Cappadocia: Grounded in Cappadocia

The best way to see Cappadocia is to see it from afar. That, at least, is the general idea, one immediately impressed upon me by nearly everyone I had talked to since I arrived.

I was in the town Goreme during my first morning in the region, on a roadside hill overlooking the fairy chimneys, which are basically a range of seemingly handcrafted pillars topped precariously by oversized rocks. It has only been 12 hours since I arrived from Istanbul via Turkish Airlines and since landing, I’ve already heard the same thing for the 8th time.

“Hot air ballooning is very popular here,” the man said offhandedly. “Will you try it?”

“No.” I answered. “No I won’t.” His name was Mehmet Ozkan, a clued-up multi-lingual tour guide who has been in the industry for over 10 years. After guiding countless people (including actor Nicholas Cage) through their respective journeys in his homeland, he has become fully aware of why most people come here. So when I told him that I won’t be trying the region’s popular balloon ride, his response was as predictable as the query itself: “Why not?”

His curiosity, of course, is well founded. Google Cappadocia, after all, and you’ll hardly miss it—the image of its otherworldly, honeycombed landscape overseen by a flight of colorful balloons. They’ve been hovering over this land after a French pilot launched the trend in the 1960s. Since then, they’ve allowed the region’s tourism to literally soar to new heights. So iconic it has become that a visitor may find it frequently referenced in local souvenir shops, immortalized on the business cards of local tour guides, and even tapped to cover awkward silences between locals and guests.

“A lot of people come here for that,” said Ozkan, and a local balloon operator said in its website that the experience is simply “not to be missed.” But alas, I missed it for good reason: Cappadocia kept me way too busy.

Located in the heart of Turkey—a country whose bi-continental terrain has a habit of finding itself in the thick of major world events —Cappadocia is an opus of many masters. Its whimsical landscape, for one, was shaped by three prehistoric volcanoes activated during the Ice Age and a mercurial climate that sees all four seasons. Its outcrops, rock formations and cliffs, meanwhile, were carved to house a portion of the Hittite population and the prominent civilizations to follow their footsteps. The Assyrian were once here. The Persians and Alexander the Great were here too. And of course, there were the Christians who sought refuge in its valleys and caves while being hunted by the Roman Empire prior to the rule of Constantine.

Nowadays, after centuries of being carved, bent, and molded, after ages of terra forming and after seeing the limelight through major film franchises like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, this proud farming region finds itself in the eye of a thoroughly globalized and adventurous world. Tourists come here yearly by the millions. And what welcomes them is a somewhat 150-square-kilometer land rich with cultural, historical and recreational attractions that can fill up one’s schedule to the brim.

I can personally speak on behalf of this. Between my coverage of a cave hotel, my visits to its ancient communes and my awkward verbal dealings with its outwardly endearing but linguistically challenged locals, I was left with practically no time for its most popular attraction.

But even though I didn’t get to see Cappadocia from afar, I did get to see other things. In Avanos, there were hands steadily creased over a spinning mold of clay, leaving me at awe as they gracefully ushered to this era craftsmanship innovated ages ago. In Urgup, there were fingers masterfully wooing from a baglama lingering twangs so haunting they froze my steps. At the Gizli Bahce outlet overlooking a valley in Nevsehir, my eyes were immediately drawn to a barren tree glittering as the sun bounced light against the numerous evil eye pendants hanging on its branches. And there, at Goreme, on the sharp edges of rocks, on clean-cut surfaces of basalt and tufa, on these sculptures born of cataclysm and the passage of time, were the parts that make up the whole of Cappadocia’s landscape.

Basically, I saw Cappadocia in details. And the region looked so interesting up close that I could hardly be bothered to see it from afar.

Hard to make, easy to break

There are many places in Cappadocia that thoroughly represent its allure as a destination, but perhaps among the most accurate metaphors for it, especially for the grounded tourist, can be encountered while visiting a local ceramic workshop. And when one is in search for that in this region, there is no better place to go to than Avanos.

As one of the locations linked by the lengthy Red River, Avanos has access to a copious amount of red clay that has allowed it to become the center of ceramics and pottery in Cappadocia. Among its major players in this industry is Sultans Ceramic, a familyowned business that operates in a rather cavernous underground cave snaking beneath the town. And people can go to great lengths just to get their hands on the company’s wares.

