The fairy chimneys appeared as we descended into Devrent Valley. They stood tall, reaching toward the sky like a forest of trees winding its way to the light. It was one of the strangest sights I have ever laid my own two eyes upon, and I wondered if we’d landed on the set of Star Wars.
Actually, we’d arrived in Turkey’s Cappadocia, but this place was about as otherworldly as it gets.
What the heck is a Fairy Chimney, anyway?
Fairy chimneys are much more scientific than they sound. They are geological rock formations that grow out of valley floors. Erosion wears away at the soft rock, leaving only thin spires that are protected by a harder layer of rock overhead. Fairy chimneys exist in arid regions of North America, France and Spain, Serbia, New Zealand, and even Taiwan.
Scientific or not, these rock spires inspire such imagination that they are sometimes called things like “mushroom caps,” “tent rocks,” “ladies with hairdos,” and “earth pyramids.” As I wandered around Devrent Valley, I came up with names like “witch houses” and “elf hats.” The locals of Cappadocia simply call them “castles.”
There might be a reason for their local name: the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia doubled long ago as homes, churches, and hideaways. Unlike the fairy chimneys scattered around the world, Cappadocia isn’t simply interesting topographically – it has a fascinating history to match.
The region of Cappadocia, like much of Turkey, has been inhabited for thousands of years and has a complex story of flip-flopping allegiances, rulers, and empires. (Come to think of it, Turkey is sort of the like original Game of Thrones, really.) The most interesting part, for me, is that Cappadocia has long been the center of Christianity in a largely Muslim region. The local Christians carved not just homes, but churches inside the fairy chimneys. More interesting still, they built entire cities underground to use as hiding places against invading Muslim armies.
It wasn’t that difficult to do. The rock in this region is soft tuff – consolidated volcanic ash – and the locals could dig tunnels and chambers several floors deep with relative ease. Their underground cities (several hundred in the region, apparently, though most of them unexcavated for now) could house several thousand individuals and all the food and water needed to keep them alive for several months. There were churches, stables for the animals, and defense methods like large round stones designed to block strategic tunnels and holes carved into walls, ceilings and floors of chambers for throwing spears or hot liquids onto their trapped enemies.
Experiencing Cappadocia’s History
Bruno and I visited one such example: Kaymaklı Underground City. We wandered down the ever-narrowing hallway through a complex maze of tunnels and rooms. It was cold and dark, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be stuck down here for a few months over mere spiritual technicalities. But this was the height of the spread of Islam, and the Persians and Arabs were fierce and merciless. It’s a good thing the message of an arriving army could travel from Jerusalem to Cappadocia by lit mountaintop beacons in only a few hours.
It’s also a good thing the Seljuks and Turks of later times tolerated the Cappadocian Christians, for this allowed for a flourishing of cave churches cut into the fairy chimneys of the region. We visited an agglomeration of such churches in the Gӧreme Open-Air Museum. Here, a dozen or so churches and monasteries were carved into the tuff between the 10th and 13th century. As we wandered inside them and experienced their damp darkness, their faded frescoes, their Maltese crosses engraved into the rock, I couldn’t help but be reminded of our visit to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, some five months earlier.
The rock-hewn churches of Cappadocia aren’t as impressive as those in Lalibela. They are smaller and less varied in style. More importantly, they are carved horizontally into the rock, like caves, rather than down into the rock, which is architecturally a more impressive feat. Most importantly of all, the churches of Cappadocia fell long ago into disuse, whereas those in Lalibela are still very much alive, tangibly surrounded by ritual and legend.
But, from the outside, Cappadocia’s churches cannot fail to impress. Even after eight days of wandering around the region, I couldn’t help but sigh each time I saw a pointed fairy chimney, an interestingly shaped mushroom cap, or a perfectly scraggly witch house. It was all so wonderfully whimsical, and I couldn’t help but fall for the fairy tale.
Experiencing Cappadocia’s Culture
Bruno and I spend a lot of time wandering around Cappadocia’s villages. There are a lot of them, and they all have that storybook charm that is particular to the regions. Their homes seem to grow out of the hills, and it’s difficult to determine where the natural shelter ends and the artificial extensions begin. Each village had its particular appeal. In Avanos and Ürgüp, it was the ruins of Greek homes overlooking fertile countryside. In Uçhisar, it was the cave castle sitting grandly on top of the city; in Çavuşin it was the cave church hanging off its side. And in Gӧreme, it was the luxurious hotels built into and around the hills and fairy chimneys with sprawling courtyards that we could stare down into.
