Monday, January 15, 2018

The magical landscape of Cappadocia

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to spend time in 69 countries, but I’ve never encountered a landscape that fascinated me as much as central Turkey’s Cappadocia region.

Cappadocia’s “fairy chimneys,” its most distinctive features, were formed by volcano lava flows that covered the hills and valleys to create a high plateau thousands of years ago. Underground cities were created to house people and animals in this surreal setting, and it’s estimated that  more than 600 churches were cut out of its rocks. 

My first taste of what Cappadocia had to offer last July came in Yaprakhisar, not far from the 16-kilometre long Ihlara Valley, where several scenes from Star Wars films have apparently been shot. Something just felt special as I stepped out of the bus, and the vistas that spread out in front of me confirmed it.

We carried on a bit further to the Derinkuyu Underground City, the largest and deepest of the region’s subterranean settlements that have been excavated. It’s estimated that there are three dozen underground cities in the area.

The admission price was 25 Turkish lira ($8.30 Canadian), which gave access to stables, churches, wineries, kitchens, wells and a variety of other rooms and chambers connected by an extensive network of tunnels over eight levels that extended 60 metres below ground level. Heavy millstones were used as doors to keep invaders out during times of war, which were the only times the underground cities were used — sometimes for up to years at a time.

Derinkuyu Underground City
Not all of the tunnels are open and you can’t go all the way to the bottom of the cave system, where the temperature is a constant 16 degrees Celsius year-round, but it was a fascinating place to spend an hour.

Ortahisar Castle
I stayed for two nights not too far away in the small town of Urgup, the home of the remains of the photogenic 13th century Ortahisar Castle, which was reopened to the public in 2013 after almost nine years of extensive renovations to protect the structure from collapsing. Steep steps and ladders lead as high as you can go in the castle after you pay the two Turkish lira (70 cents Canadian) admission fee, but the highest part remains closed for renovations. It provides prime views of the surrounding area.

I got up at 3:30 a.m. the next day, after three-and-a-half hours of sleep, to be taken to the office of Cappadocia Voyager Balloons, where I paid 520 Turkish lira ($173 Canadian) for the experience of a lifetime. After a glass of tea we were driven to the launching point, where it was interesting to watch about 60 hot air balloons prepared and inflated in the early morning darkness.

Not nearly as interesting, however, as after 20 of us climbed into the basket of a balloon and rose as high as 800 metres. We also flew low over the Pink Valley, just barely avoiding its walls, some of which had holes carved out for pigeons. We hovered above a cave town that was abandoned in 1952, and others that have been out of use for much longer, as well as numerous fairy chimneys, rock formations and a modern town.

Seeing the sun rise from this vantage point was the piece de resistance of the hour-long voyage and bucket list experience. A glass of sparkling wine, a personalized certificate and a baseball cap were waiting for me upon landing, which was a nice touch. 

Balloons take off in Cappadocia approximately 280 days a year, more than anywhere else in the world, due to benevolent winds and weather conditions. But for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I’ll cherish forever.

Goreme Open Air Museum
The rest of the day was far from a letdown, however, as I later found myself at the Goreme Open Air Museum, where several cave churches from the ninth century on have been preserved and restored and you can view frescoes from the Byzantine era depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Photography is forbidden inside the churches to protect the frescoes, but there were more than enough photo ops outside and in some of the cave living quarters, dining halls and tombs to take my camera battery levels down by several percentage points. It was well worth the 30 Turkish lira ($9.80 Canadian) entrance fee.

From there it was on to the town of Avanos, where I saw the ruins of some old houses and crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge across the Red River to a park.

It was then back on the bus for stops at two more vistas for additional photo opps of fairy chimneys and rock formations. The second overlooked the Pigeon Valley. While the rest of my tour group opted to return to our hotel, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hike through the valley on my own.

