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Cappadocia: the iconographic mesmerizer

CAPPADOCIA: THE ICONOGRAPHIC MESMERIZER

Cappadocia, the geological Disneyland consisting of canyons, cave cities and iconography, is a good alternative for those looking for a unique weekend getaway with aerial views in hot-air balloons and ATV's in UNESCO's only open-to-drive area

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tourists spill out from Nevşehir airport every hour, starving hysterical, to join the mad pursuit of canyon pleasure only found in the Cappadocia region. Savvy vacationers on package tours from the U.K., EU and the Gulf, even from far-off America, Australia and New Zealand, get whooshed in, like mail in pressurized postal tubes, for an experience as regulated as some Southern California juice diets.

It is obviously because Cappadocia is great. We all know this. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site you are allowed to drive dune buggies and ATVs all over.

If you do not know what it is, or you have not yet run your fingers across the spine of a Lonely Planet, or cannot check Wikipedia for whatever strange reason, I will inform you. Millennia of volcanic activity and cave-dwelling religious communities transformed an otherwise unremarkable scar of desert into a geological Disneyland of pillars, canyons, caves and iconography. Improbable stones balanced on skinny rock towers. Underground cave cities covered in frescos. A wall of bright red stone rippling across the face of a mesa. A giant beehive-shaped castle visible on all horizons.

Despite the hype, the slavering hordes of tourists and the mediocre overpriced food, I still do a double take whenever I hear someone say they have not visited. It is still one of the most fun places on earth. It is vast, so whenever I visit I discover something new, and it is full of quirky small-town-isms missing from the big city lifestyle we lead in Istanbul.

So this little guide is a city-slickers' guide to doing Cappadocia in a weekend, geared toward the Istanboulites who either have never visited or only visited once as a child in the distant past. It is still wicked fun, even in a small burst. Cappadocia is a huge region – even if you were to stay for a year, you would not cover it all – but I have been there four times now, and each good Cappadocia trip contains a few key activities. Rather than a list of what exactly to see and do, I will be giving you the ingredients for you to bake your own cake –or, create your own trip. And, I will show you how do it for so cheap that you still have hundreds of liras left over for your city-slicker crepes. But do not think you can get crepes in Cappadocia, too.

How to make this work

To make your fun weekend away really work, you need to skip work for a day, preferably a Friday. You could tell your boss, for instance, that your mom is in town. You have to spend time with your mom and be a good host. As an excuse to skip work, many bosses understand this more readily than their own employees' physical illness. Or maybe you get contractually obligated "vacation days," but I am pretty sure that is a myth. You need to skip a day because if you fly in on Saturday morning and leave on Sunday night, you get travel whiplash and everything will be a blur. You need at least two nights in a place before the unevolved neurons in the back of your cerebellum awaken and pay attention to what is going on. This is science. So you go buy bus/plane tickets to Göreme for Thursday night, and vanish into the darkness, only to arrive back in the city on Monday morning. Good? Good. We understand each other.

Then you will want to book a bed either in the Shoestring Cave House, Kose Pansiyon, or Saksağan Cave Hotel. Everyone wants to stay in a cave, but it is overrated. It is just a big stone room with rugs on the ground. Do not get too romantic here. A bed is a bed is a bed. You could also bring a tent and go camping, and this would feed your "slide away from civilization," and I do not recommend it. We are already worried about you. Your dad has been calling me for weeks. You need a haircut and a bath. Talk to your dad.

At any rate, those are my favorite places to stay in Göreme. The staff is unfailingly friendly in all three of those places, and there is free breakfast. Now you are set to explore.

How to explore

Cappadocia is not a town, but a region. There are a bunch of wacky small towns populated by slow-moving locals, happy to sell gewgaws to the tourists, but just as happy to spend all day slurping tea and gossiping. Göreme is what you should consider home base, a jumping off point for seeing the sights. The format should be eat, wander around and get lost, eat, wander around again, eat some more, play card games, go to bed.

The open air museum

It is just so crowded. I know, I know, everyone has to go here, but so many people are here at any given time that when you walk through the place, you are shoved along in a bunch, like a school of salmon going upstream to spawn. I recommend reading a lot about the place so you know what you are looking at, and then get in and get out as fast as possible. There is an entire town set up here. There is a camel. He is not your friend. He just wants five lira and to spit on you.

