In Turkey’s Cappadocia: Sleeping in a cave, fairy chimneys and hot-air balloons at sunrise

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For a few nights, I slept in Room No. 4 at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel in Goreme, Turkey. Another fairy chimney is at right, and both spires have lodging accessed higher up via the middle staircase.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Once I switched off the small lamp on the bedside table, the room was almost pitch black. Little light snuck in under the horizontal crack where the bottom of the door met the rock. Good thing I was already tucked in under the cozy bedcovers.

I held my hand in front of my face, but I could barely see its outline. The room was dark — not like being deep underground in a Kentucky coal mine — but the absence of exterior illumination was notable in this isolated location.

It was like I was sleeping in a cave, because, well, I was sleeping in a cave. One in Göreme, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, to be precise.

In my international travels, I’ve slept in my share of nondescript chain hotels, checking into well-located, reasonably priced establishments in safe sections of a city. The sameness of these rooms means that they quickly blur into memory. (I’m not criticizing, and I’m all for a reliable, clean and welcoming place to lay my head for the night.)

That’s why when you do find unique lodging, it leaves a vivid impression.

Göreme is a village in central Turkey, with fewer than 7,000 residents, some of whom still actually live in the caves that dot the otherworldly landscape.

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Fairy chimneys are scattered around the landscape in Goreme, in central Turkey.

Conical rock formations known as fairy chimneys might have tourists wondering if diligent gnomes armed with hammers and pick axes roamed the countryside centuries ago, carving out dwellings and communities from the compacted tuff left behind by erupting volcanoes.

In reality, wind and rain converged to reshape the volcanic rock into these magical formations, some looking as if pointed mushrooms had sprouted from the top. Others have a more R-rating, with a decidedly phallic interpretation.

I traveled around Turkey for two weeks in October 2012. It was steamy during the day in Istanbul, and I was thankful at night that my hotel had air conditioning. I also visited Selçuk, Ephesus and Pamukkale.

Cappadocia (it means “land of wild horses”) was comfortable, with coolish evening and early-morning temperatures and brilliant sun during the day. My room at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel seemed to stay at a steady temperature, with no need for alteration by heat or AC.

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The walls still bear the chisel marks where sleeping quarters were dug into the fairy chimney.

It was no hardship sleeping in this cave, aka Room 4, freeing my inner troglodyte. It was furnished with a orange-, red-, brown- and yellow- striped divan along the far wall. Hanging behind it was a patterned rug in shades of brown. Another rug, this time in tones of blue and red, covered the floor in front of the king-size bed with wrought-iron headboard.

Opposite the bed was a tall, double-doored wooden cupboard with carved stars on the exterior panels. To the left of the bed, the aforementioned tallboy with lamp, and the lone, curtain-covered window. Sandwiched into a tiny alcove between the bed and divan was another diminutive lamp perched on a small table.

Wedged between the cupboard and bathroom was a mirror atop an iron vanity, matching red-cushioned chair and what looked like a macrame wallhanging.

Likely, these simple furnishings hadn’t changed much over the years. Functional, comfortable and representative of the region.

Fortunately, the compact bathroom had all the modern conveniences, including hair dryer, shower and plenty of hot water.

And who needs a television or telephone when jaw-dropping scenery is right outside your door?

The Kelebek, a pioneering boutique hotel in this area and open since 1993, has seven other rooms in caves or fairy chimneys, but not all have heat or a private bathroom. One used to be a pigeon house, another was a chapel (frescoes still visible) and several have fireplaces and shared balconies. Pictures and descriptions of each are on the website.

More traditional accommodations are available, and they, too, have a lot of atmosphere. (The property has 47 rooms total.) I also stayed in a stone room with an arched ceiling because when I booked, the cave room I wanted wasn’t available for my whole visit.

I slept more soundly in the cave room because it was away from the traffic pattern to the terrace, which ran alongside Room No. 2.

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The terrace where breakfast (awning, upper right) is served is an easily accessible area from which to shoot early morning pictures of hot-air balloons rising over the valley.

And if you really want to move in for an extended exploration of Cappadocia, consider one of the honeymoon or king suites, try out the Turkish bath and spa, or the outdoor swimming pool (closed October 31-May 31 because it’s unheated). The pool’s bottom features a mosaic map of the world, circa 1513.

While all these comforts may make you want to sleep in or loll about until noon, there is a spectacular reason to get up early: the sunrise hot-air balloon parade.

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At least 30 hot-air balloons drift past the Kelebek early on an October morning. Far more were on their way from the staging area nearby.

Visitors who want to ride in a hot-air balloon are picked up while it’s still dark, driven to the staging area and be given a light breakfast while their return-from-Oz vehicle is inflated. Many companies offer this experience, and a more expensive fee usually means a longer time aloft (up to 90 minutes) and fewer people sharing the balloon’s basket. Post-flight champagne and flight certificates are usually included. The Kelebek can make the booking, and it is among the most popular activities in Cappadocia.

Instead of drifting into the air, I chose to view this photographic extravaganza from the hotel terrace. The morning was crisp and the cloudless sky a vibrant blue. Slowly, as the sky lightened, the multicolored balloons floated into view, emitting an audible hiss as the pilots fired the central flame to regulate the height of the vessels.

At one point, I counted at least 80 balloons hovering over the valley. Not many other guests were on the terrace, so I could move around unencumbered, trying to pinpoint the best location from which to aim my point-and-shoot camera. And I thought more than once that I needed far better equipment to do justice to this sweeping panorama.

As the balloons faded from view, my interest turned to breakfast, and the overwhelming number of choices arrayed before me and fellow guests: a variety of cereals, dried fruits (raisins, apricots, dates), fresh fruit (apples, oranges, bananas), tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hard-cooked eggs, nuts, yogurt, cheeses, French toast, made-to-order crepes and omelets, deli meats, fresh bread, sweet pastries and a lot more that I didn’t record in my notebook.

Cappadocia was long ago a Roman province, and early Christians congregated here, hiding in subterranean cities. They created cave churches, chapels and monasteries in the rock, some decorated with still-surviving frescoes of medieval saints.

Several underground cities, with twisting, narrow passageways, are open to tourists. Among the most visited is Derinkuyu, designated in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where about 10,000 Byzantine Christians lived during the sixth and seventh centuries while hiding from advancing Persian and Arabic armies.

Industrious inhabitants burrowed into the earth to excavate ventilation shafts and chambers over eight levels that served as living space, kitchens, granaries, stables and storerooms. So prepared, they could hold out until the threat subsided.

Another daylong tour travels to the Ihlara Valley, where visitors scramble spider-like up and over the rocks to reach the cave churches of the Byzantine monks. The route includes a lengthy hike and a look into the Selime Monastery, among the largest cave cathedrals in Cappadocia.

The Göreme Open-Air Museum, a UNESCO site since 1985, is walkable from the hotel. You’ll need several hours to wander among the former monastic settlement, and the churches and chapels. Arrive early to beat the crowds and the midday heat.

There are, of course, shopping opportunities. Not on the scale of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but if you are still hankering to purchase a handmade rug, you’ll find a good assortment in size and price in Göreme. Be warned: Salesmen can be aggressive and the spiel about where the rugs were made may not be truthful. (Many come from outside Turkey.)

Quick reference: Kelebek Special Cave Hotel, http://www.kelebekhotel.com. The hotel can help make reservations for transfer from the airport, book balloon tours, or tours to the other sights I mentioned. The Kelebek is not the only cave hotel in Göreme, and many other tour companies offer similar itineraries in and around the countryside as well as balloon flights.

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