It’s pretty difficult to see the diverse sights of Cappadocia independently if you don’t have your own transport – especially in the middle of winter – and if this is the case taking a tour is really worthwhile. I’d done the ‘Green Tour’ or ‘South Tour’ on my first vist to Goreme and knew that Mum would enjoy it. Every agency, hostel and pension in Goreme touts the same tours and they’re not popular without cause. So we decided that we’d take the Green Tour through Nomad Tours on our first real day in Goreme.
The minivan picked us up in the morning, plodding along down little laneways as we collected more people from other accommodations. Heading out of Goreme proper, our first stop was at a panorama viewpoint of Pigeon Valley. And when I say ‘panorama viewpoint’, what I really mean is tourist trap. The road runs along the lip of the valley, and there are plenty of individual ‘viewpoints’, with different tour agencies stopping at each. And each is laden with souvenir stalls selling everything from oversized metal keys to overpriced junk jewllery, postcards, mosaic glass lanterns and the ubiquitous giant hanging glass evil eye pendants. Still, there’s no denying the view. You don’t stop there without reason.
Next was the Derinkuyu Underground City, and having been there before I was dreading the stairs involved. Derinkuyu, like a number of other underground cities in the Cappadocia region, was built [or, rather, dug out] over millenia – the earliest layers are attributed to the Hittites, the powerful civilisation ruling Central Anatolia in the Late Bronze Age. More recent layers are the work of medieval Christian communities, and in between others like the Romans added their own levels. Not all of Derinkuyu is accessible, but you can explore enough to get quite a feel of the place. A little imagination helps, too.
Cappadocia’s underground cities were not permanent settlements. Rather, they were used as refuges in times of trouble – the people would retreat into the caves in the face of invasion or attack. Cleverly disguised, and equipped with wells and ventilation shafts, the cave networks could support thousands for short periods of time. We were shown through different sections of the city, including parts used as kitchens, as residences, stables, meeting halls and so on. Steep, narrow and very low stairs connect the different levels, and heavy round stone doors could be rolled across the stairways to prevent access. The low ceilings of the staircases meant that we had to climb up and down hundreds of stairs hunched over, and this is far more exhausting than climbing stairs normally. But the narrow corridors and low ceilings were all defensive features designed to limit the enemy’s ability to fight – causing invaders to slow down, to approach individually, and to put themselves at greater risk. In times of peace, and until the recent past, many of the caves were used for storage: the caves are naturally quite cool year round and so are pretty handy if you need to store food and wine.
The city is lit yellow, giving it a warm yet still eerie feel. In one section is a meeting hall with central pillars and iron rings hanging on either side which could be used to restrain captives. On the same level is a medieval cruciform church – there’s really nothing there to identify it as such as all that remains is a cruciform room with blank walls. Being used only infrequently, the Christian inhabitants doubtless saw little need to decorate the walls with frescoes. Through a tunnel about one metre high and perhaps forty metres long is a small room used as a temporary morgue, where the bodies of those unfortunate enough to die or be killed in the city could be stored, awaiting proper burial upon return to the surface. The room has two narrow rectangular pits dug to a depth of perhaps three feet – the number of bodies able to be stored would be limited. Ascending the stairs, we visited the stables where you can still see the dugout troughs complete with holes to tether ropes to.
Our final stop before lunch was the Ilhara Valley. I was really looking forward to this, as when I’d last visited it was autumn and simply stunning. I was curious as to how it would be in winter. My first impression was that something had sucked all the colour out, leaving it a desaturated sepia. Lacking life, with the exception of some evergreens, the grass and the rocks and the trees were all varying shades of brown and ochre and beige and black. Standing out in it’s fierce refusal to accede to winter’s demand to tone it down was the bright green velvety moss that clung tenaciously to whitened boulders along the riverside trail. And yet it remains enchanting despite being in hibernation.
Our four kilometre walk through the valley begun with visits to a couple of rock-cut churches with vividly painted frescoes in a style appealing in its naivety. The limited natural light penetrating the caves has ensured the preservation of the frescoes; the damage sustained is primarily the result of deliberate desecration whereby the paintings were hacked off the walls, and the faces mutilated. The deep oranges and reds contrasted with a soft turquoise, and images of saints were centred in the midst of geometric patterns. The lack of sophistication in the execution is endearing rather than off-putting, as if simplicity of style is inversely proportionate to the sincerity of intent.
We had a brief tea break at a little shack-cafe beside the river, where legions of ducks waddled around in the hope of food. Not wishing to disappoint the fat little creatures I bought a packet of pretzel sticks to share wih my new winged friends as Mum, more sociably, got to know an American woman on our tour. Soon I was surrounded by a flurry of wings and beaks desperately fighting over pretzel pieces as I threw some in the air and held more in an open palm, hand feeding them. It was an enjoyable way to spend fifteen minutes. As I’ve previously suggested, one is never to old to enjoy simple things like feeding hordes of greedy birds.
Lunch was in a restaurant just outside the valley in a wooden building with a beautifully warm wood fired stove in the centre of the room. While my food was nothing to write home about, Mother was so impressed with her baked trout that she insisted on speaking to the chef to tell him that it was the best fish she’d ever eaten. The cook was a young guy who couldn’t have been more than twenty and the responding smile split his face.
The last interesting stop on the tour was the Selime Monastery, a network of caves and churches and monastic cells carved out of a series of fairy chimneys. This was by far my favourite place – probably because exploring it means climbing all over it. Some part of me still takes a childish delight in climbing things. It’s also beautiful, which probably also contributes. While the underground city was purely utilitarian, the remains of the monastery include a cradle-style basilica with carved columns delineating corridors along the sides of the central area, as well as an apse with windows letting the light shine in. Much of the chapel is stained black with smoke, as are other caves in the network – likely used as kitchens.
Tunnels connect many of the rooms and the church, making it a pleasure to explore – provided that you keep an eye out for sudden holes in the floors. Mum had some difficulties in the monastery, discovering that advanced age has caused a serious fear of heights, to the extent that her legs almost go out from under her. [She argues that children caused the height problem, but I don’t remember her being afraid of heights – or, more accurately, sudden drops – when I was younger. Perhaps a compromise is in order.] Still, I managed to get her to a few places she found very challenging. She was very brave – getting far closer to edges than I would be willing to get to spiders.
The final stop was an onyx factory, where we briefly watched them make an egg out of a block of onyx in about thirty seconds, and then polish it. I found it dead boring the first time, and in all honesty I don’t think anyone in the group found it remotely interesting. Of course the factory has a showroom full of ugly onyx stuff as well as incredibly expensive jewellery. Mum and I explored the surrounding hills, taking pictures of the sun setting over Cappadocia.