Heaven on a Hilltop: Cappadocia, Turkey

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Wednesday Nov 7, 2012

Years ago, as an adolescent, I learned the word "Shangri-La" and subsequently sought out the 1933 James Hilton novel, "Lost Horizon," where a group of world-weary travelers arrive at a mystical lamasery, a mythical utopia marked by harmony and happiness.

Time passes, and you get older, and you learn to search for "Shangri-La" in your daily life - until late one night, you arrive at Argos in Cappadocia in the mountains of Turkey. When you awaken in the morning, as the sun glides up from the horizon revealing a landscape marked by fairy chimneys, minarets, vineyards, orchards, and scores of hot air balloons floating in the peaceful blue sky, you realize that here, at last, you have found what you first learned about when you were but a lad. Here it is; here is Shangri-La: heaven on a hilltop in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Located in the ancient region of Central Anatolia, Cappadocia is a topographical wonderland with a spectacular, lunar-like landscape marked by 6th-century monasteries and churches, cave dwellings, and stone mansions, all connected by a labyrinth of tunnels carved into the volcanic lava and ash that shaped the land nearly 65 million years ago. It’s no wonder that the monks were awed into a state of reverence.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cappadocia is a popular tourist destination, particularly for hot air ballooning. According to our pilot, Cappadocia is one of the top three hot air ballooning destinations in the world, alongside Kenya and the Loire Valley. "Wild animals, castles - and fairy chimneys," he said, gesturing toward the extraordinary landscape as our balloon floated over and between minarets of volcanic rock.

Also known as "hoodoos," fairy chimneys are tall, thin spires of rock, which were formed by volcanic eruptions and which, truth be told, look remarkably phallic with their mushroom cap heads. As our pilot explained with a smirk, one entire gorge is known to the locals as "Love Valley" specifically because of its uncanny resemblance to a canyon of tumescence.

Cappadocia, which means "land of the beautiful horses" in Persian, is an easy hour-long flight from Istanbul to Nevsehir. Rising on the horizon, the snow-capped Mount Erciyes (or Argaeos to the Greeks), is a beacon of white in an extraordinary landscape. From the mountain’s summit, it’s possible to see both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

Apart from ballooning, tourists making the trek to Cappadocia explore open-air museums that feature rock-hewn chapels, monasteries, and pigeon houses. More than forty underground cities from the Bronze Age have been identified, including one where thousands of Christians hid from the Romans on seven subterranean levels. Thermal springs in the lake region of Acigol are heralded for their salutary impact on skin conditions and eye problems.

Thanks to the mineral-rich volcanic soil and the plethora of caves serving as wine cellars, Cappadocia has become Turkey’s primary wine-making region. Wine tasting tours reveal wines that reveal a pleasing complexity befitting their provenance: Cappadocia has been making wine since at least 4000 B.C. and, according to Herodotus, Bacchus was born in western Turkey.

A center of terra cotta art since 2,000 BC, Cappadocia has a deep and abiding appreciation for craftsmanship. Pottery workshops alongside a master potter heighten your appreciation for the ancient artifacts you glimpse in niches throughout the region.

If you hike up Uchisar Castle at gloaming, you’ll find yourself waiting for the sunset with dozens of locals and tourists. An incredible panorama of peaks, cones, and obelisks dot the foreground, with Mount Erciyes in the distance, and when the sun slips below the horizon, igniting the sky with streaks of orange, the crowd cheers.

Before you descend from atop the citadel, pause and gaze over Pigeon Valley at the monumental landscape produced by the three distant volcanic mountains. You are standing at the highest point in Cappadocia.

From this perspective, it’s possible that you might find the peace that comes from knowing that millions of years of history have preceded your arrival here - and that you are but another speck in the passage of humanity across the landscape of time.


(Travel feature continues on next pages: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, Getting There, Additional Info...)


  • Anonymous, 2012-11-07 05:22:10

    Thank you for the nicely detailed story. You should check the valley under 20 cms snow on february. It becomes a parralel universe all washed white. And thank you for the friendship books :)

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