I’ve always been a big fan of unique experiences and destinations while traveling.
And Cappadocia, Turkey is nothing if not unique. I mean look at this! Where have you ever seen such an odd, compelling, jurassic-looking land?
A million years ago (approximation) ancient volcanos erupted and covered this wild land in a layer of ash with harder stone on top. Eventually it was eroded and carved away by wind and water, creating the unique valleys, pillars, and cones you can see today. Thank you eighth grade geography class, just what I needed.
And the best part? Not only is the landscape around the region of Cappadocia so memorable, it is EQUALLY fascinating below ground. How many places can boast that?
Are you ready for a little history lesson? I’ll keep it short and simple. Turkey was at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and Cappadocia in central Turkey was often conquered, attacked and/or invaded by warring ethnic groups like the Greeks (think Brad Pitt in Troy-incidentally, Troy is in modern-day Turkey), Persians (think Xerxes, the giant creepy gold dude in 300) and Macedonians (think Collin Farrell as Alexander the Great).
Because Cappadocia was always under threat of attack, the people started to build caves, tunnels and eventually entire cities underground in the soft rock to escape and hide. Later on when early Christians were persecuted in the west (literally thrown to the lions in some cases), many fled to this area of Turkey, leaving behind some of the earliest Christian churches and paintings I’ve ever seen, inside the caves. That wasn’t too painful, was it?
As soon as I decided I was going to go to Cappadocia, I started thumbing through my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook looking for hiking and walking tours in the region. Traveling to this area of central Turkey in winter alone as a blond girl, I knew I would need a guide or group to do all the exploring and trekking I had in mind. And you know what name caught my eye? Middle Earth Travel.
Being the biggest Tolkien nut on the planet, I immediately started researching them and quickly realized they were the best game in town for solid walks, hikes and adventure activities. I didn’t want to be stuck on a giant bus getting shuffled around from site to site and end up in a carpet store with 20 other people. I wanted to explore and see as much as I could, getting my feet muddy and dirt under my nails, both of which happened in abundance.
Here are my four most memorable underground experiences while in Cappadocia.
1. Explore the underground city of Kaymaklı
Underground cities are the stuff of legends for me. How often do you get to visit a place like that when traveling? Luckily Middle Earth Travel gave me the total hook up and brought me to Kaymaklı my first day in Cappadocia. With the snow falling heavily outside turning the countryside white, we headed underground where the air got warmer and smelled like wet stone and adventure.
In Cappadocia there are over a hundred cities honeycombing the countryside, with less than a third excavated. Kaymaklı is one of them near Nevşehir. 8 stories deep, it is a maze of narrow low tunnels, wide store rooms, steep steps, deep holes and ventilation shafts
It is nowhere near as well lit as this; I did some heavy-duty adjustments in Lightroom
In short, it’s a dream come true to explore and play around in. When we arrived, it was pretty much empty, and thank GOD I had Atil with me as a guide because I would have gotten totally lost. It’s not labeled and everything intersects, so confusing, I can’t imagine visiting there without a guide, and it’s so vast. To think only a fraction has been excavated today is astonishing. I wonder what treasures and tunnels lay hidden below.
Are you claustrophobic? Would you explore an underground city given the chance? Ever been to Kaymaklı?
These massive stone-wheels were rolled in front of the tunnel entrances during attacked
Those holes on each side were used to scurry up and down the shafts: stone ladders. You see them everywhere in Cappadocia. I might have tried to climb up one of them. It didn’t end well.
2. Sleep in a cave at the Kelebek Hotel
The place to stay in Cappadocia is Göreme (pronounced go-rim-may) and the place to stay IN is inside a cave. Yes, you read that right. Where else in the world can you sleep in a cave hotel? Not that many, I’m sure! Talk about a unique and memorable experience! Now Göreme is packed with hotels, so it can be daunting picking a place, and there is definitely a wide range of places that you can end up at.
Yes, you can sleep in those fairy chimneys. This was my breakfast view.
The Kelebek Hotel, apart from being LP’s hotel of choice and the most popular hotel on TripAdvisor was my number one choice for accommodation with good reason; the original boutique cave hotel in Cappadocia, the Kelebek (Butterfly in Turkish) was originally the owner, Ali’s family home which converted into a hotel 20 years ago.
I’m all about local, family-owned businesses; feels more special and authentic to me. Multileveled, filled with hidden hang-out spots, gardens, and a spectacular view everywhere you turn (thanks to it’s great location way up one of the hills) there is no shortage of charm to be found here. It’s one of the few places I’ve stayed where I didn’t want to leave the hotel, and I loved it so much I stayed for an extra night! More on that later.
After picking me up from the airport a few towns over in Kayseri (Kelebek can arrange easy transport for you), I arrived in the evening, with just the twinkling lights of the town below to greet me. After friendly Hasan checked me in and handed me a bronze key straight from the 16th century (happy dance!) he grabbed my bag and showed me to my cave room. It was hard to keep my face straight as he opened the door and I got my first peek inside. It was everything I imagined and more! And there was a jacuzzi – perfect after a long day of winter hiking. Heaven. In a cave. Who would have thought?
