Taking a Deep Breath in Cappadocia

Istanbul is a city busting out of its seams. Like a middle-aged woman trying on her teenage jeans and sucking in to button up, Istanbul has a definite muffin top. Its new and ample flesh strains against the denim, trying to break free. As if lingering in longing for its younger days, Istanbul refuses to buy jeans that fit.

People appear everywhere in droves in this city, covering areas like a spilling liquid.  The small sidewalks, built in Istanbul’s trimmer, slimmer days, just can’t contain its new masses. People spill off into the streets, where cars and buses whiz by perilously close. On Istiklal Caddessi, the main artery that cuts through Taksim to Tunel and to the Bosphorus, it is estimated that on an average weekend day, 3 million people walk the street (a little under 1/6 of its population). Three MILLION. Just hearing that number can make a person feel a little claustrophobic, but it’s really seeing the throngs steadily moving towards you on Istiklal, an unwavering army of people looking straight past you in proper city fashion and bumping you out of their way, like a discarded plastic ayran cup, that makes one want to click their heels together in hopes of landing anywhere that has a little more open space.

Last week, walking to my jewelry class on an exceptionally warm day, when everyone seemed to be out enjoying the warm weather, the crowds started to get to me. As I wove my way through the crowd, constantly planning my next move to avoid being jostled, my body craved a deeper breath, but when I tried to breathe deeply, I found that I couldn’t. Panic struck me and I tried again and again to breathe deeply, finding that I couldn’t, as the throngs of people continued to stream past me and I plowed forward through the crowd. Escaping into the sanctity of the studio's isolated atrium made breathing a little easier, but I began to pay closer attention to my breathing and felt a lingering panic at the feeling that I wasn't getting enough air. 

The feeling persisted well into the week and I realized that it was psychological and not physical (though the physical discomforts were very real). Part of the anxiety that was bringing on this feeling, I realized, was the fact that Jeremy had just signed a contract for 2 more years in Istanbul. Although I didn't think that this was a source of stress and was genuinely excited to have an opportunity to explore Turkey for longer, the longer commitment to the city made me nervous- especially since I didn't have a concrete plan for an extra year. My daily bottomless cay and coffee consumption probably didn't help either. I looked forward to my upcoming 4-day vacation in Cappadocia with my friend and colleague, Misty.

And, happily, it turns out that a break in the pristine and open landscape of Cappadocia was exactly what I needed. Its landscape mirrors that of the Southwestern United States in many ways, with its mesas, canyons, and valleys. The volcanic activity in the region has created unique and incredibly beautiful rock formations that jut out of the earth in cones. Fairy chimneys, they are called. We were told by a guide that they received their name at the time when Cappadocia was on the Silk Road. Merchants passing through the area saw smoke coming from these pointy rocks, which had been carved out and inhabited by people, and gave them their nickname. 

We stayed in a wonderful little hotel called the Kelebek, inside of a cave room (!!), and pampered ourselves for the next 3 days. We ate out, had Cappadocian wine with every dinner, drank beer in the afternoon, went on long, muddy hikes, toured Cappadocia's historical sites, got anti-stress massages at the hotel's hamam... it was a dream. The desolate landscape was calming and the walks through its valleys rejuvenating. Instead of meandering through crowds of people, we were crunching through snow, ducking under branches and stepping on frozen streams.

Our first day in Goreme, the city where we stayed, we visited one of the big highlights of the area- the Open Air Museum, a cluster of churches carved from rock that was once a monastery and an important center in early Christianity in the 4th century. Many of the churches had well-preserved frescoes (painted several centuries after the original churches had been built) that were truly spectacular to behold.
Simpler designs date from an earlier period (725-842)

On our second day, we took a tour and covered a lot of ground in the area. One of our first stops and another big highlight of the area, was visiting the Kaymakli, one of several underground cities in the area excavated by Hittites and used to hide from armies that commonly passed through the area. Later, these tunnels were also used by early Christians, fleeing from persecution. We were able to duck into the small  anthill-like tunnels and explore rooms that had been excavated: a kitchen with a communal oven, a wine cellars and distilleries, and living rooms. A ventilation shaft supplied oxygen to the multiple layers of tunnels and rooms. It was awe inspiring to think of people building this underground complex and even more for the fact that only 30% of this one has been excavated. This underground system of burrows and homes was huge!
Underground room with storage spaces (looks a little bit like The Flintstones' homes)

Wine distillery- don't want to run out of wine, while hiding for months underground!