At the workshop, I saw a man trying to haggle for a ceramic figurine. He found it to quite precious, but so did the owners of the store, so the haggling went on for nearly half an hour.

“I’ll give it to you for 300 lira,” said one of the store’s proprietors.

“But that’s too high,” said the man. “Ok,” he replied. “I’ll give it at 299.” They settled at around 270, but not after involving about half of the people present and spurring into somewhat meandering discourse on family histories, places of origin and personal expenses. Of course, at 270, the figurine would’ve still seemed rather pricey to me, had I not seen what people actually go through just to make them.

From the molding of its base form, to the refining of its rough edges, to the painting of its final details, the creation of Sultans ceramics involves a graceful and time-consuming dance of hands that can take as long as 90 days. In one of the rooms of its cave, I saw a handful of artists intensely laboring on their respective pieces. Among them is a woman, her brow furrowed as she meticulously drew squiggles on a jar. There was also a man putting clay studs on what looked like a massive ceramic plate.

All of them donned the quiet concentration and discipline impressed upon them by generations gone by. And seeing them at work is perhaps one of the more effective marketing strategies I’ve encountered in Cappadocia.

“You know that you get quality for what you’re paying for,” said Ozkan, who accompanied me during my visit to the place. “Plus it is amazing to watch them work.”

Nearly as impressive, of course, is the actual body of work. At the showroom of Sultans, one would find eye-catching Hittite jugs depicting in striking fashion the life of long-gone civilizations. Alongside them, flowery plates occupy shelves that prop them up as a pedestal would prop up a museum artifact. Everywhere, there is an item that can draw one’s attention and keep it for a time as one unearths finer details after a closer look. But while I did find myself gawking, I did manage to resist moving in for a touch. I could just imagine the ruckus I would’ve caused, had I broken any of them by accident. I must’ve been visibly squeamish, since one of the store’s personnel actually gestured toward a Hittite jug as if to say, “Go ahead, pick it up.”

One might find oneself often behaving with such caution in Cappadocia. So often, after all, would one encounter here something that’s difficult to make yet easy to break. The region, for starters, seems to have a love for antiquity. Enter a store, a hotel, or a restaurant and one would most likely encounter something visually appealing due to their age. Cracked wood, rusted metal, chipped paint and fissures are among the finer details that complement the city’s allure. They also add a sense of fragility in nearly every turn.

And then there’s the landscape. At Goreme, eye-catching cave settlements, rock formations and stone houses are abundantly scattered throughout its valleys and hills. Also in great number too are massive boulders that have fallen off mountain sides, victims of Cappadocia’s at times extreme heat and extreme cold. The government of Turkey, according to Ozkan, has been proactive in gauging the safety of cave settlements that tourist often visit and even stay in, but he admits that Cappadocia’s best defense is its location. It is, after all, about 730 kilometers away from Istanbul, a land often dubbed to be in a precarious position due to its proximity to the North Anatolian Fault.

“Had we been placed in a location with many earthquakes, we might not have a lot of these,” he said, referring to the stone houses and caves in Goreme.

Make no mistake, however, “these” are not as fragile as they seem. For a time, these were solid enough to protect a portion of the Christian population from being thoroughly snuffed out.

The travails that come with tourists

As a country rich in history and culture, Turkey has no shortage of museums, and among the most popular ones in the country is located in Cappadocia.

Officially converted into a museum in 1964, the Goreme Acikhave Muzesi (also known as the Goreme Open Air Museum) is a massive 55-square-kilometer area which features a concentration of ancient stone building and caves. It is a sight to behold from afar, but like the rest of the region, one must get up close and personal to fully appreciate what it has to offer. The settlements, after all, were more than mere shelters back in the day. Collectively, they served as a bastion for the Christian faith.

“Back when Rome was persecuting the Christians, about 75 percent of its power is in Turkey,” said Ozkan. “But even still, its power was weak in Cappadocia, so the Christians fled here and used the valley for protection.”

