Up, Up and Away – Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia

Our very own Uncle Travelling Matt checks in to show off once again. This time from beautiful Cappadocia (everyone's favourite kebab house)

Feature by Ally Brown | 06 Nov 2012

Cappadocia is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. It’s often absurd, usually fantastic, and sometimes unbelievable. In fact, superlatives are rarely sufficient: ducking through caves, turning corners and reaching peaks, you’ll find your vocabulary dazed and on the ropes when confronted with the challenge of describing the discovery that’s just smacked you in the face. Cappadocia is a spoiler, in fact. It is to caves, rock formations and alien landscapes as Iguazu is to waterfalls, or the Temples of Angkor are to ancient ruins: it’s so endlessly impressive that you might struggle to appreciate other examples of the type again.

In the environment of Cappadocia it’s entirely understandable that locals attributed the creation of the land to a conscious deity. It’s a far more satisfying explanation than wind. Just as biochemistry fails to explain love in a way that captures the subjective magic of the experience, so geology comes up short when tasked with explaining the utterly bizarre natural constructions around the small village of Goreme, five bus-hours east of Ankara in central Turkey. Until three million years ago, this was an area of intense volcanic activity, resulting in many areas and layers of different kinds of rock being thrown around and mixed together. Almost all of the softer rock has since been eroded by water and wind, except for some persistent harder rock that remains in the forms of pyramids, columns, shards, mushrooms, towers, wizards' hats, needles, and whatever other shapes your imagination can conjure. It’s a boring explanation and difficult to visualise, and it frankly doesn’t satisfy the profound confusion felt while walking through a forest of 80ft penises (the euphemistically named Love Valley).

Cappadocia is repeatedly jaw-dropping. The village of Uçhisar, just a few kilometres from Goreme, is built around a 'castle,' a giant protruding rock into which several floors of caves were dug. It’s a short climb to the top, and the views of the surrounding areas are staggering. On the other side of Goreme are the Red and Rose Valleys, which can be explored on foot or bicycle for an hour or a day. Here the landscape is mostly petrified lava flow, but it looks more like a tumultuous lava rush which solidified in an instant, capturing the drama of the moment for millennia. Towards the back are bright yellow and red rock ridges, giant wigwams, melted marshmallows, and a breathtaking half-collapsed church, hidden within a huge round rock with flowers painted around the windows. In Pigeon Valley, a stegosaurus the length of a football pitch lies down next to a cobra standing the height of a double-decker. At the entrance to Love Valley is a to-scale abstract sculpture of a fairytale castle, made by the wind, apparently. Sometimes, it’s too much to believe.

It’s not just the rock formations that impress. For almost two thousand years, locals have settled here by digging caves in to the pyramids, towers, tsunamis and gherkins. And not just holes to sleep in: caves with rooms and corridors and stairs, giant rocks with several floors of what could now be described as 'apartments,' multi-room churches and graves. Since many of the rooms were carved out when the rocks were different sizes and shapes, they often appear in completely impractical locations: like 50 feet up a sheer cliff-face. Since it was inhabited, that ground has just been swept away. Around many of the doors can still be seen red-painted decorations and within, Christian frescoes, painted by Byzantine locals before the area was conquered by Islamic tribes. 

The best-preserved frescoes, dating from the 10th-11th centuries, are to be found in the Goreme Open Air Museum, a sectioned-off area of the so-called 'fairy chimney' rocks containing many churches. You practically have to have a tour coach between your legs to be admitted. Even in low-season it’s extremely busy, and it costs 15 Lira (£6) to enter, so a better idea is to cross the road, climb a fairy chimney, and go for a wander. Cappadocia is infinitely explorable. You can be on your own on top of a huge rock pyramid admiring thousand-year old cave-paintings while six tour buses process their contents into the museum just out of earshot. Then, duck into a cave, find the stairs, and at the bottom is a row of graves, inside the rock pyramid. Turn around, take a left, and a rickety ladder leads you to the (sadly padlocked) door of another heavily frescoed cave, with an address plate on the outside. This cave is number 11. This is No.11, Kilçlar Valley Caves, Goreme, Turkey. Send them a postcard.

The caves above ground are great fun to explore, but the ancient inhabitants of Cappadocia have built even more impressive cave complexes under the ground. Derinkuyu is an underground city – one of over two hundred found in the area – over 60m deep and boasting an incredible eight floors. Evidence suggests underground caves were first dug here almost three thousand years ago, and at its later peak, Derinkuyu had enough space for 20,000 inhabitants and the food, wine and worship rooms that they’d require. It’s an unbelievable feat of human endeavour, but visit in the late afternoon to avoid hordes of tourists, and it’s worth paying for a guide to bring the tunnels, chambers and coves to life.

Once you’ve spent a few days exploring ground-level and below ground-level, there’s only one more place to go. The big inflatable floating cherry on top of the Cappadocia cake is the most popular tourist activity here: the hot air balloon ride. On one hand, the one-hour morning flight to nowhere might cost the same or even more than the three-to-four hour flight that brought you to Turkey from the UK. On the other hand, you’ll forget those hours as soon as you land in Turkey, while a hot air balloon flight over Cappadocia, at sunrise, can be described without fear of hyperbole as 'unforgettable.' As hot air balloon flights go, some available in Cappadocia are among the cheapest anywhere (from £90 if you search, up to twice that if you don’t), and the strangeness and variety of the landscape makes it an ideal location.

It’s also an ideal location because it’s so popular. Unusually, hot air ballooning is a tourist activity improved by the presence of more tourists doing the same thing. In low season, the sight of eighty other balloons (each holding about twenty people) spread across your field of vision, of different colours, designs and sizes, is glorious. In high season up to 120 balloons take off every morning.

It’s an intensely peaceful experience. The group of twenty chattery Chinese tourists in my basket immediately fell silent as we lifted off from the ground. Only the periodic blasts of propane through a pilot light, to send hot air into the vast red bag above, punctured the tranquility; but those moments were never a distraction from the important business of the view. Slowly the basket rotated, giving everyone a panorama, smoothly, almost imperceptibly. Just outside of Goreme, our pilot skilfully let the balloon descend into the narrow White Valley, and then ascended from it up to a height of a kilometre. Birds of prey flew below us. The volcanoes that created the mess appeared on the horizon. Under our feet: rock cucumbers, teardrops the size of houses, and petrified Mr Whippy ice creams. 

Surprisingly, a hot air balloon flight is in ways reminiscent of scuba diving. In the latter, you descend smoothly from sea level to float and swim silently above a beautiful coral reef below, enjoying the shimmering air bubbles rising from other divers. In the balloon, we ascended from ground level to float and fly silently above a beautiful landscape below, enjoying the colourful balloons rising with other tourists. Most importantly, both activities are accompanied by a deep sense of leaving your everyday troubles behind: in diving because you’ve found a new, more beautiful world; in ballooning because you’ve died and are ascending to heaven.

Cheap flights to Turkey are easy to find: easyJet flies to Istanbul via London Luton, but also consider flying to Antalya or Dalaman instead. Turkey's bus network is excellent and reasonably priced to get you on to Cappadocia: the biggest nearby city is Kayseri, then connect to Nevsehir, then Goreme. Goreme is packed with good accommodation options, including many 'cave' hotels and hostels built into the rocks. Accommodation is also available in nearby villages such as Uchısar. Ally flew with Anatolian Balloons, the biggest commercial hot air ballooning company in the world, and the only one to have been granted the highest safety certificate, ISO 9001:2008. See www.anatolianballoons.com for more details. http://www.anatolianballoons.com