Fairy Chimneys

Our tour continued with a visit to a wine tasting room, where we sampled several local wines. They weren't bad and we even bought a bottle that we enjoyed with dinner that night. Wine here is heavily taxed- our guide said the tax on alcohol is 72%, so a lot of wine seems very overpriced for the quality. We've all gotten used to drinking the kind of two buck chuck that burns the throat and gives a headache (alternatives are Efes, the one kind of beer that is sold here and raki- which is delicious, but can definitely be trouble) at 4 times the price, so sampling these other wines was a nice break.

We also stopped through a ceramics' studio, set in an underground system of caves. The owner led us through the workshops and explained the system of apprentice-ship they use. It takes years of training to be able to learn to make certain designs and each number of years equals a certain repertoire of designs. It reminded me of my jewelry class, where the craft is taken very seriously and treated with a lot of respect. In Turkey, it seems that traditional crafts and craftspeople are revered and the level of "master" takes years to attain. I was surprised to see a very young boy (probably around 12) in the workshop, painting elaborate designs on a small wine jug. I remembered that my jewelry teacher was trained at 8 years of age and was sent to work as an apprentice after school. In this workshop, the craft has also been passed down from father to son for generations, and it was truly a family operation.

Potter, demonstrating how to use the kick-wheel and how to make the circular part of the wine jug design.

Artisan, painting an extremely intricate design by hand. The workshop had also been built in a hollowed-out rock!

Young apprentice, making amazing designs.
One of our last stops on the tour, was to an old Greek village, built on the hillside. There were still many traditional Greek structures left in ruins, including a tiny church in the rock face that overlooked the valley ahead. It had remnants of frescoes, but they had been severely defaced. It was incredible to walk along the hillside, passing abandoned and crumbling houses and imagine life when it was a bustling town. Images came to mind from the book Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres, where he describes a small town in Southern Turkey, where people of various ethnic groups once lived together. He includes wonderful details like the fact that in Greek houses, animals were kept on the bottom floor to provide heat for the top floor, where people lived- a fact that our guide also recounted. Those types of details make it easier to walk through a deserted place and hear the church bells and rolling carts, and to envision the people who once filled its walls with the stories of their lives. The village was deserted, during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, following World War I, another event that is very vividly described in Birds Without Wings and in de Berniere's Corelli's Mandolin.
Greek Village
Greek Houses

Happy Travelers

Inside of the church- badly defaced

Houses in the rock
Front of the Greek church carved from the rock face
The last day, we decided to go for a hike in one of the nearby valleys. A man at the hotel discouraged us from going to the Ilhara Valley, because it was far and the conditions weren't great. He persuaded us instead to go to what the hotel's map referred to as "Honey Valley". Names of valleys and geographical areas are often so enticing! We headed down the hill and asked around for how to get there, we were pointed in the direction of a trail we'd taken a few days before that was super muddy. We attempted to go and ended up taking an off-trail route to get back to the main road. When we finally found the turnoff for the trail, we ran into a fellow-traveler from our hotel- Zhong, and continued on the hike together. Because of the melting snow, the trail was very muddy and slippery, which also made it challenging and fun. We had a little trouble finding the initial entrance into the valley and passed by a construction site (they are looking for hot springs in the area for a future hotel), where a cowboy with a big bushy mustache asked us where we were going. When we told him we were looking for Honey Valley, he initially looked confused, then laughed and said, "Oh, is that what they're calling it now? It used to be the White Valley." He pointed us in the right direction and we came down to the bottom of a small canyon and followed its frozen streams through to the end, all the while enjoying the fresh air and the wind-carved rock structures.

Lots of fairy chimneys everywhere!

Virile Valley... I mean, White Valley
Later that evening, we went to sample some local cuisine at Dibek, a restaurant in town. We had called three hours in advance to have the shis kebab, slowly cooked in a ceramic pot. When we got to the restaurant, our meal was nearly ready, and the waiter brought it to the table and hammered off the top of the jars to pour the delicious warm food inside. We sampled some more Cappadocian wine, savoring our last night of vacation in this beautiful place. 

Such a cozy feast!
This trip to Cappadocia was truly incredible. Each night, we came home exhausted after a day of exploration, having had our senses stimulated by Cappadocia's magnificent surroundings and interesting history. After just a day there, I noticed that I was breathing just fine. The initial stresses and anxieties about the future that had surrounded me in Istanbul were far from my mind. I realized that I needed to make a concerted effort to leave Istanbul more often. It is a beautiful and fascinating city, yes, but its overpopulated chaos can be overwhelming. I miss parks, I miss nature, and I miss open space. I miss the context those places provide for wonder and introspection. Being close to nature is undeniably good for the soul and for one's peace of mind. If I am going to love Istanbul and stay for two and a half more years, I will need to leave it often.

Popular Posts