Feature Shoba Narayan is blown away by the rock formations and underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey.
Cappadocia: wonders above and below
When my father-in-law turned 70 a few years ago, he had two wishes: to visit Turkey and Angkor Wat. Angkor made sense for this gentle scholar of history and geology. But how to navigate Turkey as a Hindu vegetarian family spanning three generations: the "birthday boy", my mother-in-law in her sari, my husband and I, and our two daughters. I planned the trip with some trepidation, mostly by e-mail, sounding out several Turkish tour companies before settling on Argeus, based in Urgup. We had three requirements: rocks, history and a quieter Turkey than was on display in flamboyant, exuberant Istanbul. A Turkey suited to senior citizens. After three days in Istanbul - the "kids" part of the trip - we travelled to the places my father-in-law was eager to see.
The night train from Istanbul to Ankara deposited us in the Turkish capital at dawn. Accompanied by smiling, youthful Edip, our guide for the next four days, we stopped for breakfast, our biggest meal of the day. Although Turkish cuisine with its cabbage dolma, roasted aubergine, salads and lentil soups is a treat for vegetarians, my conservative Brahmin in-laws were always worried about stray pieces of lamb or other meat "polluting" the stock. Rather than eat restaurant food like I did, they gorged on the abundant apricots, figs, olives, cheeses, flatbreads, yogurt and cut vegetables, and - to my mother-in-law's delight - lost a few pounds in the process.
Set at the eastern end of the Anatolian plateau, some 850 metres above sea level, Ankara has the layered feel of most ancient cities. The square modern buildings of Kizilay Square, the shopping area, contrasted with the undulating curves of the older sandstone buildings and domed Kocatepe mosque. Men in western suits and women in dresses and headscarves, dressed more formally than in Istanbul, hurried into parliament buildings and government offices as we drove to the museum.
The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations is in a quiet enclave in Ankara. Perhaps because it was our only sightseeing stop in the city, we all enjoyed it much more than the museums we serial-visited in Istanbul, leading me to theorise that museums - much like dark chocolate - are best enjoyed in small doses. We split up. As a former sculptor, I showed my eight-year-old daughter the stag-headed bronze ceremonial standards and Phrygian vessels. My mother-in-law and 12-year-old daughter loved the gold jewellery that reminded them of India's filigree work. My father-in-law wandered through the Hittite wing, revelling in the chronological display of Paleolithic weaponry, Neolithic pots, mother goddess figures, and Hittite wall reliefs that made the history he had been reading all through our trip come alive for him.
Unlike other great museums, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations does not contain a wide array of artefacts from multiple continents. Instead, its collection is quintessentially regional and local, with artefacts matching the surrounding landscape. I could easily imagine curators and archaeologists scouring the land outside and finding such treasures - an image not too far from the truth since some of the most stunning specimens of the Bronze Age come from Alacahoyuk, barely three hours away. Like all great museums, though, it leaves you with visual cues to an entire civilisation. To this day, my daughters associate stag-heads and mother goddesses with Turkey.
The five-hour drive to Cappadocia was easily accomplished on a highway that rivalled any in the West. The highlight of the drive was our discovery of gozleme, a savoury flatbread somewhat akin to Indian parathas, which were made on the spot and stuffed with various fillings - minced meat and eggs, yes, but also feta cheese, spinach and potatoes. For the first time, my cautious in-laws tried a local dish, made by a gnarled old woman right before their eyes. We watched her roll the dough, insert mashed potatoes and pat it by hand on the griddle over a charcoal fire into a fairly large circle. The hot gozleme, served with ayran, a buttermilk drink, was delicious.
We reached Cappadocia after nightfall and went straight to Esbelli Evi, one of the "cave hotels" common in Urgup. Opened in 1990, this 10-room hotel was the first of its kind in the area. Suha Ersoz, the owner, bought a bunch of cave houses and fused them together with an architect's eye and a designer's sensibilities. Rather than clutter up the place with blue evil eyes, nargile (water pipes) and other Turkish kitsch found so abundantly in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, he chose to go minimalist to offset the basic brown of the mud house. There was the occasional kilim rug, handmade lace curtains, and simple wood furniture. What gave the hotel its character were the stone ledges and narrow cave passages that led to sunlit courtyards.
