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- A practical guide to Cappadocia
What can be said about Cappadocia that has not already been said? The fascinating and sometimes eerie landscapes defy description as they look like nowhere else on this planet. Rocks, valleys, canyons and "fairy-chimneys" have been sculpted into weird shapes, first through wind and water erosion many millennia ago, and later by the hand and ingenuity of Man. You will discover beautifully frescoed churches, hewn out of the rock, cave dwellings and underground cities which descend into the earth and are honeycombed with miles of tunnels. A fairytale country ...
But just as special is the sincerity and warmth of welcome from its inhabitants, some of whom have transformed their homes and stables into cave hotels. Although historically Cappadocia sprawled over a vast territory, the most popular places of interest, whether natural or cultural, are mainly in a triangle between Avanos, Nevşehir and Ürgüp. Wherever you decide to fix your base camp, you are never far from historical sites, amazing sights, "fairy-chimneys", churches and monasteries, mounts and valleys.
Below is a short description of some of the towns and villages of Cappadocia, to let you get the feel of where you would like to stay.
Ürgüp is a cheerful market town, which lives with tourism but not from it. What it lacks in stunning scenery, it makes up with its luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, a lively market and historical Turkish baths, still in use today. As you watch school children streaming out of the school gates, or listen to the chatter of people dropping in for a drink after work, or shopping on their lunch-break, you get a feel of what authentic life is like in Central Anatolia. You have a large number of hotels, you will find travel agencies and other services for tourists but not all shops are souvenir shops.
Bus connections are very good, with the main bus station running buses to major towns and cities in Turkey, as well as to Göreme, Avanos, Nevşehir and Kayseri, and a smaller bus station for regular half hour minibuses to Mustafapaşa and Ortahisar.
Some of the best dining options in Cappadocia are in Ürgüp, and local people come from outlying towns and villages to eat out here. Ürgüp cannot boast magnificent valleys and is not the hub of tourist activity in Cappadocia but it can be an excellent base to explore the area.
The village of Göreme is set right in the heart of the valleys and is surrounded by the pinnacles and stunning rock formations which have made Cappadocia world-famous. Travellers from all around the world flock to Göreme; with hundreds of hotels and pansiyons, cafés and bars, travel agencies and hot air balloon companies, Göreme has become the main tourist centre in Cappadocia. Traditionally a favourite with backpackers, the village now boasts luxury hotels and is aiming to attract a more upmarket clientèle.
Walking down the high street means running the gauntlet of all kinds of shops selling trinkets and souvenirs but cheap eating options are plentiful and the panorama is still simply breath-taking. Göreme can be a good base for your holiday, as you can walk to many of the tourist attractions, including the famous Göreme Open Air Museum, directly from your hotel.
Avanos' charm lies in the the fact that this sleepy provincial town doesn't seem to have noticed that tourism has hit Cappadocia and that nearly 3 million visitors visit the area each year. The town carries on unperturbed, meandering on its way, like the river which flows through its town centre.
The Kızılırmak (Red River), which is, incidentally, the longest river in Turkey, is the source of Avanos' livelihood as the red, iron-ore bearing clay from the river has been used by the town's potters for thousands of years. Potters' workshops abound as well as shops selling pottery and ceramics, but also a surprising number of restaurants and cafés, mainly frequented by locals.
The covered market on Fridays is colourful and busy, and the old town is very quaint with its narrow cobbled streets winding up the hillside but my steps always bring me back to the river. Along the riverside there are many cafés and teashops where you can sip your tea and watch the river slowly slide past.
Uçhisar is situated at the highest point in Cappadocia, on the Nevşehir-Göreme road, just 5 km from Göreme and is recognisable and famous for its rock citadel which provides stunning views of the whole of Cappadocia, over to Mount Erciyes. The village itself is very hilly and full of small, cobbled streets lined on both side by cave houses and hotels. One of the pioneers of foreign tourism in Cappadocia was a French architect who transformed a group of cave houses into luxury self-catering units, and signs of the large French community can be seen everywhere, particularly in the names of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. Uçhisar's hotels are mostly top of the range luxury cave hotels and night-life is very quiet with some good dining options and no night clubs.
