When you first catch sight of the eerie, lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia (Turkey), made up of dramatically shaped volcanic rock, it is slightly troubling (writes Rebecca Burns). It appears dusty and barren, rather inhospitable, and slightly alien. The quickly shifting light and shadows cast by the rock formations only add to its strangeness.
For this reason, invading troops of many powerful empires have discounted Cappadocia before realising its true potential - whereas the locals have always known that the volcanic tuff is in fact very fertile, and soft enough to carve out to create buildings.
The region is well-known for its valleys of 'fairy chimneys', the rock-cut churches of the Ihlara Valley, troglodyte dwellings, and warren-like underground cities. Some rock caves are still inhabited or have been turned into guest houses, and many time-worn traditions are kept alive - from the production of their own wine, to pottery crafted from clay taken from the bed of the Kızılırmak River.
With a bit of time, Cappadocia's bizarre beauty wins you over. For us, the scene was set each morning when we woke up in our cosy cave hotel in Ürgüp, its walls carved straight out of the volcanic rock, and looked out onto the weird landscape beyond through a roughly-cut window.
In the hotel's tiny dining area, we wolfed down a traditional Turkish breakfast of fresh bread served with boiled eggs, sliced cucumber and tomato, a few salty olives, slices of cheese, and cherry jam. All fuelled up, this was how we started each day of sightseeing. The region is large, and you need at least a few days to see the main sights – and a week to really explore.
There are said to be dozens of underground cities across the region, some of them being vast enough to have accommodated up to thirty thousand people, but of those that have been excavated, the largest and deepest is Derinkuyu (which means 'deep well').
It's hard to get your head around the size of Derinkuyu. Only part of it has been excavated (some say as little as a quarter of the whole city), and only part of that is open to the public. Clambering down into the depths, it is hard to imagine people really lived here – across eight underground floors reaching a depth of 55 metres. Yet there are wine cellars, stables, dining halls, chapels, living quarters, a dungeon, ventilation ducts, escape routes, and a meeting hall - all linked by claustrophobic tunnels.
Some believe Derinkuyu is linked by tunnels to another underground city, Kaymaklı, which lies 9km away. This smaller city is less popular with coach tours, so highly recommended if you like a bit of time to explore rather than feeling like you're on a conveyor belt. You can buy a plan of the city, which has five of its levels excavated, and a similar layout and feel to the larger Derinkuyu.
Uçhisar is an incredible sight and gives you a real sense of the region's spectacular geology. In essence, it is a huge rock that has been cut out to create a whole village of cave-like dwellings. Although no longer safe to live in, you can climb up the rock along a rough pathway, poking your nose into all the old dwellings, and from the top of the rock you're rewarded with panoramic views – this being the highest point in Cappadocia.
We visited towards the end of the day, catching the sunset, marvelling at the rock formations that make bizarre silhouettes against the sky, and the lights starting to twinkle behind the tiny cave house windows in the distance.
The big village of Göreme has become a major centre for tourists, and can make a good base - but it's best known for the open air museum just a couple of miles outside of town. The Göreme National Park (Göreme Milli Parklar in Turkish) was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. Within it you'll find the remains of a traditional human habitat dating back to the 4th century. It is home to a monastic complex made up of more than 30 churches containing some fine frescoes. Although the best-known churches are at the heart of the museum (Elmalı Kilise, Karanlık Kilise and Çarıklı Kilise), it is the less central Tokali Kilise church which is the most interesting – containing wonderful 10th century frescoes.
Pasabagi, about 1km from Goreme, is full of fairy chimneys, many of them with several stems and caps, and some housing dwellings and chapels. Also known as 'Valley of the Monks', it was once a favourite spot for hermits who lived inside the fairy chimneys, and one still contains a chapel dedicated to St Simeon Stylites, with a hermit shelter in the chimney's black cap.
For a walk, the canyon-like Ihlara Valley is a spectacular setting, lined with rock-cut underground dwellings and churches dating to the Byzantine period. These were created by Christians who had escaped from Roman soldiers and settled here in seclusion - building their houses and churches in the well-hidden valley next to the Melendiz Stream.
Cappadocia is incredibly captivating and left a lasting impression on me. I only managed to explore a tiny part of what the region has to offer, and I'm pretty sure that when I'm lucky enough to revisit the region it will still capture my imagination as much as it did the first time around.
About the author
Rebecca Burns is a British freelance journalist who currently lives in Bristol. She spent two years living in Asia and has travelled extensively throughout Europe.