Saturday, June 29, 2013

Cappadocia, Turkey - Caves, Travertines, and Circuses

Goreme, Cappadocia

We had high expectations of the Cappadocia region of Turkey. We had spoken to fellow travelers and Turkish friends and acquaintances, Hannah had done copious amounts of research on where to stay, what to see, etc, but nothing could have prepared us for how much we were going to enjoy this small, sleepy village. Cappadocia is an enormous region of Turkey. It is comprised of several towns, valleys, and undeveloped areas. The town of Goreme is the most common town for tourists to visit, normally landing at Kayseri airport, about an hour away.
We were met at the airport by our driver, sent to pick us up by our hotel, The Aydinli Cave Hotel, which came highly recommended by guide books that Hannah was reading. As we entered Goreme we were immediately reminded of Sedona, Arizona. There were beautiful rock formations everywhere along the horizon and the town of Goreme itself was built into the rocks. The hotels, restaurants, and roads were all a part of the earth, not built on top of it, but built into it. What seemed to make this place different than any other tourist destination we had been to was not only the beautiful nature surrounding it from every angle, but the lack of development, the attention that the town's business owners paid to keeping it serene and not taking away from the natural beauty that it possessed. The landscape was covered in "fairy chimneys", domed rock formations formed by volcanos and thousands of years of wind blowing across the valleys. The valleys' rock faces were covered in cave dwellings and "pigeon houses" that the original settlers, 10,000 years ago, used to raise pigeons, whose poop was used to fertilize the vineyards and other crops. The climate and fertility in the region lends itself to being a wine region producing great wines (which we felt obligated to try them all) as well as apricot trees, pistachio trees, figs, walnuts trees, and many other amazing locally grown produce.

We arrived at The Aydinli and were greeted with the most genuine hospitality we had ever received at a hotel. The proprietor, Mustafa, whose reputation had preceded him in Hannah's research, was there to greet us and it took all of Hannah's power to not hug him. He was born and raised in this house, or cave, however you look at it. Many years before the Cappadocia tourism boom, they were producers of dried fruits and would use the home's rooms for drying their produce. To this day they still grow and dry the fruit that they serve their guests. Mustafa converted his home into a stunning 6 room hotel and runs it as if it is still his home.

His son, Cem (pronounced "Jem"), nephews, and lifelong family friends were ready to help with anything we required, and we truly felt at home. Whether it was booking tours, making reservations in town, changing reservations that we made, mailing our postcards, booking turkish bath appointments, letting us watch The Heat in Game 7 in their office at 4am, etc, etc....
On the recommendation of Cem and Mustafa we booked a table at Dibek Restaurant, which happened to be owned and run by Mustafa's brother in law. We soon came to find out that everyone in Goreme knows each other and the town's restaurants and hotels all recommend each other, but never in a way that makes you feel as though they are taking advantage, they simply want your experience in Goreme to be great.
The dinner experience at Dibek was not only delicious, but fun. We had pre-ordered a clay pot which needs hours to cook. We entered the cave where Dibek was housed and while waiting for our table we admired the simple rustic decor and shared a fresh plate of apricots with the matriarch of the family. She spoke no english, but as a grandmother would, continuously motioned for us to eat more apricots

Upon sitting at our table we did as all others were doing which was remove our shoes and sit on the floor on cushions at the coffee table height table. Our meal started with a few local dishes including lentil soup, yogurt, and cucumbers, delicious fresh bread, and locally gown wine.

Dinner ended with the best baclava we had each ever had...and a beautiful view of Cappadocia as we returned to our cave.

Through the folks at the Aydinli we arranged a full day tour the next day of the Cappodocia valleys, ancient underground cities, and churches and monasteries built into the caves.
Who has two thumbs and wants to go tour underground cities, tour ancient monestaries, and hike along the river of a beautiful valley? THIS GUY AND GIRL! That's how we spent our entire day the following day. Hannah was concerned about descending 150 feet into a 3 foot high and one foot wide tunnel that was built by ancient folks with the intention of confusing intruders, getting them lost, and suffocating them as they hunted for the underground city's inhabitants...why would she be claustrophobic? After a guilt trip and a bit of ridicule she got over her fear and stepped up the fear factor. We wandered through canervous holes in the earth and learned all about a civiliazation so in fear of being found that they used hand tools to build dwellings far beneath the earth.

