With one notable exception, you haven’t seen much of my family on this blog. Between school schedules, Turkish pandemic measures that had minors confined to their homes for months, and the attention span of little ones, we’ve kept our family trips fairly local and simple.
Last time we travelled our third son was still in utero and our second was so young he can only vaguely remember it. Four years later and all three kids at good ages to travel we decided it was time to go out and explore some of the fantastic sights a little further from home.
Our destination? Cappadocia to do some camping.
Cappadocia is one of the most popular touristic destinations in Turkey and the world. It is vast, it is stunning, and it is packed full of unique sights and experiences. It is also packed full of tourists, which is why we haven’t given it much attention here at Art of Wayfaring where we aim to shed light on the less-known wonders of Turkey.
But Cappadocia is a must-see destination for good reason.
And so we packed our tents and head-lamps and made our way from the steamy Mediterranean coast, over the high Taurus Mountains, and into the dry interior. As we headed east the plains of Konya eventually gave way to the hills of eastern Aksaray with the extinct volcano, Mount Hasan passing to our south. The Cappadocian region, with all its bizarre landscapes, owes its strangeness to ancient volcanoes like Mount Hasan. Vast quantities of lava and ash blanketed the land and hardened into soft rock of orange, white, and red. Millenia of wind and rain carved the soft volcanic tuff into wild shapes and attracted ancient builders to carve homes and entire cities into the rock.
Arriving in Göreme National Park we set up camp and went out to explore. With so much to choose from I hadn’t really come up with a plan of what to see first. First of all, travelling with kids is not like traveling with Fred. A four-year-old runs out of energy quickly, needs a constant stream of snacks, and gets bored of old buildings and paintings. Unlike Fred however, they will be entertained by a stick and some dirt for an hour.
And so we took it slowly.
Our first stop was at the Aynalı Church monastery complex, a relatively simple spot, not nearly as popular as some of the other larger, more ornate churches or valleys. What made it a hit with kids though was the very simple fact that it didn’t have lights.
Armed with headlamps, we set about exploring the sanctuary, chambers, and rooms all connected by dark passages and tight dusty stairs. While I was almost forced to crawl, the kids could run freely. Lacking in lights and crowds Aynalı Church offered the most exciting aspect of travel in Turkey: a sense of adventure and discovery.
An advantage to camping in the midst of Göreme National Park is that you have the stunning valleys and landscapes of Cappadocia all around you. Even during peak tourist season you can have them to yourself and you can wander between the great cones and fairy chimneys, peaking inside any of the caves or doorways you can reach and wonder at how people accessed the rooms carved way up the sides of cliffs. If caves and rock towers failed there were always sticks, dirt, and ants, to keep the little ones busy.
A second advantage to camping in the heart of Cappadocia is the alarm clock. In the midst of a sleepless night on an air mattress that needed refilling every two hours, we heard a loud noise from directly above us. A sudden whooshing, roaring noise like a giant gas torch. Peaking into the dimness outside the tent we saw dozens of balloons through the branches, rising slowly and drifting overhead. We packed the kids, still in their pyjamas, into the car and went to find a vantage point to watch the hot air balloons rising from the lunar landscape in the dusky morning light.
While the balloons floated gracefully, the scene on the ground was absolute chaos. ATV tours, horse back tours, wedding photo shoots, graduation photos, a ballerina(?), campers, shuttle vans, and a fleet of Range Rovers pulling trailers for the hot air balloon baskets, were putting on a show of their own.
Hoping to avoid some of the crowds we explored some of the villages further from the park, finding monasteries, stunning cave churches, and underground cities. We were only partially successful in avoiding crowds until we came to a site I had little expectation for.
The place was called “Açık Saray”, meaning “Open Palace”. Given the name I was expecting a cave complex, ornate, but little more than a handful of rooms surround a great hall or two. “Open Palace” is a very misleading name.
Rather than one palace complex, we found ourselves in a little understood collection of individual complexes filling a shallow valley.
