Tuesday – sightseeing in Cappadocia and a Balloon Flight

As we went up to the rooftop terrace for breakfast on what was yet another another dazzlingly bright sunny day, we were confronted with the amazing sight of probably 100 hot air balloons in front of us. They were all over the Goreme valley with more rising up behind the horizon. It was a wonderful sight and made us slightly envious and sorry that we had not had the experience after all.

However we had a day tour of Cappadicia ahead to look forward to. Hassan our local guide and his driver arrived and we all piled aboard the people carrier. First stop was a high view terrace looking over the whole area. The 75,000 square metre Cappadocian valley in prehistoric times was a lake and its subsequent landscape was formed by three erupting volcanoes, two million years ago, initially covering the area with ash and then rock. All I can say is that it must have been pretty turbulent times!

It is thought to be the only rock formation like it in the world. The pillars or chimneys, as they are known, are formed when the soft sand of the volcanic ash melts away leaving the pillars behind. The lumps of basalt or rock on the top of the pillar prevents the erosion of the tufa immediately below it. Once the basalt is displaced, the pillar below it quickly erodes.

The larger sandy pillars were found to be easy to dig out and people started to make homes in them. We stopped at a vantage point to look over the town of Urgup and its enormous fortress hewn out of the rock that we had seen the day before from the ridge above Goreme. It was pretty impressive.

It is the same theory of digging into the soft rock that applies to the underground cities in the area. We visited one of the 35 open to the public. Archeologists are still working on these underground cities and their tunnels that run for miles under the earth on at least three levels. The theory is that they were dug to act as a refuge from the many marauding armies that crossed Turkey and this particular area over centuries. The tunnels were thought to have been used in this way from 2000 BC to the13th century AD. Since then the first and second levels have been used for storage. In particular they store pomegranates and citrus fruits grown on the south coast of Turkey.

The rabbit warren like tunnel system is a fascinating mix of narrow passageways, living rooms, granaries, kitchens (including baking ovens) and wine making areas similar to those seen in Uplistsikhe. There were holes for ventilation, graves for the dead, storage and defence. There were churches and huge grinding stones. The special niches in the walls of the passageways provided stands for amphora. The sloping passageways themselves are often not much more than five feet high, the rooms slightly higher. In the living rooms there are shelves and higher up smaller niches to hold linseed oil lamps. The tunnels were dug in such a way so as to enable the local people to defend themselves using their right hand and forcing any enemy entering the network to use their left hand to fight with. The first floor down was used for stabling horses and other animals and there were handles in the rock for tethering purposes. The dung from the animals was mixed with human excreta and stored to be used as fertiliser when the people came out. We went down to the third level below ground but it is believed that there might be up to 4 more floors below. It was thought that the people could live below ground for anything up to two months and that over 2,000 people could live in the city we visited at any one time. We saw only 5% of it. The temperature in the tunnels and houses carved out of the rock pillars stays between 14 and 16 degrees.

From red clay tablets found in the vicinity, it is known that the Hittites lived in the area and it is thought that they may have built the original tunnels although these were later enlarged by the Christians who were often the subject of persecution.

Following the underground city visit we took to the road again. The local soil is rich in all nutrients except nitrogen. To make good this omission, historically pigeons were kept in order that their droppings could be mixed with the soil to provide this element. Another useful pigeon fact we learnt was that a mixture made from pigeons eggs was used as an undercoat for the frescoes in the rock churches to provide a more stable surface for the natural materials used to paint. Pigeons were also used to carry messages and finally, having fulfilled all other purposes, they were eaten. That would seem to make the most of them in every possible way!

We visited several other chimney sites including the ones that are most often seen in pictures of the area. On the horizon the snow covered volcano that contributed to the Cappadocian landscape could be seen, looking rather smug with itself, I thought!

As we were driving to our lunch stop a message came through from the balloon company to say that, after all, it was going to be possible for us to take a flight just before sunset. This was something of a surprise as we had more or less given up hope (well for some of us it was hope!) that we were likely to have the opportunity.