Included was a great hike along the river of Cappadocia's valleys and a stop at tea garden with stools that sat directly in the water. We took a seat on a seat fashioned from a tree trunk and enjoyed a fresh squeezed orange juice. Our relaxation was momentarily interrupted when a passerby through a duck at us, but we laughed it off uncomfortably, and assumed it a Turkish tradition.
Our evening was completed by one the best restaurant and meal that Hannah and I had ever experienced. We thought Dibek the previous evening was amazing, but Seten, only a few steps up the hill from the Aydinli Cave Hotel was another level of culinary delight. The mezze plate was unreal, the lamb kebab blew our minds. The best part was the service, and genuine appreciation of the staff for having us at their restaurant. After every bite all we could we talk about was how we couldn't wait to come back the following evening...which we did. We felt like Roman aristocrats as we sipped on fine Turkish wines and savored every bite of the locally grown amazingness.

Cave-view dining....
The best mezze spread imaginable....
As we did every other night in Goreme, we sat on our patio and gazed over the cave filled horizon before retiring to our cave room.We awoke at the break of dawn, or actually before the break of dawn the following morning to do the most popular tourist activity in Cappadocia, the hot air balloon. We were told that depending on the winds the ride could differ drammatically from one day to the next. At times you would travel 2km, other days you would travel 20. There were no less than 150 hot air balloons in the air at one time, you could see them along the horizon for miles. We were grouped into groups of 4 in 4 separate sections of our balloon. For no apparent reason the couple that we were grouped with took ownership of our entire section....basically forcing Hannah and I into the corner, hanging over the edge of the balloon basket. We were rescued by the crew of the balloon who instructed the balloon basket hogs to make room....they weren't happy, but obliged.The scene from the balloon as the sun rose was amazing. You can definitely see why this is a number one hot air balloon spot. We cruised over the valleys, descended several times over fig and apricot trees, and even landed on the canyon floor. Our pilot, Khan, seemed to know what he was doing, although he told us over and over again that it was his first time flying.This picture isn't our balloon.....
We were back in town by 8am that day, so we spent the day enjoying our time at the hotel and wanderered around the town. I got some good guitar time, and one of the guys working at the hotel even came up and jammed a bit with me while Hannah napped.

As creatures of habit often do, we returned to Seten that evening for another great dinner. We learned that our host, Hasan, had spent time in San Francisco and had a nice chat with him. We've also learned that every restaurant and hotel lives and dies by Trip Advisor, so always write reviews! Which we have done none of yet. Hannah made a new friend at this particular dinner, the family cat who decided her vantage point was much better from Hannah's and surprised her with a leap onto her lap.

Much, much, much later that evening, or the following morning at 4am we huddled around a computer in the Aydinli Cave Hotel office and watched the Miami Heat win Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals...what an exciting way to spend our last evening in Goreme.

The hightlight of the following day was the Turkish bath, aka Hamam. This is basically where you lie down on a warm marble stone and a "bather" soaks you in suds and rubs every single part of your body down. A bit strange and awkward as there was a constant stream of people walking through the spa room we were in, but relaxing and cleansing at the same time. This was a definite "when in Rome" experience as we're pretty good at bathing ourselves but when in Rome (or Turkey), its best to have someone do it for you. Our departure from Aydinli and farewell to the staff was bittersweet, but we assured them we'd be back, even if our only stop in Turkey was Goreme.


Our next stop was Pamukkale, which we had heard was a place like no other....we boarded a night bus from Goreme for the 10 hour bus ride to Pamukkale. We arrived at around 7am and immediately missed Goreme. The town that the Pamukkale Travertines were in was nothing like Goreme. It was incredibly hot, dusty, and aside from the tourists arriving in big groups on tour buses, it appeared to be a ghost town. We had an extremely mediocre breakfast in town before hiking up to the travestines and ruins. Our host, Mustafa (yes, another Mustafa...I'm beginning to think that the Turkish are very bad at inventing new names....says Jon), was a character to say the least. He loved to entertain us with his depiction of American valley girl accents, which were bad and in bad taste. For this reason alone we felt he deserved to make it on our blog.

