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……