With fairy chimneys, hidden churches and underground cities,
in southern Turkey is a magical landscape that packs a 'wow', even from the ground, which is where we should have stayed. Instead, we allowed our guide to talk us into a balloon ride - and lived to tell the tale.
Hot air balloons are the rage here, dozens sailing above the stunning scenery, offering bird's eye views of the lunar landscape for around CDN$250 per person per hour-long jaunt. The adventure begins before dawn with a bumpy van ride to the embarkation site. We watch huge balloons lying deflated on the grass, swell and rise to their mighty size, literally fired up by a huge fan propelling a powerful propane flame.
As graceful as waltzing walruses, we clamber over the basket rim, and snuggle up to our 16 fellow
travellers, propped against the chest-high frame. The ropes loosened, the burner roars and our balloon rises swiftly, heading for a picturesque row of pointed fairy chimneys.
Cameras poised, we approach the ridge of stone, marveling as our eye level view becomes a literal nose-to-nose close-up. The basket smashes into the mountainside, lurching drunkenly to the right and pitching its human cargo - that's us! - against the rigid frame, scraping angrily across the stone, finally righting itself and sailing on. The soft tufa rock surface of Cappadocia is quite hard when you hit it.
We touch down ahead of schedule, weak-kneed, slowly realizing that had we been half a metre lower, we'd have been pitched down onto the rocks, 30 metres below.
The mandatory glass of sparkling wine celebrating our successful journey tastes somewhat sour, especially when an unconcerned balloon company rep remarks airily: "You can't 'steer' a balloon - the wind can push it off course. It happens three or four times a year. Anyway, nobody was hurt."
In fact, there was major trauma and severe whiplash, neither one evident at the time. But at least we got a refund, thanks to New Zealand lawyer, Roger Kennedy, who summoned the company owner and demanded - and got - a full repayment.
It's impossible to tell how many balloon companies float over Cappadocia, ascertain their safety records or how they are regulated. Our land tour, (offered by
Canadian Travel Abroad of Toronto)
was implemented by
in Turkey, whose guide touted the balloon company,
as the most dependable in the country. It made for a memorable trip. But the area is memorable without smacking into mountains.
Ancient volcanoes laid the foundations and millennia of erosion created Cappadocia's stone-capped cones. Early Christians escaping Roman persecution, carved out secret churches and monasteries and finally entire cities deep inside the mountains, though archaeologists say that humans dwelt there long before stone tools were invented.
The old underground cities were certainly off the grid - cool in summer, warm in winter, cheap to build and secure from enemies if you hauled up the rope ladder or rolled a giant stone across the entrance. They had ventilation shafts, water wells, food storage rooms, wineries, meeting rooms and toilets. Communal kitchens, fitted with a single chimney, helped avoid detection.
In recent years, the Turkish government imposed a ban on these dwellings, but many locals still live there. You can sleep in a cave hotel, or visit cave restaurants and night clubs offering everything from belly dancing to
whirling. Quick shore excursions are offered by cruise ships putting in to
but Cappadocia merits a longer visit to savour its hiking and horse-back riding trails, the interesting red clay pottery centred in the town of
that served caravans carrying goods along the
Open air markets, where hard bargaining is in order, dot the roadsides. The government-operated gift shop at the entrance to the
offers quality textiles, leather, jewellery, pottery and fine craft, all at reasonable fixed prices.
The churches are especially awe-inspiring - including 30 clustered in the Goreme Open Air Museum, painstakingly carved from cliffs or towers, the walls lavishly painted with frescoes whose images are still colourful today although damaged by pilgrims who scraped the paint from the eyes in the belief that it would cure blindness.
Milan Chvostek (www.travelscribe.ca) and Isobel Warren (www.isobelwarren.com) are a husband and wife team of travel journalists based in Newmarket, just outside Toronto, Canada. Their collaborations have included travel articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers across North America, books including 'Florida, Eh? A Canadian Guide to the Sunshine State', Fodor Guides to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and television programs for On Top of the World TV. Milan was for two decades the award-winning producer/director of CBC's The Nature of Things. Isobel was founder, publisher and editor of Hands, the Canadian craft magazine, producer and on-air travel commentator for The Senior Report (TVO), and a producer of On Top of the World. Both are members of the Travel Media Association of Canada.
If you go
Many Canadian companies offer guided tours of various duration and quality; tours to Cappadocia can be booked in Istanbul and other cities. Keyseri, Cappadocia's major city, is a two-hour flight from Istanbul, about six hours by bus. Major airlines including Air France and British Airways connect Toronto to Istanbul. Best time to visit: April to October. Entry visas - US$60 per person cash - are purchased upon arrival at Istanbul airport.
Turkish embassy, 197 Wurtemburg St., Ottawa, ON K1N 8L9 - 613-789-4044 -- www.turkishembassy.com -- provides minimal information to travellers.
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