Romance takes centre stage in this ancient Turkish region, replete with hot-air balloons, fine dining, and cave hotels. But there is so much more to this destination than meets the eye.
It’s a crisp autumn evening when we land at Kayseri Airport near Cappadocia. It’s the first stop on our 17-day trip across Turkey, covering Istanbul and a lazy road trip across the stunning Aegean and Mediterranean coastline stretching between Bodrum and Antalya. We decided to add Cappadocia to our itinerary after copious reading on the internet with practically everyone saying it’s a must-visit if you’re in Turkey. Sure, it’s said to be one of the most romantic destinations in the world with its enchanting hot-air balloons, unique cave hotels and otherworldly landscapes, but is that all there is to it, I wonder, asking myself if this would turn out to be a tourist trap.
As we check into our cave hotel (over the years, locals have converted several of these caves into boutique accommodation) in the town of Göreme, the hotel manager, Yusuf, asks us if we’ve booked ourselves a hot-air balloon ride, what most people come to Cappadocia for. The idea of getting into a small balloon basket with several other people isn’t exactly an exciting prospect for me, especially with the pandemic still looming over us. “Too cliché,” I say. “Does it really live up to all that hype?” I ask him, not to mention how exorbitantly priced it is. “It’s something you have to experience at least once in your lifetime. And no one does it better than Cappadocia,” he tells me with a grin, adding that it’s one of the best ways to appreciate what the region has to offer.
With its unique landscape, fairy chimneys (cone-shaped rock formations that were formed owing to volcanic eruptions millions of years ago), and UNESCO-World Heritage sites, this region in eastern Anatolia is captivating, to say the least. It may look unassuming with its rugged terrain that seems straight out of a different century, but that’s part of the charm, as I discover over the next few days.
On a high
At four am in the morning, we’re up to join a group of eager tourists to go hot-air ballooning. A quick breakfast and a short drive later, we’re in an expanse of open fields. All across, balloons are being fired up, gleaming like lightbulbs against the faintly painted sky with the first rays of the sun. And just like that, at the crack of dawn, about a hundred balloons start rising up gently in the air. Floating at 3,000 feet. I finally realise what the fuss is all about. The landscape unfolding before us is mesmerising and it’s only from up there that you truly appreciate the beauty of this place.
As we graze past fairy chimney tops, look out to horse ranches (straight out of a Western movie), and fields that stretch endlessly, I can’t think of anything more surreal as you’re enveloped in a sense of solitude and wonder. Our pilot, Mehmet, regales us with stories and descriptions as we glide over the Mars-like terrain. Almost an hour later, we’re back on the ground enjoying a champagne breakfast with strawberries and cake and toasting to a successful flight.
Memories are made of this
That isn’t all that changes my perception about this destination. Cappadocia is romantic, no doubt, but it lives up to every single cliché and more. There’s something unique about sitting on a rooftop terrace overlooking the alien surroundings and indulging in steaming hot kebabs as you warm your hands by a crackling fire.
Food is a central part of Anatolian culture. A specialty here is the testi kebab or pottery kebap (usually lamb or meat), cooked in clay pots with vegetables and served with rice. Dibek restaurant in Göreme is an old classic you can’t go wrong with for this specialty.
Seten at Sultan Cave Suites (the hotel which nearly every influencer and Instagrammer visits for that perfect shot with a spread of Turkish breakfast and traditional carpets for company!) offers superb food in a great ambience. Wrap yourself up in thick, Bohemian-style blankets if you’re dining al fresco in the cold weather and don’t miss out on dishes such as the muhammara, Cappadocian ravioli, and tahini souffle with a side of ice-cream or the Burma baklava.
If you want to spoil your significant other, visit Lil’a at the historic Museum Hotel in Uchisar, Cappadocia. The Relais & Chateaux property offers authentic Anatolian fare along with forgotten recipes and regional produce. I sample some of the best mezzes here, as well as a delicious potato casserole and wood-fire grills. With its historic setting, it makes for the perfect romantic evening.
If you’re looking for something offbeat, the best way to explore the rugged beauty of Cappadocia is to go ATV riding at sunset. For about two hours, you’re taken on a guided tour as you explore different valleys, go off-roading and get up close and personal with the region. Riding along dusty tracks, as the sun cast a golden glow over sandstone ridges and rocks, streaking a fiery orange and red across the sky, it is one of the most soul-satisfying days I have spent so far. If you prefer, you can also explore the terrain on horseback.
For more variety, plan a day of wine-tasting at a local winery (there are several scattered across Cappadocia) or book yourself a farm-to-table breakfast experience. Or, like us, get up at the crack of dawn to simply watch the balloons take flight. We wake up at sunrise nearly every day, watching in awe as hundreds of balloons float by, dotting the sky like little puffs of candy floss. And let me tell you, it is totally worth it. Armed with cups of steaming hot apple çay (chai), a specialty in Cappadocia, and a heavenly breakfast spread featuring an array of fresh cheeses, honey, local bakes, cured meats, and fruits, what better way to kickstart the day?
Rustic, earthy, and bewilderingly captivating, the ancient region of Cappadocia will definitely manage to surprise you as it did for me, in more ways than one.
There are several flights daily from Istanbul to Cappadocia, arriving at Kayseri and Nevsehir airports, respectively. Bus services are available from major cities in Turkey.
Where to stay:
the town of Göreme is a popular pick with many owing to the fact that most places are within walking distance, the main market is ideal to shop for trinkets and traditional carpets, while most restaurants are located here too. Urgup and Uchisar are home to some stylish boutique properties.
When to visit:
April to June are typically considered high-season. If you want to avoid the crowds, then September to October is a good time to go too.
Good to know:
Ideally, book your hot-air balloon flight in advance as slots sell out quickly. Butterfly Balloons and Turquaz Balloons are some recommended options to go with. While balloon flights are priced EUR100 onwards per person, better options will cost more for a less-crowded basket and champagne breakfast.