3:45am: Beeep Beeeep Beeeep. We get up earlier on vacation than we do at home. I throw my pants on and hope the front office is open with some coffee, and it isn’t. I can’t blame them (although I wish they put electric kettles in the room.) I knock on the kids door in the dark and wake my daughters from their teen cave. (Literally.)
The driver hurries us along, and we seem to be the last to arrive. The balloon operation “butterfly’ is pretty big. There are at least 100 people here eating cake (at 4:30am, blech) and coffee. We sit next to a sweet Australian mom who is visiting her daughter doing her year of travel abroad after University.
Seemingly instantly, we are all loaded into a half dozen buses and carted to the launch site, where the balloon is already aloft above the basket. We climb into the basket, 4 of about 20 total, and as I’m adjusting my camera, we are airborne, silently.
We did a hot air balloon in Costa Rica and it was very different. That one was a solo pilot who sort of did it as a hobby. We were alone in the skies. We are anything but alone in Cappadocia. There are at least 100 balloons aloft or on the ground. There are probably 2000 people taking flight this morning.
Later we are told that’s about the limit that the Turkish FAA allows, and that everyone was at full capacity. Apparently they have not been allowing Balloons up for a few days. Reports are that people drive balloon to balloon looking to pay cash for space on a flight.
Being aloft in a balloon is unlike any other form of flight because it’s silent and without any wind. You go with the wind, so there is never any resistance. The only noise aside from the quiet chatter are the four propane heaters that blanket us in blissfully warm heat and an orange glow every minute or two.
It’s cold today, 32 degrees F, with snow flurries. The operators love the cold because they need less fuel, and well, it get’s fucking hot here (110) in Cappadocia. I’m not sure how they feel about the snow.
Amanda and I snap pictures endlessly. This is one of those events where we will come home with 500 of almost the same picture. Each moment we look out of the wicker basket capsule, our eyes widen with excitement that we want to capture on film. This is one of those adventures that isn’t done justice by photos. And this is a grey snowy day, I’d love to come back when it’s bright and clear.
The pilots take us up and down to get different perspectives. For the most part we are behind the large group of Balloons that takes off from a single plain just outside town. Ours starts a kilometer behind them, which puts them in front of us for the trip. Half the beauty of this flight is seeing 100 hot air balloons flying.
But of course it wouldn’t be the same without the strange landscape of Cappadocia. Cappadocia is on just about everyone’s top ten lists of strange landscapes. It’s a high plateau in the middle of Turkey, over a half mile up from sea level. Millions of years ago the area formed high mountains and valleys, much like the Alps.
Volcanoes blew ash and lava like stuff to fill in the valleys and give it the plateau formations it has now. As cracks in that ‘Tuff’ or consolidated ash developed, erosion would blow away the rock to form isolated pinnacles. Some still have a cap, which would have been the protective layer of lava on top. (If I understand all of this correctly, I’m no geologist.)
The pilots do this every day. I imagine even they get bored, but the spectacle of rock formation and colorful hot air balloons is one of our favorite activities ever. It’ll be interesting to see where it lands on our top-ten list.
It’s only 8am and we are eating an other great breakfast with cheese, olives, bread, tea and the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad. We’ve been up for hours, but it seems like days. Nothing we’ve ever seen compares to that 70 minute float above Cappadocia.
The geology is famous not just for the fairy chimneys or mushrooms (or penises, let’s be honest) but for the cave dwellings humans have created since the first millennium B.C. They were used alternately by Christians fleeing persecution from Rome, and Muslims fleeing Byzantine persecution. The caves vary from simple overhanging shelters to single room churches, storehouses and homes to entire 20,000 population cities below the surface of the soft ‘Tuff’ ash rock.
Amanda the girls and I share a dislike for group tours, so we splurge and get our own mini tour bus and driver for the day. The cost is modest, about $200, and we might have gotten it cheaper, but it’s really comfortable and the driver has great English. It’s begun snowing again! It’s at least 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the van feels warm and comfy.
The entrance complex to the Kamakli underground city is empty but for a few stragglers selling key chains and carpets and, of all things, ice cream. “Ice Cream, Ice Cream!” they yell. We are the only people here, and we’re shivering in the cold. We brought enough gear to stay warm for a European spring, but NOT for snow. I’m jealous of Amanda’s crushable down jacket and vow to get one when I return for the next time. Being cold sucks.
Inside the cave city it’s warm. We forego the guides, although I’m sure the would tell us some things we don’t know, we don’t want to be stuck at their pace. This is a fun place to explore, including one long dark tunnel that was clearly off limits and led to an area with scattered debris and litter. Lily gets a little nervous, but afterward takes the lead trying to find more abandoned tunnels.
The people lived here for long periods of time and were economically stable. There are areas for livestock, wine making and ore smelting. It is believed that there are at least 30 underground cities in the Cappadocia area. This one is probably the largest, although there is another, Derinkuyu, up the road that is almost 200 feet deep!
It’s pretty amazing underground. Lily especially loves a place that’s fitted to her size. The exploring is fun even though we have no context except the labels on the wall that explain, well, explain almost nothing.
Above ground, shivering, we pay a Turkish Lira (.32 cents) each for a public toilet, before re-boarding the little bus. It’s a nice one. I had to pay .50 Lira or about 16 cents for squishy-floor, squatty-toilet in Istanbul. It was not a good value public toilet.
Our afternoon itinerary starts with lunch in the town of Uchisar, where our driver knows a baker that runs a cafe for locals. He bakes our favorite lunch so far, beautiful stuffed fresh bread with cheese, spinach, peppers and tomatoes. It’s so hot out of the oven the we burn our toungues eating it. So delicious. We order too much and eat too much.
The afternoon is spent jotting around the area. The driver takes us to all the standard tourist photo spots. I theory we would rather get out and walk, but it’s so damn cold that jumping off the bus for a photo and getting right back on actually makes practical sense. Uchisar castle (Two above with the pigeons) is beautiful, but my favorite is Ortohisar castle (right). It looks so sci-fi.
Dinner is at the swanky ‘Seten’ restaurant, where we get served modern versions of classic turkish food. It’s pretty good, but honestly I think I’d take that local bakers stuffed bread instead. As usual, they put us in the back of an empty room so as not to disturb the genteel clientele. As usual, they are not mistaken about our poor manners. We laugh every night at dinner, white table cloths be dammed.
We’ve been up since 3:45 but Amanda saved the best for last. Next door is a fancy hamam, part of a fancy cave hotel called Kelebek. It’s really more of a spa than a public hamam, and compared to the one we did in Istanbul is fancy. Best of all, we got long, 30 minute massages, all of us and afterward had a private marble room in which to dump hot, hot water on ourselves in the hamam style. It was blissful.
I lie in bed, very ready for sleep. Could this be our favorite day of travel so far? It could be. I’d have to go through the list and double check. Usually we think about our favorite countries and our favorite activities, not favorite days. The combo of hot air balloon, great food, the underground city, incredible photo spots (even in the cold) and a luxury hamam puts it near the top of the list.
We are lucky.