Cappadocia, in central Anatolia, is remarkable from any angle - in the air, on the ground and deep below the surface.
As we fly in from Istanbul, the landscape beneath us is a tapestry of food crops, rocky hills and the famous "fairy chimneys", which begin to reveal themselves as we approach the airport. From the air, these natural rock formations, created by the erosion of volcanic stone over the millennia, look like giant spires rising from the earth.
The airport is near Nevsehir, the regional capital. On the 30-minute ride to our hotel (about 10; Dh50), we notice another striking natural feature: caves. Indeed, our hotel, the Sultan Cave Suites (www.sultancavesuites.com; rooms from Dh370 per night;), was built amid caves in the hills above Goreme and layered over half-a-dozen terraces, with views over the city's red rooftops and chimneys. Formed thousands of years ago, the hotel's caves were first used by Roman settlers in the first century AD, and have been expanded and modernised in the last few decades. The rooms are rustic and clean, with smooth stone floors, five-metre-high vaulted ceilings, and a seating area around a fireplace that, in July, is purely decorative.
Sultan, the hotel restaurant, is one of the best in Cappadocia and, seated under the stars in the stone courtyard, we graze on mezze, newly baked bread and stuffed squash blossoms, a seasonal speciality (mains from about Dh50). Mezze platters - hot or cold - are delectable everywhere, from the high-end terraces of A'laturca in the town centre (www.alaturca.com.tr; mains from 20 [Dh100]; starters from 150 [Dh30]), to the low-budget Seyah Han on the road to the Open Air Museum (mains from Dh30; starters from Dh10). Testi kebab, marinated meat and vegetables cooked in a sealed clay jar are ubiquitous Goreme dishes but, ultimately, just a distraction on the way to another mezze platter.
The next morning we head out for a balloon ride (www.butterflyballoons.com; Dh780 per person) and, as the sky changes colour, Mustafa, our pilot, shepherds us into a minibus and tells us we'll be taking off from Love Valley, spectacular with its chimney formations.
At the launch site, three colourful balloons are being inflated. We clamber into the huge baskets (each holds up to 20 people), the ground crew unties the support ropes and we are airborne. Within 30 seconds we dip into the valley, lower than the plateau we had launched from, and drift between the chimneys, tinged orange by the first rays of dawn. By the time we rise high enough to watch the sun peep over the mountain between Nevsehir and the province of Kayseri, the sky around us is filled with balloons. We pass over the mountain, soaring to more than 1,100 metres, and find ourselves surrounded by exotic geography: more chimneys, canyons dotted with hand-carved pigeon roosts, mountains and Erciyes, the still-active volcano that gave birth to it all.
We return to the ground (Mustafa drops the balloon directly onto its travel trailer) and, after a quick break at the hotel, walk the two kilometres to the Goreme Open Air Museum (Dh21 per person).
This Unesco World Heritage Site comprises churches and buildings hand-carved from natural caves. They date from about 400 AD to the mid-14th century, and many examples of brilliantly painted religious scenes and other art still remain. The first occupants, early Christians who deliberately left society to settle in the wilderness, used natural dyes - including shocking blue hues made of powdered lapis lazuli - to decorate their cells and churches. Unfortunately, visitors won't learn much at the museum; the audio tour, inexpensive at Dh10 per person, mostly describes the obvious, but the churches' visual impact forgives the lack of historical context. Buckle Church is the largest, with room for about 100 worshippers under its 10-metre ceiling. The blue dye is most prevalent here but the passage of 1,000 years, countless worshippers and several invasions has worn most of colour off everything within arm's reach.
The next day is our last in Cappadocia and we need to cram in as much as we can. A bus ride (Dh84 per person) brings us to our first stop, the underground city of Derinkuyu, likely settled between 800 BC and 400 BC. We arrive at 10am but the cramped interiors, 85 metres below, are already echoing with the voices of visitors. As with other cave dwellings in the region, the natural hollows had been expanded until, in Derinkuyu's case, they could house tens of thousands of people. The caves were widely occupied during the Byzantine era, abandoned, then discovered by villagers using the top rooms as basements. Some signs of use still remain, including soot-blackened walls and 500kg millstones resting in hand-carved grooves, ready to seal passageways. One hundred and thirty spiral steps, still showing millennia-old tool marks, lead down from the third to the seventh levels of the 11-level city - the deepest part open to the public. The rough volcanic rock never stops pushing inwards and most of the passageways, designed to restrict invaders, are two metres tall or less.
A few hours later we emerge, blinking, into the light and head to Soganli Valley, its steep sides sculpted into homes, aviaries and more churches. After a stop at an active archaeological site, a remote Roman village called Sobesos, we visit Keslik Monastery. The semi-attached churches, kitchens and living spaces - all hewn from rock and surrounded by fertile soil cultivated since the monks arrived in the fourth century - form a shady enclave, with the beige edifice of the monastery as its focal point. After swinging through Mustafapasa, a neighbourhood in Urgup filled with 15th-century Greek architecture, we return, exhausted, to the hotel.
In the end, we spend only 48 hours in Cappadocia but travel hundreds of kilometres, hike for several more and balloon across nearly 15. Yet, there remains much more to see, all of it intriguing - from every angle.
If You Go Return flights with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul cost from Dh1,419, and Dh451 from Istanbul to Cappadocia. Prices include taxes.