A trip to Anatolia gives new meaning to the phrase “going to the country for the weekend.”
There is no question: Your visit to Istanbul will be incredible, hands down—steeped in history, unbelievably beautiful—an amazing cultural experience. But just a one-hour flight into the heart of Turkey brings you to Cappadocia, a historical region in Nevşahir province.
Here, visitors soak up the traditional lifestyle and amazing topography right alongside the apricot farmers, making time for ancient churches and underground cities, roadside markets, regional cuisine, and artisanal rug makers and ceramicists.
Cappadocia, which translates to the “land of the beautiful horses,” is characterized by a landscape of soft rock created from layers of volcanic ash millions of years old. The unusual swaths of aptly named “fairy chimneys” in the valleys are steeples of rock that remain behind as the supporting rock around them erodes.
This region was once the realm of the Hittite Empire, laying claim to settlements that date back to Roman times and further. Ongoing archeological excavations are unearthing entire villages, such as the Sobesos Ancient City, as well as “hideout” cities deep within the hills, once used to protect townspeople from marauders and religious persecution. Of the 35 underground cities, Kaymakli and Derinkuyu are the widest and deepest, respectively, where visitors can wind through a multi-storey, thousand-year-old stone maze of rooms, including stables, kitchens, storage and prayer rooms.
The still-vibrant frescoes in the rock-cut churches of the Göreme Open Air Museum preserve the religious history of Cappadocia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this cluster served the spiritual needs of people for centuries, acting as a monk settlement, a pilgrimage site and now one big history lesson on early Christianity. The Church of the Buckle is the largest cave church, its ninth to eleventh century frescoes representing the 12 apostles and many saints, along with scenes from the life of Christ.
One of the best ways to see the lay of the land in Cappadocia is from a hot-air balloon. On a nice day, you can see more than 100 balloons coasting in and around villages, vineyards and fairy chimneys. These typically leave the ground at dawn, and there are many companies to fly with; your hotel concierge will know which outfits are the best. Word to the wise: Your stomach will thank you if you have a bit of breakfast first.
Home base for you comes in the form of a very unique hotel experience. Most tourists embrace authentic Turkish hospitality at the many boutique cave hotels that dot the map near Göreme National Park, Nevşahir and Ürgüp, staying in rooms that were originally carved into the mountainside centuries ago. Two in particular stand out a mile for their attention to detail and all-out luxury: Yunak Evleri Cave Hotel in Ürgüp and Gamirasu Cave Hotel in Ayavalı.
For dining, the Cappadocia cuisine is as delicious as it is varied. Most meals in Turkey start with a meze, an array of small dishes, including cheeses, eggplant salad, red peppers, yogurt, humus, olives, fava beans and sarma, or rice-stuffed grape leaves. Resist the urge to fill up on all this, though, because grilled lamb or kofte (meatballs) will not be far behind.
While we tend to think of kebabs as coming on skewers, there are in fact a few different kinds, including the doner kebab you see on vertical spits that are shaved into a pita. Keep an eye out in particular for testi kebab, an Anatolian beef, lamb or chicken stew baked slowly in clay jugs with green peppers, tomatoes, garlic and butter.
Post-meal, locals drink çay or Turkish tea from tiny, elegant glasses. In fact, Turks pause throughout the day for a glass of tea, a break called a keyif, which means to “appreciate the life.” Once you get a taste of Cappadocia, you will see first-hand just how much there is to appreciate.
If You Go
For touring companies, Trafalgar offers an excellent guided adventure that starts and ends in Istanbul: the 15-day Best of Turkey trip, which takes you on and off the beaten path for a full-on cultural, insider experience. Visit Trafalgar.com.
Turkish Airlines does the trip up right, with the business-class service especially pampering, particularly when it comes to the meals.