The Cappadocia region of Turkey is best known for its unique moon-like landscape covered with volcanic cones, underground cities and early Christian churches carved out of soft stone. Jessica Sunter and Ian Knight spent a couple of days there during their recent trip around Turkey.
Q: Why is hot-air balloon riding so popular in Cappadocia.
Ian: It’s because of the landscape that was formed by volcanic eruptions many years ago. Erosion gradually wore away some of the rock and the result is some unusual formations that can look like spires, cones, rounded mounds with caps, or mushrooms. There is a section where they are shaped like penises; it’s called Love Valley. These formations are called fairy chimneys. In some parts of the world rock formations formed this way are called hoodoos.
The formations are made up of three distinct layers. At the top the rock is hard, in the middle it is soft and there is another harder layer on the bottom. People actually carved houses out of the soft layer.
So people choose to go over the formations propelled by a hot-air balloon because the view is much more interesting from above.
Q: I understand Cappadocia was an early Christian settlement.
Ian: The city was a Christian monastic centre at a time when the Christian religion was not established. The Romans attacked the Christians living in the region who escaped first by building houses in the fairy chimneys and then by building cities underground.
Today you can see some sections of these underground cities. Jessica and I went to one and my first thought was: “People lived here?” It’s a bit claustrophobic down there and hard to breathe even though there are large ventilation shafts. They have these narrow tunnels between rooms and you have to crouch to get through them. They show you how the Christians were able to move from one floor to another to escape invaders, the enormous stones that they rolled in place to block entrances, where hot oil was placed over doors to slow the intruders down. It can be a little creepy, particularly when a tunnel is overcrowded, but still interesting.
There is an Open Air Museum with 30 or more churches carved from rock. They don’t look like a church as we would know one today. You climb these stairs and at the top there is an opening and you look inside and you see this incredibly intricate ceiling and frescos—a style of painting done on fresh plaster.
We were surprised to learn that the Christians were forced to move to Greece in 1923 after all this effort to stay in the area. The governments of Turkey and Greece signed an agreement that forced the Turkish Christians to move to Greece and the Greek Muslims to move to Turkey. So in the end the Christian churches of Cappadocia were abandoned because of this compulsory exchange of populations.
Q: Tell me about the hot-air balloon experience
Jessica: Hot-air-balloon trips are very popular here because you can see the canyons and fairy chimneys from above. It’s a fantastic ride and it was one of my most favourite activities on the trip. The setting is beautiful with a snow-topped mountain in the background. Just being up there and seeing all the other balloons is quite something.
On the morning of the balloon trip, the tour company picked us up at our hotel at 5:00 am. That’s early but it was so we could see the sunrise. Also, the winds are better at that time. The balloon baskets hold around 20 people along with the pilot. We rode the air currents for about 45 minutes.
The pilot can’t control the direction; the wind does that. The pilot controls the up and down. The pilot of my balloon seemed very cautious, very sure of himself. We were never close to other balloons.
It’s crazy going over these fairy chimneys, particularly the Love Valley. The pilot would bring the balloon down so that we were sailing close to the tops of the formations. The ride was very smooth and actually peaceful.
There was an accident two days after I did it; three Brazilians were killed and others were injured. I heard that one balloon had come down on another. This was the second fatal accident since ballooning began in Cappadocia a decade ago. I wasn’t scared at all, however, and quickly got use to being up in the sky.
Ian: I decided to be part of the ground crew because I’m not crazy about heights. So we followed the balloon around until it landed. We, of course, had no idea where that was going to be.
Q: What are some logistics for getting/being there?
Jessica: Cappadocia is a region not a town. The main airport in Cappadocia is in the city of Kayseri. We flew there from Istanbul and arranged for a car to pick us up and take us to Göreme, which is about an hour away and where most tourists stay.
We stayed in a cave hotel built right into one of those fairy chimneys. When we left if was on an overnight bus to Olympia.
- Riding a hot-air balloon over Cappadocia, Turkey
- Olympos and the Mediterranean coast, Turkey
- Turkey from Fethiye to Istanbul
By Jessica Sunter and Ian Knight
Photo credits Jessica Sunter and Ian Knight
© Riding the buses 2013