Through the help of stone masters funded by well-meaning donors, these Christian refugees managed to build in Cappadocia a rocky settlement governed by what Ozkan called a monastic life system. And immediately upon my arrival, this became apparent. Near the entrance, I found two separate monasteries—one for the women and one for the men. “But I don’t know if there’s a tunnel that connects them underneath,” Ozkan said cheekily. “We haven’t fully explored the place yet.” But what has been explored is enough to determine the kind of life they had here.

A lot of them were farmers, of course. Cappadocia’s volcanic soil, after all, has made it one of the most effective farming regions in Turkey. And its ancient citizens recognized this. In the mornings, they took to the nearby fields to grow various fruits and vegetables stored in the temperature-regulating nooks of the caves. A number of them were also winemakers, and in at least one of the caves open to the public, one can find a hole in the dining area where they used to squish the grapes with their feet. Of course, most, if not all, were thoroughly devoted to their faith, and in the rock churches, like the ones in the Apple Church (which was named as such simply because it was built beside an apple tree), one can see ancient frescos that tell the life of Jesus Christ.

“Many of them could not write or read back then,” said Ozkan, “so the best way to teach the faith is by pointing at the pictures.”

Funny he said that. Pictures and texts are commonly located in the grounds of the museum and yet they don’t seem to be enough to control the mostly literate people of this age. In every church we encountered, there is a sign outside that prohibits people from taking photos and yet in the first hour I spent roaming the site, I have seen at least two guards scolding guests who were doing just that. There were also clear signs that state where one should enter and exit so as not to clog the narrow passages of the buildings, and yet Ozkan, at least once, had to admonish a group of tourists trying to wrestle their way out of a church through its entrance.

“This is why I’m allergic to big groups,” he told me, visibly frustrated.

“They’re very hard to control.” Unfortunately for him, Cappadocia has no shortage of these big groups.

Currently, the main industry in the region is agriculture, but tourism is fast catching up, much to the benefit – and at times detriment – of local life. Just last year, according to Ozkan, Cappadocia managed to snag about 2 million tourists. It’s not as hefty as the 30 million tourists that come to Istanbul on a yearly basis, but it is still a pretty sizeable figure especially for this quiet farmland. And while it has helped in boosting the region’s economy, Cappadocia’s tourism revenue doesn’t come without a price.

In the Goreme museum, one can find man-made scratches on one the frescos, which according to Ozkan is a damn shame. One may also encounter a bit of rowdiness in the area especially in narrow passageways funnelling guests in and out of churches. I can hardly count the number of times someone has smacked me by accident in their attempt to leave or enter a cave. Further off, one might even spot an unusual, though not entirely unreal spectacle of a guest mounting one of the rock formations. At the Imagination Valley where oddly shaped rocks emulate the silhouette of various subjects—from fishes swimming upstream, to a camel, to Napoleon’s hat—it has gotten so bad that the local government had to cordon one of the rocks to prevent guests from climbing it.

“Some of them act like mountain goats,” Ozkan said. “Can you imagine?”

Rest assured, however, that Cappadocia embraces its status as a tourist destination. And a trip to one of its commercial areas proves that.

‘Keep your smile’

Let a local of Cappadocia know that you’re a foreigner in their region and you can expect them to try at least one of two things: talk to you about their famous balloon rides, or sell you something that can at times come off as rather expensive.

I’m a run-of-the-mill Filipino, I have a tan skin and a petite frame; I’m rarely taller than the strong jawlines cupping the generally fairskinned faces of the people who call this place their home. I’m also visibly more accustomed to the tropical climate. Three layers of menswear notwithstanding, I still shivered uncontrollably in the frigid May nights that barely bothered any of the lightly clad locals I’ve encountered during my stay. In short, I don’t even need to tell anyone that I’m not from around here. And because of that, I’ve experienced both encounters in excess.

Near my hotel in Urgup, I saw a woman nodding at me from the window of her house. And when I nodded back, she immediately went back inside so that an older woman could emerge from the window and wave at me a scarf for sale. Meanwhile, at the downtown area—at a quiet settlement of low-rise buildings, low-key cafes, and a range of antique shops—I easily went through my fair share of seemingly pricey offers. There was a man from a small shop who told me that he had a lovely carpet inside for a price that’s far from lovely as far as I was concerned. A short walk from there, a woman in a thrift store told me that entry to her establishment “is free.” I doubt that this would hurt her bottom line since she’s selling figurines no bigger than my fist at 40 lira.