We had one final visit to make before being taken to the balloon launch site. This was to the pottery town of Avenos. It is said that the men of Avenos were not allowed to marry until they had mastered the art of making pots. Historically they used the clay from the Red River that runs through the town. Apparently they now use white clay which is more hard wearing. We watched as one of the master potters demonstrated making a jug. As always when watching a craftsman at work it looked terribly easy. None of us took the opportunity to try it out……

The room where the artists worked painting on the intricate family designs was very impressive. People have been making pottery in the workshop for 400 years and the current family that own it have been making pots there for 200 years. There was some wonderful pieces, but the cost and likelihood of getting an item home in one piece proved to be the ultimate deterrent to a purchase.

Leaving Avenos we headed to the balloon site. Things were a bit quiet in our little bus as I think we were all a little apprehensive – some more than others! When we arrived there were signs of balloons already being inflated. Our particular balloon company showed every sign of slick efficiency. In no time the money was paid, names were given for post flight certificates and we watched as people walked about looking competent. We were then herded into another mini bus and bumped along the launching area until we arrived at our balloon which was in the process of being inflated with blasts of flame shooting up inside it.

Once the balloon was upright we were invited to clamber aboard the basket. There were five compartments. A central one for our two pilots and four passenger compartments, two at each end accommodating seven people. The chaps doing the external work were very jolly and the two pilots kept giving the balloon additional blasts of gas until they were ready to go – and we were off. I was so pleased that Keith, despite his vertigo, had felt able to join the party because it was tremendous. The late afternoon light was perfect and this, coupled with the unique landscape, made the experience very special. We floated over the amazing rock formations, flew near to Goreme, saw Penelope as a speck in her parking place and looked down on other balloons below us. The flying was very gentle as we floated gracefully over the area. What a place to take to the air! All around us were other balloons gradually climbing and then losing height again as we were. Helen counted nearly forty. They were all colours. It was fantastic. A magical experience and one we will never forget.

As our hour drew to a close, we dropped to tree top level, the gold leafed tree tops passing just underneath us. We then drifted into a cone filled canyon with the golden rocky peaks at basket level and seeming just an arms length away. We slowly rose at the canyon end to avoid the ground as it rose up to meet us and in no time we were looking down on all the trucks and trailers that had followed the balloons at ground level. We then watched fascinated as one after the other the balloon baskets settled on to their trailers. Ours did the same as, with seemingly no effort and great precision, we glided to rest on our trailer. There was our own support team who had sent us on our way, to tie the basket down and help us us out and back on terra firms and then provide us with bubbles and cake. Mehmet, our pilot, was charming, presenting the certificates and having his photograph taken with everyone. It was great fun and for Keith such an incredible achievement. I have to acknowledge that I was quite proud of myself too as it was something I have never chosen to do before.

After all this excitement, we were dropped back to our cave dwelling and broke open our last bottle of red wine to celebrate safe landings and then adjourned for supper.

Another incredible day. We now have only a few days left, but what a trip it has been……

Monday – a day in Goreme

We were up at 5.00 am to ensure we were ready to be collected at 5.30 by the balloon flight company. We put on as many clothes as possible to guard against the intense cold we were told to expect on the flight. Back to the Michelin look! We had been warned that there was a chance we would not be able to go because of it being too windy and so it proved. Having stood on the terrace of the Pension for half an hour, watching the sky lighten and losing heat, we received news that it was too windy and that the balloons would not be going up.

Not sure whether we were disappointed or relieved, we adjourned for a catch up on our sleep before going up to the rooftop restaurant for breakfast. There we received the news that there was a chance we might get a balloon at sunset, but the usual thing of trying again tomorrow morning was out because all the flights were booked.

In order to make the most of what was a cold but beautifully sunny day, Peter, Helen Keith and I, the group’s usual walking suspects, set off to explore the surrounding area on foot. Although quite cold, it was perfect for walking. First stop was the sunset viewpoint at the top of the town. From here we could look down on the surrounding landscape. On the far hill is another town – looking in the distance exactly as you think ancient hill towns should look. A cluster of buildings around a central fort or castle. It is difficult to decide what it is from this distance. Immediately below us is Goreme, the purpose built hotels, houses, shops and restaurants and in between the tall volcanic peaks, some of them converted to accommodation with windows and doors. They look like set pieces from The Hobbit!

If we looked the other way, the volcanic ‘tufa’ took on all shapes. The phallic pillars, cones, chimneys, peaks and just rippling rocks interspersed with trees and bushes – all appeared beneath us in the valley below. The main road out of Goreme snakes black between the sandy colouring of the tufa on ether side of the road.