Hide in a cave

Pick literally any direction. Your hotel owner will have a stack of maps and can point out their favorite spots, but really, pick any direction. You will run into a chunky pointy rock tube after about 10 minutes. They are everywhere. Inside many of them, there are caves, which have not really been roped off yet. Last visit, me and my friends went off the road from the open-air museum and found the El Nazar church, a beautiful standalone fairy chimney full of frescos on domes. Behind it is a huge canyon full of spindly towers and skittering gullies. We spent a few hours loping on and off the trail, climbing things, discovering big holes where ancient Cappadocians tied up their donkeys, or housed their cows. It is a lot of fun to stand in a spooky rock chamber and speculate how people a thousand years ago may have used it.

Hike to Uçhisar

I lied. I do have to recommend something specific. Go up Pigeon Valley from Göreme and walk to Uçhisar. I like this canyon because you get to walk through a lot of tunnels and see a lot of weird warped cliffs. You get to scramble up and down sandstone lumps and get great views. A trillion years ago they used to house thousands of pigeons in Pigeon Valley, and you can still see their tiny homes, little indents carved in grids into the rock face. Pigeon poop, I guess, can be used to make ink. Does that mean that all the frescos at the open-air museum are 80 percent feces? History is amazing, isn't it?

Once you are in Uçhisar, take some time to wander around the town and check out all the collapsed cave homes for sale. Briefly entertain the idea of fleeing civilization to set up a cave hotel, and then hitchhike back to town.

Eating time

There is no truly Cappadocian food, other than things cooked in pottery. I liked eating breakfast at my hotel because it was free and the hardboiled eggs for once were boiled to the point of tenderness, rather than green opacity. The owner of my hotel, Numan, said that all the good food was in Nevşehir anyways.

Fırın Express is your dinner hotspot. They serve pide for TL 10 a pop. And, they have eggplant pide, a rarity!

Fat Boys has a decent selection of affordable food... It has a decent sac kavurma and passable versions of other international foods, but is otherwise unremarkable. The burgers are fine. The salads are fine. The eggplant soup was super delicious and I went back a second day just for that. The nachos are made out of Doritos, and are not fine. The bread is great.

Of course, you can always pack a picnic from bakkal goods – a healthy sack of cheese, fruit, olives and bread goes a long way. If you are going in the right season, you get to eat local apricots from trees you find out in the wilderness. It is the right season now. Go now.

Make some local friends

You have to make friends with the locals. YOU HAVE TO. THIS IS THE BEST THING TO DO. They are nicer and are really bored dealing with a never-ending onslaught of different folks, day in and out, and they will be all too happy to show you their favorite camping spots. I recommend you bring them a bottle of wine or some nice snacks, and they will cue you into the local gossip. If you are charming and presentable, perhaps they will invite you to dinner. Of course, some of the locals, never blind to a good opportunity, will charge you to have dinner at their house.

Rent a zippy car and zip around

Occasionally we must make sacrifices at the altar of engineering, and throw down a TL 100 for the privilege of a motor and some wheels. Normally I get everywhere by public transport – bus, train, ferry – and nothing is more liberating than casting caution to the winds and renting something fast. Cappadocia is great for this because there are still huge parts of it that are mostly empty. There is something primal and dumb in my American heart that loves the open countryside and the rumbling of an engine beneath me. Forgive me.

Wake up early and watch the balloons

Please, please do not shell out the 100 euros for a balloon ride. It is way less exciting than it sounds. You can get more or less the same experience if you set your alarm really early and dash outside before the sun rises. Get yourself on a dinky promontory with the other cheapskates, and watch the balloons inflate in the open desert plain before you. You will hear the shuddering blasts of the propane flames, you will see the sunlight glinting off the tips of the fairy chimneys, and you will see the desert floor begin to glow. The air will soon be full of colorful globes buoying in the open blue sky. Maybe, if you are lucky, a little spirit dog will come hang out with you to appreciate the view. Best of all – you have all day to do everything on this list all over again.

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