We had a conundrum in Pamukkale. The ruins were beautiful, historic, and incredibly rich with ancient history, the travestines were truly amazing with endless pools of fresh water, but we the place was overrun by tourists but we made the best of it.
Through the travels that I have enjoyed throughout my life there are a few things about people around the world that I always found fascinating. One of these is the way in which people pose when getting their picture taken. The Japanese and some other Asian cultures make backwards peace signs, American's and most other folks smile and say cheese, Brazilians look tough, etc. We found at the travertines where the tourists were predominantly Russian, that the Russian women love to make pornographic poses while being photographed as if each picture is a candidate for their risque online dating profile.After discretely following around a group of Russians we spent some time soaking in the baths and rubbing the soft mud all over ourselves, which is another popular Russian activity. We also did some posing of our own.We also spent some time wandering around the ruins. Apparently American's don't only smile for pictures but they also feel the need to raise their arms as if they are signaling a search party.

We met a couple of dudes traveling, one from Montreal, the other a government official from a province in India. The "odd couple" had been traveling together and seemed to get along well despite their incredibly different professions and lives. The Canuck told us about his fund management career and the Indian dude told us about how he has to issue orders to shoot people to quell riots. This probably deserves more explanation but I'm not in a position to give it.
We couldn't wait to get the hell out of Pamukalle, so after a quick beer we hit the bus station to catch our 3 hour bus to the town of Selchuk to see the ancient ruins of Epheseus, the oldest ruin city in the world. In our haste to rush to the bus station we learned that we were 30 minutes late and had missed our bus, which was probably for the better, but being the accomodating folks that they are, they drove us in a van to catch our bus. The driver of the bus was none too thrilled to be radioed and asked to wait for a couple of slacker Americans...but he did. Karma is a bitch because we were none to thrilled when our shitty, tiny, 90 degree bus sideswiped a Honda. We spent the next hour on the side of a narrow road while a Turkish circus occured between the driver of the Honda and his passengers and our bus driver and his assistant. There was a lot of yelling, pointing, paperwork, attempting to re-attach the bumber to the Honda, and then trying to fit the bumper of the Honda into our bus....which eventually happened. We then got the privilege of driving the bumber and the crew of the Honda to a service station where more paperwork and yelling occured. Alls well that ends well, we arrived in Selchuk 2 hours late, but in one piece, wish we could say the same for the Honda


We made it to our hotel in Selchuk which was nicely situated in a neighborhood of Romanian gypsies. The following morning we took a stroll around the city, had a kebab, and took a taxi to the ruins of Epheseus. The ruins were quite amazing although getting to them wasn't as easy. The taxi driver apparently had friends at all places, which all seemed to cut him in on any action that he brought them. He dropped us off at his "friend's" store where I'm sure he took at least a .05 cut of the water we bought. He then told us he'd wait for us in one hour at the bottom of the Epheseus ruin park to take us back to our hotel in Selchuk.
This place was great, we were really tempted to buy some geniune fake watches, but just had no room in our backpacks. There was also an offer from a fella on the street who had "ancient gold coins", we wondered what those would set us back, but we didn't feel like asking.
On our return journey (of 10 minutes) our friendly taxi driver tried to no avail to 1) get us to buy a carpet 2) take us to his friend's restaurant 3) sell us a guide book 4) take us to the House of Mary 5) overcharge us by nearly a third.
At this point we were 100% ready to not only get out of Selchuk but also move on to our next destination. While nothing could compare to the non-invasive, non-aggressive nature of Goreme and Cappidocia, we had had enough. Although we did meet our favorite cat of the trip yet in Selchuk, our hotel's house cat, we couldn't describe why we loved her, but we did.

We played a few games of chess (read Hannah beat me twice) over a few beers while wasting time before our 10 hour night bus left Selchuk for Istanbul where we caught our departing flight for yet another land neither of us had been to, but had both heard great things about...Croatia!