’t linger in the town long after.
I was kind of expecting Ürgüp to be a bit of a let-down because I’d read up some more on it and at the last minute decided not to stay there but at Uchisar instead. Uchisar you may recall is at the base of this enormous rock outcropping – what they call a castle – which dominates the whole area. We wanted peace and quiet and a bit of a view, and got more than enough of all three.
Every morning we watched from the breakfast table as no less than 32 hot-air balloons ascended from the valley floor, some wafting quite close to our perch as they drifted to a landing on a flat spot on the other side of town. It’s a huge business when you consider it costs between €100 and €150 for a ride and each balloon can carry between 12 and 20 passengers.
Just down the road from our spot they’ve opened up in the past year a luxury spa and resort hotel with facilities to rival some of the best places we’ve ever stayed at. I’ve enclosed a copy of their promotional CD, which we received as part of an elaborate gift bag we received after walking into the lobby simply to enquire if they had a business card so we could look the place up online later.
At least the investment in new housing, hotels and developments like that one are bringing work to the local craftspeople. We talked to a stonemason who used halting French to explain he was working for the French owner who was planning to turn the old building into a pension. He was using an ancient hand-tool to put the final shape on a building stone made from the same light-beige volcanic material you find everywhere here. Now they’re also using it to carve patterns in the facing stone; the results are quite beautiful in their understated simplicity.
They’re also very careful in Uchisar not to overwhelm the original feel of the place. You can still see the foundations of many places abandoned decades ago, but the newer buildings on top are kept to no more than two storeys as they cascade down the steep valley side. That’s how they’ve laid out at new spa resort, and it blends in very well with the surrounding area.
Part nine of a 10-part series. Part eight: a dive into nostalgia. Part seven: knife fights, confusion and a freezing cold night. Part six: untitled, I suppose. Part five: underneath Istanbul. Part four: the Blue Mosque smells like cheesy feet. Part three: sleepwalking through Turkey. Part two: a look back. Part one: the long letter.