My in-laws' underground room made me feel faintly claustrophobic with its curved walls and tiny windows, but they could not navigate the narrow, steep stone steps that led to my airy first-floor room just above them. We shared the courtyard with its plant-bearing urns and creepers climbing up arches. Sunlight suits Cappadocia, particularly in the morning. The giant misshapen rocks, formed when three volcanoes erupted more than 30 million years ago, gain a golden sheen under the morning light. Edip and I breakfasted together and plotted the following three days. Like all natives, Edip was eager to squeeze in as many sights as possible. My job was to temper his enthusiasm and rein in the pace. "My in-laws," I would say with an apologetic shrug after he planned an all-day trip to Nevsehir and the caravan route beyond. "They will collapse with exhaustion." We compromised. Mornings were for the sights; afternoons for napping or shopping; and evenings for relaxing.
Cappadocia means "land of beautiful horses" in ancient Persian. Although we didn't see a single horse, the names suits this wild and untamed land well. I could well imagine proud Turkish thoroughbreds jumping over rocky outcrops carrying Christians fleeing from the marauding Roman army. Most of these Christians, Edip told us, lived for years in underground cities. On our first day, we descended into Kaymakli. The sheer scale of its labyrinthine corridors, water wells, kitchens and living quarters took our breath away - quite literally for my in-laws, who found a stone ledge and waited there with our backpacks and water bottles while the rest of us filed through the narrow, dark corridors. Between the fifth and 10th centuries, Kaymakli and the other underground cities were interconnected and used to accommodate a staggering 50,000 people, Edip said. Try as we might, we couldn't imagine that many people in those tiny spaces, even though they led to more tiny spaces, and even more beyond. Giant boulders served as doors to shut out invaders. Ventilation shafts and water wells kept the inhabitants alive. Oil and wine presses and large storage rooms gave them sustenance. Just below ground level were the stables. Presumably, the inhabitants would ride in, park their horses and go about their business. As he heard me huff and puff through the steep twisting corridors, Edip said, "They were very fit, these Christians."
One afternoon, while my in-laws napped with the kids, Edip took my husband and I to a local carpet shop and factory, where we got a small Kilim rug for what we hoped was a bargain (my feet are resting on it as I write). Another day, we visited a jewellery shop specialising in turquoise. My two men bought us turquoise jewellery - necklaces for the ladies, earrings for the girls. Although I have a rule that I will not spend more than US$100 (Dh367) while shopping in foreign countries - one I formulated after the lapis lazuli I bought in Argentina turned out to be fake and the amethyst I bought in Uruguay way overpriced - Cappadocia made me break it. Where else, I rationalised, could I get a carpet for $300? Or a turquoise necklace for $150?
Over the next two days, we visited the painted churches of Goreme Valley, a must-stop in most tourist itineraries but overrated in my opinion. The frescoes are faded, and if it is religious fervour you want, it is better felt in Jerusalem. On our last day, we decided to do the hot-air balloon ride that had been the cause of much debate. My in-laws were horrified that it cost $200 per person. Too expensive, they said. My husband, the engineer, wondered if "the contraptions" were safe. Finally, Edip talked to the owners of the company and got us a discount. "What did you say?" I asked him. "I told them that it was a 70-year-old man's birthday wish to ride on one of their balloons," he replied. Turks love their elders. Just like Indians.
On our final morning, the balloon rose above the low-lying clouds. We stood in silence, the six of us, watching the sheer scale and splendour of nature's hand that carved and painted the mounds and valleys of Cappadocia. I could understand why it took five centuries to build the underground cities. And I could intuit what had drawn my father-in-law, the geologist, to this region in the first place. While Istanbul offers history and exoticism, it is still a city, something most urbanites can relate to. Cappadocia on the other hand takes you, quite literally, to a different place and time. It makes you confront sights that you have never seen before. Such magical encounters are, after all, the reason we travel. As the balloon dipped over one particularly stunning rock specimen, my father-in-law sighed. In his exhalation, our trip's purpose was fulfilled. firstname.lastname@example.org
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from US$598 (Dh2,195) including taxes. Turkish Airlines flies to Kayseri, the closest airport to Cappadocia. A cheaper option is to take the overnight train to Ankara and onward by road to Cappadocia. Train and road arrangements can be made at Argeus Tourism & Travel (www.argeus.com.tr/index.html)