“Come in,” she said. “The store, no entrance fee.”

The people themselves can be attractions here in Cappadocia. There is an obvious language barrier here that’s only a little less restrictive when compared to the Turkish capital of Ankara, but this doesn’t stop them from being some of the most quotable bunch of peddlers I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.

A particular treasure trove of sayings is M. Selim Yuksel, the bearded and bespectacled keeper of the souvenir store at Ziggy’s, a cozy part-restaurant, part-shop establishment famous for its savory garlic chicken. Talk to the man for a while, and you’re bound to come home not just with a full belly and maybe a few trinkets designed by Nuray Suzan (Yuksel’s wife), but also with a few unforgettable oneliners Yuksel seems to pull out of nowhere.

“I made this chair for men,” Yuksel said to a Caucasian man who accompanied his wife at the store. “It’s here, so that you can be comfortable while your wife spends your money.”

Behind the somewhat irreverent jokes, and the insightful quips about the Turkish government, Yuksel admitted that Ziggy’s was partly inspired by a far-from-pleasant occurrence. When he and his wife were thinking about putting up the business, their dog Ziggy passed away. Since then, the dog has been a consistent presence in the store with the pictures and caricatures of the actual Ziggy found on the walls of the cafe, its menu and its business cards.

“Ziggy made my wife quite happy,” he said. And now the restaurant and cafe inspired by the dog is doing the same thing to the numerous guests who visit.

It also gives a quick summary of Cappadocia’s ambiance; its affinity for ancient stone structures are exemplified by the fact that Ziggy’s itself was actually built in one. Meanwhile, its love of antiques, rare finds and things that age gracefully can be seen on its decor, its outdoor tables made from repurposed sewing machines, and the old metal pitchers it uses as garbage cans.

Sit on one of its tables. Munch on its menu of hearty comfort food. Let its radio looping 1950s jazz slow things down. It most likely won’t take long until you feel inclined to stay.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. There’s much to do in Cappadocia; even after declining to take one of its time-consuming balloon rides, there’s still much to see to feel and hear. So, after a meal and a few words with Yuksel, I took my leave.

“Ok, goodbye,” he said. “You keep your smile.”

I did. And since I wasn’t several feet up in the air, a number of the region’s locals could attest to that.

You can reach Cappadocia through Turkish Airlines, which flies between Istanbul and Kayseri on a regular basis. Perhaps the only solid option of air travel to and in Turkey, the airlines does not only take you to your destination but it also does a good job of giving a preview of it through attentive service and hearty in-flight meals.

• It’s pronounced “Kahpah-doh-kya,” not “Kah-pahdoh-sha,” and you might be surprised as to how better your social interactions with locals would be once you start getting it right.

• Do not let its sunny days fool you. Cappadocia’s nights can be biting cold for the unprepared. Always keep a sweater with you just in case you plan to stay out past 7:00 pm.

• You won’t see them much often but there are cabs in Cappadocia, and the drivers are vastly more polite and fair to tourists when compared to a great number of cab drivers you might find in Istanbul.

• Compared to Ankara, there appears to be more fluent English speakers in Cappadocia, but it still helps to learn a few Turkish phrases before your visit.

• Do not let its homey and cozy ambience fool you. Ziggy’s can be filled with people at its peak hours (especially during dinner time). If you want to eat there, make reservations, and if you want to eat there at night, it’s best to reserve tables indoors.

• Due to its climate and its volcanic soil, organic living is quite popular in Cappadocia, which is good news for anyone who adheres to the lifestyle.

• If you don’t want to ride a balloon but you want a panoramic view of Cappadocia, try visiting the Gizli Bahce in Goreme. There’s also a wishing tree there. People can write their wishes on a napkin or a piece of paper and tie it to the tree for their wishes to come true. I was told that it doesn’t really work, but it is a rather interesting photo subject, in case you’re looking for one that doesn’t involve rocks, antiques or evil eye pendants.