Even better, I didn’t encounter another person — just birds, bees and jaw-dropping scenery that you couldn’t see from above. Hundreds of pigeon holes carved into the soft volcanic tuff give the valley its name, and its trail varied in width and moved back and forth from parched to covered in vegetation.

I couldn’t go any further once I came to a gorge that dropped at least 100 metres down to a green valley. I backtracked a bit and found another trail headed upward that was pretty steep and tiring in the blazing sun and 42-degree Celsius heat. It eventually led to the town of Goreme, which has several high-end hotels (including several with cave rooms) overlooking the valley.

I started walking down the highway until I was able to flag down a taxi driven by Mustafa Kemal Polat, who spoke some English and understood where I wanted to go. He had three nieces in the back seat, who were probably in their late teens or early twenties and conservatively dressed with their heads covered. They were friendly and curious and, despite out language barrier, we were able to laugh and smile and communicate a bit during the ride back to my hotel in Urgup.

It was one of my favourite interactions during my two weeks in Turkey.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A short hike through Turkey’s Saklikent Gorge

Turkey is a treasure trove of sights to behold — the mosques of Istanbul, the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, the ancient ruins of Ephesus and the white travertine terraces of Pamukkale among them.

But it was a place previously unknown to me before I decided to travel to the country that straddles Europe and Asia last summer that turned out to be one of my favourites: Saklikent Gorge — the longest and deepest in Turkey.

Saklikent National Park opened in 1996 and is located approximately 50 kilometres from Fethiye, a port city and tourism centre in the southwestern part of Turkey. Lovely low mountain vistas accompany the drive to the gorge, which was formed through geological cracks that separated Mount Akdag into two parts thousands of years ago.

The admission fee to Saklikent Gorge is just six Turkish lira ($2 Canadian), which is a bargain at multiples of that figure. While the canyon is 18 kilometres long, just the first four are generally accessible. The first two are relatively easily walkable for those of decent fitness and mobility levels, though you’ll sometimes have to negotiate your way over or around rocks through much of the journey.

The hike begins by taking a catwalk attached to the gorge's western wall for a few hundred metres before you’re forced to wade through the foaming, cold, waist deep water of Karacay Creek (which can be seen in the 2014 Russell Crowe film, The Water Diviner) with the assistance of a rope that’s strung across it. From here on in, the pebble-bottomed creek ranges from ankle to hip deep and from calm to fairly fast-flowing.

Saklikent Gorge ranges in width from 20 to 30 metres, while the cliff walls soar 200 metres above you. Rock formations, in combination with the water and varying degrees of sunlight that make their way to the bottom of the canyon, make for stunning views and photo opportunities. Just be sure to keep focused on keeping your camera out of the water.

You must return the same way you entered, but that gives you the opportunity to soak in things you might have missed the first time when travelling in the opposite direction. You may encounter a few bats, and I saw a dead snake, but this hike is about geological wonders and not wildlife spotting.

Once you get back to the main entrance, there are more entertainment options if you have time to take advantage of them. There’s rafting and tubing going in the other direction on Karacay Creek, as well as zip-lining and jeep safaris. The less adventurous can indulge in a mud bath, check out gift shops, fill up on fresh trout at restaurants or just lie back and relax.

Saklikent Gorge is open from the beginning of April to the end of September and makes for a great day trip. As long as you have transportation, you can also spend part of the day there and the remainder in the nearby beach resort town of Oludeniz, which is surrounded by small mountains and is a popular place for paragliding.

Montana Pine Resort Hotel & Spa
My accommodations in this part of Turkey were at the four-star, all-inclusive Montana Pine Resort Hotel & Spa, which is scenically nestled in a pine forest on the side of Mount Badabag at the beginning of the historic and breathtaking, 540-kilometre Lycian Way hiking trail, which I partook of for four hours as temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. 

The 159-room hotel offers great views, multiple restaurants and bars, three swimming pools, two children’s pools, live music and entertainment, tennis, volleyball, miniature golf, archery, a children’s playground and gift shop among its amenities.