Exploring Cappadocia: The Red Tour

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Green Tour, we decided to do the Red Tour around Cappadocia the following day – about an hour after our hot air ballooning adventure. We had time to get back to our hostel for the wonderful included breakfast before heading straight back out the door!

I hadn’t previously done the Red Tour, although I’d been to the first place we visited – the Goreme Open Air Museum. I had no problem going back. I’d found it fascinating the first time, and I knew that Mum would love it. What struck me upon arrival was the sheer lack of tourists – on my last visit I’d had to wait for ages to get into the different cave churches, while this time we were almost the only people there! Waiting not required, and I’m definitely not complaining about that. Those who know me know that patience isn’t my strong point.

The Open Air Museum holds the best preserved medieval painted Orthodox churches in the Cappadocia region, and is deservedly popular. Much of what you see was once a vast monastic complex, and while much work is invested in maintaining the site, between my two visits one of the monastery chimneys had collapsed and was thus roped off. The museum contains many churches and refectories as well as monastic quarters, but the painted churches are the most interesting. The styles vary, with the oldest paintings quite simple geometric designs and childlike paintings of various saints, generally in white and red, while other churches have more traditional Byzantine style frescoes – for example the Dark Church, which requires a separate entrance fee. There’s a feeling of sincerity rather than precision in the older churches – if you’re expecting Sistine Chapel style frescoes you’ll be disappointed, but there’s something innately beautiful about the remains of the paintings.

You’re not allowed to take photographs inside the painted churches, as flash damages the frescoes and there’s always a proportion of tourists who believe that ‘no flash’ signs apply only to other people – as a result, it’s simply ‘no photos’ now.

The tour guide we had was excellent, giving detailed information about each painting and answering any questions that we had. I, of course, had plenty of questions and he got really excited when I started firing away – having studied history, with a focus on religion and medieval Christian iconography, I had some more complicated questions than he’d come across in twelve years of running these tours . I felt a bit bad actually, because he spent the entire time we were at the museum after my first questions talking only to me – and there were three Korean women in the group too – because he was so excited to meet someone who asked questions other than ‘when was this church painted?’ and so on. He became far more enthusiastic when he realised that I had a fair bit of knowledge and a genuine interest, and I found it quite fascinating learning more about the place. As it turns out, the only time it’s ever useful to have studied things like history and archaeology is in museums…

We visited all the main churches in the museum – the Apple Church, the Snake Church, St. Barbara’s Church, St. Basil’s Church and a few others. Mum and the other women in the group paid the extra fee to visit the Dark Church, but I decided against it – I’d seen it already and didn’t want to fork out the extra TL12. I explored some of the nearby refectories and revisited some other, smaller churches while waiting.

We stopped at a small valley on the way to lunch with some lovely pointy fairy chimneys and some effort required to avoid the little old women hawking crocheted doilies and tablecloths. There was also a camel, and I warned Mum to be careful taking photos of it as someone would likely appear from behind a car demanding money. However, no one was to be found and so she managed to take pictures of the camel without being hassled! A miracle!

We had lunch at a buffet restaurant in Uchisar, and surprisingly the food was actually fantastic. I generally dread buffets, especially when travelling, as they tend to be terrible or cause food poisoning or both. Not this time! The food was fresh, plentiful and delicious. The restaurant was on the lip of a valley and after lunch we wandered around the rocks taking photographs. The castle at Uchisar was closed, but we were able to get some great photos of the town around it.

The next stop was another valley, Pasabagi, and it was incredible. It’s dotted with elegant fairy chimneys balancing heavy basalt blocks on unreasonably tiny points. While they look gravity-defying and it’s tempting to assume that some ancient race of giants balanced those big blocks on the tops, the formations are entirely natural – the result of hundreds of thousands of years of erosion. The main part of the fairy chimneys are made of much softer volcanic stone and so they erode at a different rate to the basalt of the little hats. It’s not so romantic when you look at it logically of course.

We had plenty of time to explore Pasabagi, and had a great time climbing up into the remains of old cave churches and complexes, trying to find different ways to get in or out of each one. There were quite a few Turkish tourists there, including a little boy who couldn’t have been more than three running around with his parents’ video camera. It’s hard to know what to say about Pasabagi – the landscape is truly phenomenal and an absolute pleasure to wander.

Next stop was Avanos, where we visited a ceramics workshop. It was much more interesting than the onyx factory of the Green Tour, although I wouldn’t recommend buying anything there – although the work is beautiful, it’s a serious tourist trap. Our visit there started with a demonstration of making a vase with a foot-pedal wheel. After we watched the expert throw it in a couple of minutes, they asked if any of us wanted to give it a shot. I volunteered Mum – she trained as a potter before I was born, but hasn’t done anything to do with ceramics since then. I wanted to see what she could do after 26 years! She did far better than I’d have been able to, but then – at least according to my primary school art teacher – clay hates me. Her masterpiece was a little lopsided and I think she was a little offended when they squashed it into an ashtray.

We visited some beautiful ruins near Avanos, which had been lived in until only a few decades ago. The remains of houses – a haphazard mixture of rock-cut buildings extended brick by brick – were overgrown with thorny trees, and you had to watch your feet as giant holes opened up all over the place as you realised that most of the ground was actually the dirt-covered roofs of the former village built up the hill. Along the top was a wall, full of holes and windows, through which you could see the vibrant blue sky. It was exciting to be climbing over and under and through a place that people lived in, without running water or electricity, not so long ago – a place that has already been reclaimed by the elements.

The final stop of the day was a section of fairy chimneys that looked like carious animals. Having been running up and down hills all day, my knees were playing up so I let Mum explore the valley on her own. She disappeared for quite a while, and I was starting to worry [her sense of time, I had discovered, was rather vague] before I saw her coming up over the hill. Some of the rock formations looked like camels, or rabbits, or snakes – some I really couldn’t see any resemblance to animals in at all, but it gets tourists out there. And it’s beautiful, so I’m not complaining!

Ok, so I can see the camel in that one!

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