After a a drink at the sunset cafe, we set off along the path to try to find what is advertised as the open air museum. We walked along a deep track and then turned down into the valley. At this point the rocks and pillars reared up above us. Eventually hitting the main road we walked along to the museum, somewhat surprised at the huge number of coaches ‘corralled’ in the car park and the large number of tourists of all nations walking up to and away from the museum entrance.

Luckily Keith had bought the audio visual set before he realised it was another monastic site! But what a site it was. The site originally housed aesthetics or hermits in the first century and the place and those who lived there were mentioned in St Paul’s letters. The museum covered the large area that became the Byzantine monastic settlement. It became a pilgrim site in the 17th century. Once again the weird cones and pilkars had been burrowed out to form chapels and accommodation caves. Many retained their original etchings and frescoes. Carved out tables and benches, apses, burial places, cooking pits and niches appeared in the caves. Steps led up and down as we explored the place. It was quite a work out! Another incredible experience.

We left the museum and wondered back into Goreme for lunch. Although sunny we got quite chilled sitting outside on a terrace for lunch so adjourned to a very sunny spot in the coffee shop garden for drinks. When we got back the hotel it was to hear that the winds still would not allow us a balloon flight and the flights were fully booked for the two remaining mornings that we would be in Cappadoccia, but that they would see if it would be possible before we left.

I don’t think either of us were too disappointed with this news. We had a bit of a siesta and wrote some emails, chatted over a bottle of wine outside and then set off to try out the clay pot baked stews that are very popular in the area. We found a restaurant, had the pantomime of breaking open the pot, added a small piece of baklava and returned home happy.

Once again we felt we were on holiday!

Sunday – straight to Goreme

It was 7.00 am and only just light when we set off. There was no breakfast, although there were one or two caf├ęs open as we passed them on the way to the truck. We have to cover the 200 kilometres to Siva where we should have stopped, before travelling on to Goreme in Cappadocia where we are to stay for three nights. It was still cold and damp on the truck.

Getting out of town was tricky because of the gear changing problem – apparently a part is required to solve the issue. Twice we stopped to allow further tinkering. One stop was near a bread shop which was helpful.

We drove out through the hills. The soil is noticeably richer than we have seen anywhere along the route. There was evidence of terracing and many of the fields looked freshly ploughed. A fish farm appeared on a lake to our left. It was quite a large enterprise. One more tweak stop occurred then we were out on an open road. Roadworks appeared and the road became a well made duel carriageway. Once the need for gears to be changed ceased, Penelope seemed to pick up her skirts and we were off at our normal pace. Fantastic! We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Gradually the landscape opened out – it had The Lake District look again – only with a two lane highway running through it. The truck was really cold. Some reached for sleeping bags – others made do with extra layers of clothing. We looked like a lot of chrysalis or Michelin men hunched up on our various seats. We talked of the days when we complained about the heat on the truck when it was too hot to move. All those years ago – or so it seems!

The day wore on. The sky became lighter. The landscape evened out and the hills became more distant. Some apartments appeared by the side of the highway with little infrastructure around them. A lake appeared in the distance with undulating hills behind. The truck continued to be cold, but the gears were behaving themselves. Occasionally the sky lightened and then the clouds rolled over again.

Towns appeared and disappeared again. Then the sun came out and I became aware that the grassy hills had gone and had been replaced by what looked like sandy scrubland. It was much flatter and then suddenly small peaks started to appear – we were entering the moon type landscape of Cappadocia. All around us was the sandy coloured volcanic debris of ancient times, that has been shaped over thousands of years by rain and river water. As we got closer to Goreme, towering phallic boulders appeared together little pointy hills that looked as they were erupting across the town in between the cluster of buildings. In actual fact it is erosion rather than eruption that has caused the bizarre effect with which we were confronted, but I do not know how else to describe it. Hopefully photographs will help….

We stopped in the centre of Goreme while Simon and Emma scouted around to find our hotel. It was odd to be back in the land of the tourist, with lots of gift shops and advertisements for balloon flights and horse riding treks. We understand that the acknowledged best way to truly appreciate the Cappadocian landscape is by hot air balloon and we have, with some trepidation, booked ourselves onto an early morning flight while we are here. The day is now very overcast and it is also quite chilly. We were pleased to get back on the truck. There then followed a demonstration of one of Simons most amazing feats of driving. We crawled along ever more narrow roads as we headed up towards the end of the town. We peered down on the anxious faces of the people below as they hurried to get out of the way. We could have easily touched the buildings on either side of the truck as we inched our way up to the Travellers Cave Pension where we were to stay.