You know it’s going to be a good room when the key looks like this
Grabbing my laptop (no wifi in the cave suites as they are in a cave and the wife doesn’t go through stone) I headed up the next level to the lounge and breakfast area to catch up on emails. A fluffy kitten immediately popped in my lap and fell asleep while I typed away, my gaze occasionally drifting out of the huge windows over looking the glowing town below. Magical.
Eventually I wandered back to my room with the kitten at my heels, and crawled into the biggest bed ever. For the curious minded, the caves are so well insulated that they stay warm long after you turn the heat off, being cold was never an issue.
This was my view when I woke up and opened my door. Boom.
Welcome to Cappadocia!
I was hooked. From the helpful staff to the amazing breakfasts with the more amazing views to the cozy, friendly atmosphere, I never felt more welcome. Not to mention the giant tub – the fastest way to a girl’s heart is with a bubble bath.
Does sleeping in a cozy cave hotel sound appealing to you? Are you a fan of fun, unique accommodation when traveling?
1 giant bed all to myself with not a boyfriend in sight!
3. Drive to remote cave churches on an ATV
On my second day in Cappadocia, I asked Atil if we could go four-wheeling after seeing rows of them lined up downtown. I mean, I’m from 15 minutes from West Virginia. You can take the girl out of the South…
…but you can’t take the South out of the girl!
Luckily, Middle Earth Travel being a small, local business is very accommodating and will help you plan custome trips around Cappadocia and hook you up with all the right people.
The cool thing about the region is just how vast it is. There are so many different valleys and caves to explore, you could spend a year there and probably not see them all. Many of the caves you have to walk or trek a ways to get too, but many of them are on paths easily traversed by ATV’s or horses.
As the sun started to set, turning the sky periwinkle blue, we set off slowly towards the caves. With my GoPro camera recording away on my helmet, I reved the engine and zoomed along as fast as I could behind Atil and our 15 year old local guide occasionally letting out “whoops” of joy. Whizzing between the high fairy chimneys and valleys dotten with caves, it was hard to believe I was there in that moment.
Is this real life?
Eventually we rolled up outside a section of caves and hopped off the ATV’s. Literally scrambling up a sandy 80 degree 20 foot incline, we jumped across a few holes leapt over a drop to hop into a cave church, where I overestimated the jump and promptly smashed my head into the wall.
Thank god I still had the helmet on. With lights twinkling behind my eyes, I looked up and saw one of the oldest crosses I’ve ever seen on the ceiling with thousand year old pain still sticking to the walls. It was almost a divine moment, til I came back to reality.
Ever ridden an ATV before?
4. Pretend to be Indiana Jones and explore some unexcavated tunnels in Avanos
After exploring many of the cave houses and valleys of Cappadocia in the morning with Middle Earth Travel, for lunch we headed to the village of Avanos. Stuffing my face with delicious pottery cooked Turkish food, Atil mentioned he had a friend who had discovered a whole labyrinth of tunnels behind his art gallery while renovating and did I want to see it.
Um, of course! How is that even a question?! Hand me a leather hat and whip and call me Indiana Jones Jr! I was ready to get my adventure on!
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Mukremin Tokmak is a local guy who loves history and art and owns a pension in Avanos called Venessa. Leading us into one of the standard cave sized rooms he keeps up a display of art for guests, I nodded and smiled, thinking to myself “is this it?”
NOPE! Not even close!
Leading us back into a series of narrow, dark and damp tunnels, I was in shock. While renovating he knocked through a wall and discovered these passageways and is still digging and excavating them himself these days. Ducking my head to avoid the wet muddy ceiling, I slipped and slid my way after the guys, stopping now and then to take pictures. I couldn’t believe how extensive they were!
Not open to the public, I truly felt like I was having a proper Indiana Jones moment! Swoon! With soggy shoes and cobwebs in my hair, I was in heaven.
In the west nowadays, tourism and historical preservation is so tightly controlled and monitored, you almost never have experiences like this, and with the way tourism is booming in Cappadocia, I bet it won’t be like this in 10 years either. Dark and damp, you could really imagine what these must have been like 1500 years ago.
Who lived here? Who used them? How far do they go and what other tunnels do they connect with? My childhood urge to be an archeologist was bursting inside me again.
I never wanted to leave. Cappadocia that is, not the tunnel itself. As much as I am an internet-loving hermit, I am not some weird mole-like nerd fearing the light and living underground. Yet.
If you ever go to Cappadocia, be sure to get Atil to take you here and say hello to Mukremin from the blond blogger!
Seriously how awesome does that sound? Have you ever had an “Indiana Jones” moment while traveling?
Just ignore the mud on my ass. I don’t now how that got there….
Many thanks to Middle Earth Travel and the Kelebek Hotel for hosting me while in Cappadocia and making my trip unforgettable. Like always, I’m keeping it real and all opinion are my own (as if you could expect anything less from me).