Entering the valley we came to a beautiful building carved into the rock with an ornate façade of blind arches, all horse-shoed in a style popular in central Turkey some 1,000 years ago. All around the main façade structure we found other chambers, rooms, and tunnels.
A short distance across the valley we found another similar site with numerous rooms centered on a large central hall with an ornate façade. Around the corner we found another complex, then another, and another. Inside we found room after room, sometimes over a dozen, set in maze-like networks, connected by stairs and tunnels. In the midst of this vastness, with its halls, tunnels, and deep holes in the floors of caves, we noticed a kid was missing.
The fact that it was our seven-year-old and not our four-year-old was somewhat less worrying, but as time ticked on, we were beginning to get seriously worried. I became sharply aware of just how many pits and holes there were where eroded floors had collapsed into the chambers below.
Finally, he popped out of a cave in the one direction we hadn’t looked. A tunnel in a large church we were in connected back to one of the larger complexes we had already been in, and, thinking he would go forward rather than back, we didn’t look in that direction.
The excitement of exploring and discovery was gone at this point, and we made our way back to camp for the evening.
After another night of leaky air mattress and waking up to hot air balloons, we struck camp and made our way west into Aksaray to exchange the dust of Göreme for one of the greenest places in Cappadocia: The Ihlara Valley.
The landscape here is made up of great sheets of hard rock that occasionally rear up out of the low hills in majestic cliffs of red and orange. The Ihlara Valley was formed by the Melendiz stream (ancient Peristrema) cutting a winding canyon deep into this thick layer of rock. The cool stream and shelter from the heat make it a secluded oasis of lush green in an otherwise bare landscape. Poplar, cottonwood, and willows fill the valley while red cliffs looming above peer through the branches. Over a thousand years ago this sheltered, garden-like valley attracted monks who carved churches, cells, and monasteries into the cliffs, decorating them with unique frescoes different to those made by their other Cappadocian Orthodox brothers.
Descending into this idyllic canyon we came upon a scene of utter chaos. The narrow space between the cliff and the river was filled with cars attempting to park, busses attempting to turn around, waiters attempting to get you into their restaurant, and people milling every which way. Arranging with a local restaurant owner for a quiet place to camp across the river came with the added benefit of parking so we began unpacking, hauling our stuff across the river, and pitching our tents in the shade of a grove of poplar trees.
While Ihlara Valley is quite long, we were actually camped right near the middle of it, just outside of the gated park with its beautiful forest trails and cave churches. The only issue was going to be how much walking we’d be able to do. As we set out my wife and I realized that our youngest, a four-year-old, is very much a pandemic baby. The amount of time he had between learning to walk and being locked in the house was actually pretty short. During the pandemic in Turkey, going into the forest, away from other people, wasn’t allowed for reasons that defy logic, and kids in particular were restricted to the house.
While I had low expectations for his stamina, a little bit of imagination and a pair of good sticks kept him moving for over seven kilometers! While I grew up in a small town my kids have lived their entire lives in big cities and walking through forests with nothing but the sounds of birds, flowing water, and wind in the trees was a treat and something I didn’t realize we had all been missing.
The nature in Ihlara Valley is genuinely gorgeous, but what makes it so unique and fascinating is the incredible amount of history tucked into it. Lone windows opened up from the sheer cliffs, accessed by some hidden tunnels out of sight. As we walked we’d come to branching trails leading up to the foot of the cliffs where we’d find churches carved into the rock, often decorated with vibrant paintings depicting Biblical scenes or the lives of local saints.
After one last night of camping with more leaky air mattress issues and barking dogs instead of hot air balloons we made one last foray into the valley before beginning our long drive home. Far from a restful vacation, we had some amazing experiences and made some special memories.
When I asked the kids what they liked about the trip I also asked our four-year-old if he liked the churches. He said “No. I hated them.” Though I’m fairly sure he was joking…