The hotel, when we arrived, was a delight. Our little stone cave room is perfectly formed with the most precisely calculated bathroom we have ever come across – there is literally no more than two centimetres gap between the bathroom door and the shower door, but it all works tremendously well. It is also lovely and warm – perfect!

We were happy to hand over a bag full of washing to a smiling lady who looked as if we were doing her a favour by allowing her to wash our dirty socks – and settled down to a warm time with blogs and reading. Luxury!

We found a nice place to eat where the girls were well catered for and felt that a day that started with some trepidation as to whether we were going to make it to Goreme, had ended very satisfactorily.

Retry Friday

It was another beautiful day as we left the delights of Batumi to travel to the Sumela monastery, half a day away.

Breakfast was interesting as the hotel had provided a picnic breakfast to eat on the truck. This basically comprised hard boiled eggs (lots), plastic sausages individually wrapped in thin plastic (lots), plastic pots of yoghurt and jam covered in cling film and bread. It was not terribly appetising and it turned up for lunch as well, but then (happily) it was abandoned.

On a personal note, the not very funny humerus (near enough!) is now beginning to turn black from the escapade of the persimmon trees. It will be long gloves up passed the elbow for me for the foreseeable future…….

We pulled away from the hotel and it’s sparkling seaside location and followed the promenade as it continued along the sea shore. As we headed towards Turkey, mountains appeared to our left as the sea glistened to our right. In no time we were at the border, the last before we leave for home and we were bidding fond farewell to Zaza who has been such a lovely and knowledgable guide.

To us border veterans, this was a doddle – it took no time at all – but it was far busier than any of the other borders experienced on the trip. It was also far more efficient. We were soon back on the truck, continuing to skirt the Black Sea. It was interesting that there were fishing boats now in the bay, something we did not see in Georgia. Initially a steep cliff rose to our left and our route took us through several tunnels, but then the cliffs fell back and houses and mosques appeared to our left as we continued to follow the coast road. Now the far less towering apartment buildings were cream and pink and yellow. We had at last left the grey Russian concrete behind and were in the land of the Turks, seemingly untouched by the mighty hand of the soviet republic.

Regrettably the brilliant day clouded over as we passed through the coastal towns. More carved tunnels came and went as we continued along the coast. Now there were fig trees by the roadside and geraniums appeared more frequently.

We found an early lunch stop by the sea where some men came to inspect us and chatted to Keith in German (I didn’t know he spoke German!) prior to responding to the call to prayer echoing over the valley. We saw a number of mosques after lunch, full of men and then we realised, of course it was Friday.

Not much later we passed the runway of a small airport. The towns and villages feel very different. The bread shops are different. There are modern trucks and tractors and showrooms selling both.

Eventually we turned away from the sea and turned up a narrow, steep sided, wooded valley. By now it was raining. We passed the town of Macka and then the wooden chalet type hotel where we are staying overnight, but we continued climbing up, passing two fish farms on the way. We eventually stopped at the car park of the Sumela Monastery which clung to the rock wall at the top of the cliff above us.

Nearly 300 metres high, the Sumela is in the tradition of monasteries built near forests, caves and sources of water. Sumela means black and the monastery is thought to be named either in honour of the Black Madonna once owned by the monastery or after the Black Mountains in which it is situated. It was first built in 375 AD and was restored in the 6th century and enlarged to its current size in the 13th century. It was sustained by imperial funds and its rights were preserved by the Ottoman Sultans and the Turks but it was seized by the Russians in 1916-18 and the monastery was abandoned in 1923. The wonderful, although vandalised, frescoes are thought to date from the 9th to the 19th century, with the majority from the more recent past.

How do these monks decide on these amazing locations? Does Brother Barnabas or the Abbot Petronichus wake up one morning thinking ‘today I will go and create a monastery which will hang on the side and at the top of a cliff’ and then pick up his spade and pick axe, gather up his prayer book and rosary beads and a few friends and set off? What happened to my enterprise of this kind? Did I just miss out? It is a puzzle …..