As we wandered up and down the alleys of Cappadocia’s cave villages, I marvelled at the fact that these people had so long used their natural environment to create shelter. I could think of a fair few cultures that used their surrounding natural materials to create their homes, notably the ingenious huts scattered across the African continent (I especially love those constructed out of plastic UN tarps and other rummaged garbage); I could certainly think of cultures (cough) that razed the land and placed upon it totally incongruous materials to create homes that stood out from the landscape like sore thumbs. But I had rarely, if ever, seen a place whose homes and villages so harmoniously blended in with the natural environment. At the risk of overusing the term, it was charming.
In fact, I was so charmed by the cave homes that I convinced Bruno to take me to a fancy cave restaurant for dinner. (It was either that or pretend to be looking for a cave hotel room in order to catch an inside glimpse of the cave hotels – Bruno, smart guy, went for the food). We chose Topdeck Cave Restaurant, a small family-owned restaurant run out of one of the cave-rooms of their Gӧreme home. The food was delicious and varied (I’ll soon devote a blog to Turkish cuisine), but it was the atmosphere that won the night. Eating inside a cave was just plain cool.
The restaurant was packed. In fact, the first night we tried to eat there, there was no table for us. We were advised to book a reservation, which Bruno declined (“How can we know what we’ll feel like doing and eating tomorrow?”) until I looked at him with sad puppy eyes. I didn’t care that we had to battle against the swarms of tourists wanting to sample Topdeck’s mezze platters – I’d been battling them all week.
Experiencing Cappadocia’s Mass Tourism
Yes, up until now I’ve painted Cappadocia as a geological oddity, a land straight out of a fairy tale, and a place of significant historical and cultural interest. It’s little wonder, then, that Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s biggest tourist destinations. Even in April’s off-season, we’d had to contend with the massive white tour busses since that first morning in Devrent Valley. It was probably the most touristy place Bruno and I had ever been to together.
While we made it through Gӧreme’s Open-Air Museum just as the tour busses were pulling in, Kaymaklı Underground City became a claustrophobic prison as we stood at a standstill in narrow passages, blocked by bodies, or struggled to make it back into the cue anytime we veered off the main path. Random tourists were often captured in our photos of a nice fairy chimney, an interesting fresco, or a panoramic image. And every morning, we were awoken by the deafening inflating sound of hot air balloons.
Experiencing the landscape of Cappadocia with a dawn hot-air balloon ride is the most popular activity in Cappadocia. Every morning, over one hundred hot-air balloons take off into the Cappadocian sky, and each morning, we took an early breakfast as they floated into the air all around us. At over $200 a pop, with twenty people (or more?) inside each basket, I gazed in awe at the fortune literally floating into thin air. It was akin to experiencing America’s Fourth of July fireworks every morning.
Falling in Love with Cappadocia
And that’s the thing about Cappadocia. It’s a mass tourism destination if ever there was one – and yet, it was still charming (yep, there’s that word again!). I found it exciting to wake to the sound of hot-air balloons every morning (ok, if I’m being honest, it was only Bruno – who was wearing ear plugs – who heard the sound and proceeded to shake me awake). I loved drinking my tea while staring into the pink sky, the fairy chimneys mere meters away and the kaleidoscope of balloons drifting overhead.
Cappadocia is special because it can reveal itself to everyone. My budget didn’t allow me to board a hot-air balloon (and anyway, once I saw how many there were, it no longer appealed to me), but I was able to catch my own birds’ eye view of the otherworldly landscape from the top of Uçhisar castle. I wasn’t interested in approaching villages from the back of a big white bus, so Bruno and I hiked through Rose Valley and reached Çavuşin’s old church from the hills. I wasn’t bowled over by the churches in Gӧreme’s Open Air Museum, but I was certainly impressed by those Bruno and I discovered in the middle of nowhere on our two day-hikes through the surrounding hills. I couldn’t enjoy the sunset from the private veranda of my cave hotel, so we watched it instead from Gӧreme’s Sunset Hill (where we had the pleasant surprise of catching yet more hot-air balloons take off, the only time they did so in the evening the entire time we were there!).
Yep. I’m not ashamed to say it. Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, and I absolutely loved it!