Uçhisar is ideally suited for independent travellers seeking peace and quiet. Public transport is very limited and in winter many hotels and restaurants are closed.
However, the highlight of Uçhisar is the absolutely magnificent panorama over the Pigeon Valley, the best views in Cappadocia in my opinion. Throughout the years farmers have used pigeon guano as a rich source of fertiliser for their crops and in Pigeon Valley they carved out dovecotes from the rock cliffs.
In winter, with a sprinkling of snow on the tops of the rocks, the views are simply magical.
Throughout the Seljuk and early Ottoman periods, Mustafapaşa (then known as Sinasos) remained predominately Christian although the Muslim population increased under the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman Greeks of Cappadocia were mostly wealthy caviar merchants trading in Istanbul, and built splendid old stone Greek houses for their families in Sinasos, with richly decoratively carved façades and blue-painted doors, houses which can still be admired today. The Sultan himself even authorised the Christian population of Mustafapaşa to build their own churches and old people tell the stories of a time when the sound of church bells mingled with the call to prayer from the minarets of the mosques.
In 1923 the euphemistically-named population exchange between Greece and Turkey forced the Christians to leave their homes in Sinasos behind them and Muslim muhacır (refugees) were uprooted from their villages in Macedonia to settle in the vacated houses in the newly-named Mustafapaşa.
Mustafapaşa remains one of my favourite villages in Cappadocia, partly because of the brocade of its history which is so poignantly recent but also because of the way it is a village which remains untouched by the negative effects of tourism. Old men still ride through the village on the donkeys carrying kindling and firewood, women still gather to make tomato sauce in huge pans over a wood-fire in the cobbled streets, weddings and the coming and going of seasons are still celebrated with the same songs, dances and traditional musical instruments - village life carries on as it has done for centuries.
The 26 churches the Greeks left behind them are being slowly and lovingly restored; the Church of St.Constantine and St.Helena, the Byzantine churches of St. Basil, St. Stephen and St. Nicholas are just some of the many churches worth visiting.
Mustafapaşa is really an ideal base for exploring the south of Cappadocia and some of the lesser-known valleys off the tourist track such as Monastery Valley, Golgoli Valley, Beydere Valley and the beautiful Gomeda valley which will enchant all nature-lovers. Just nearby you can discover Keşlik and its monastic complex, the recently-uncovered Roman mosaics at Sobessos, the villages of Cemil and Şahinefendi, the Selcuk medrese at Taşkinpaşa, and the winding road to Soğanlı Valley with its cluster of Byzantine churches.
On a practical note, Mustafapaşa has few dining options but is only 4km from Ürgüp with a regular municipal minibus running every 30 minutes until late in the evening, which enables you to have the best of both worlds: town and village!
The most prominent structure in the small town of Ortahisar is the citadel which is a 86-metre-high rock castle which was apparently carved out into tunnels and rooms during the Hittite period. The town boasts the only Ethnography Museum in Cappadocia which showcases traditional Cappadocian life, and is visited by tour groups. When the tour buses leave, life gets back to normal as Ortahisar people mainly earn their living from agriculture and livestock breeding and tourism is an accessory revenue.
The town is picturesque with its traditional cave dwellings and its old men playing backgammon at the tables of the cafés around the square, and quite a number of hotels have opened here for the enjoyment of visitors who would like to steep themselves in the traditional way of life of an Anatolian town.
There are very few dining options in the town and the public transport is limited but hotels will organise transport to and from Ürgüp in the evening. The main attraction of Ortahisar, apart from the quaint lifestyle, is the proximity of a plethora of hiking trails through valleys filled with Byzantine churches and natural wonders.
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