There were two paths up to the monastery, one was a very steep zig zag for one and a half kilometres and the other was a three kilometre walk up the road. We of course opted for the short and steep route and I panted as I climbed up the steep incline for about half an hour to be rewarded by an amazing view down into the valley and the monastery just above me. After a flight of steep stone steps (oh joy) we arrived at the monastery buildings. Although now only the shells of the rooms remain, their use was quite clear. Niches for books in the library, the large fire place and the bread ovens in the kitchens and fireplaces in the monks cells. By far the best feature of the monastery were the frescoes both inside and outside the main building. Although graffitied and vandalised they are still quite remarkable.

I loved the it because, once again, I cannot but admire the commitment, skill and enthusiasm that goes into creating such a place.

Although it was still raining, Keith and I opted to walk down the steep route, made even more treacherous by the fallen leaves which the rain had stuck to the rocks underfoot. Nevertheless it was good to be out and to take time to reflect on what we had seen.

Once we had all gathered again it was back into the truck to go back to our hotel. This proved to be excellently snug as they had turned the heating on for us. Bliss!

As the hotel was somewhat remote, we ate in and had an excellent repast of dal soup, trout and rice pudding. We then adjourned for a very early night,

Listening to the rain dripping down outside we did spare a thought for the Dragoman group we had met up at the monastery who were camping overnight further up the valley……..

Saturday – a rainy day in Turkey and a poorly Penelope

When we woke up the rain had stopped and all that could be heard was the water rushing over the rocks in the river below. We had a good breakfast and set off for the interim stop en route for Goreme. It should have been a bush camp but the rather heavy rain we have experienced led to a request, supported by all, that we should try and get a hotel instead. Happily Emma had been successful in her mission so no more camping. Good news! We settled down for a nine hour drive.

Our route down out of the valley took us back through Macke where new apartment buildings were in progress on the hillside. We passed the mosque and stopped at the bakers for lunch supplies. Although not raining it was dulling heavily. At the end of the valley we reached the large city of Trabzon where unexpectedly (well I didn’t expect it anyway) we were back at the Black Sea. Larger fishing trawlers were out in the bay. A watery sun came out and went again.

We followed the coast road for a couple of hours. It was totally urbanised with apartments, houses, restaurants and small hotels fringing the road on our left as the Black Sea continued to our right. We then left the water and turned inland again. By now the rain was back. It was a true mountain pass similar to those in the Lake District. The river ran through the valley bottom and hills. The surfaced road came and went and reappeared again.

We had lunch at the top of a ravine. Few vehicles passed us. We then set off again and the valley broadened out again. Bedraggled sheep. Wandered the hill with even more bedraggled shepherds following behind looking the picture of misery. Occasionally there were cattle grazing. After that our. viewing was limited as the windows steamed up and water began to trickle in through Penelope’s weak points.

As the afternoon wore on we became aware that the intermittent gear problems that have occurred on several points along the way had returned with a vengeance. In the end we were moving very slowly. With another 200 kilometres to go to our overnight stop we lurched into a town and ground to a halt. Thank goodness it had not happened on the isolated. mountain road!

It was still pouring and very cold and damp in the truck, but we waited while Emma and Simon set off to find an hotel for the night while they tried to resolve the gearbox dilemma.

We were in a town called Sebinkarahisar. It seemed just an ordinary town in the middle of the hills and an unlikely spot for tourists. Nevertheless a very nice little hotel was found tucked behind a tractor show room. We tramped off the truck with enough belongings for a couple of days as we did not know what was to happen next or when we were likely to be reunited with Penelope.

We really came up trumps with the hotel. It was clean, warm and generally of a higher standard than a lot of the hotels we have stayed in to date. So we adjourned, found the largest bedroom and cracked open a bottle of Georgian red wine. Such is the stuff of which overland stories are made!

We even did well with supper. It was still raining heavily when we set out to find food. We found it in a small cafe just across from the hotel and upstairs. No-one spoke English, but with a lot of pointing and much goodwill we were all happily fed and watered. Perfect.

On the way back we met a very wet Emma and Simon who gave us the news that we should be ready to board the truck at 7.00 for a very, very long day as we had to make up the hours lost.

We recommended our supper venue.