A Tale in Red: Caravans, Valleys and Underground Cities

21st February 2011

Around the world, people are complaining about today, after all, is Monday. You can see on Twitter, and Facebook things like “Monday should be optional.”; “Good morning. Keep calm and pretend it’s not Monday.” or “May your coffee be strong and your Monday productive.” In Konya, I was staring at the city from the top of my hotel room. I was excited and ready to face the Monday as it was Friday only because I was heading to a place that was responsible for me fell in love with Turkey. My destination was Kapadokya (Cappadocia). The valleys, fairy chimneys, and the subterranean cities were calling, that was a call I could refuse.

As usual, it wouldn’t be a direct trip. While seated in the car listening to music, and observing the landscaping changing from green to a reddish or orangish. I notice most roads we crossed until now were mountainous; now, it was different. An immense plain in tones of orange and red extended far from the way in all directions until they met the mountains with snowed tops in the distance. My distract action was an opportunity to the guide makes a turn to the right, taking the direction to a village. “I want to show something here.” I wondered what could be in a place like that.

“Where we are?” 

“This is Sultanhanı; the town name refers to a famous han (caravanserai) nearby.” Saying that we stopped the car near a restaurant that also makes for café and store. Firat chose a table outside (what should allow him to smoke), he orders çay and begun read the newspaper. His interest in the news was related to last night when Fenerbahçe, Fırat’s soccer team, had played, and one of its key players (that time), Alex de Souza (who was Brazilian) played a fantastic match. Of course, the headlines were about the game. 

“There is a store inside the restaurant.” He said subtle, I have so immersed on my thoughts that Firat’s voice sounds to me like a thunder in the middle of the night. 

“Ok, we can go there when you finish.” 

The store was a traditional souvenirs place as we already had seen in most areas visited. But, in the back of the store, however, we found some gems. Beautiful tablecloths (handcrafted), and CDs of Turkish folk and pop music. I bought a beautiful tablecloth in blue and gold to use on a special occasion when returning to my home. Fırat, after a search in the CD’s stand, chose one to give me as a gift. “Son Köprü” – The Last Bridge is an instrumental selection of Turkish folk music and absolutely beautiful to listen to.

“Now, we will visit the Han.” Firat took my hand and drive me through the main street, abandoned because of the cold and early morning. “This is the Sultanhan Kervansaray.”

“Kervansaray? Something related to caravans?”

“You are smart. Yes, caravans.”

Sultan Han or Sultanhan Kervansaray is a large 13th century Selcuk caravanserai. It was built in 1229 (dated by inscription) during the reign of the Selcuk Sultan Kayqubad I, by the Syrian architect Muhammad ibn Khalwan al-Dimashq (Dismashq means from Damascus) along the Uzun Yolu (Long Road) trade road leading from Konya to Aksaray, and continuing to Persia. The Han was destroyed by a fire in 1278; lately, it was restored and became the largest caravanserai in Turkey. The building is one of the most excellent examples of Anatolian Selcuk architecture.

On my errands around the place I could see where camels were housed – Firat told me many of the men in the car a slept with the camels). The bedrooms where the traveller rested, the kitchen where the meal was prepared and served, the caravanserai had even a small mosque. 

Now, our next stop should be Nevşehir. We were trying to buy another camera because the Nikon I had, broken in an accident. The shopping was almost empty, what made Firat felt more comfortable (he didn’t like a crowded place, which was funny since he was a tour guide). After we buy the new camera, we had lunch in the food court.

“I need to buy more sweaters. The ones I have are not thick enough to protect me from the cold.” I said, knowing Firat would not like the changes on his plans.

“I will wait in the car, you can shop alone, can’t you?” 


It was funny how I could surprise him with my fast shopping – probably he thought I will take hours to buy clothes. “Wow, you are not like the other women I know! Was his comment when I return to the car.

From there, we went to a place that took my breath away. When I saw the valleys the balloons flying not too high, I could not make any comment. The scenario I had in front of my eyes was exactly like the photo I had seen on the Internet. I was a child who wanted something and did not dare to ask. My eyes must have been like a child who wants something but does not dare ask. My face must have shown all my emotions. because Fırat looked at me and said, “I’m trying to get a balloon ride for us if the weather allows.” I could jump with joy, but I pretend I did not care. Deep down inside, my heart was beating fast with hope.

We found a hotel, and to my surprise, my room had made me feel as I was inside the outdoor museum of Göreme. The Tourist Hotel was perfect. I loved staying there. At night, I opened the window, and there was: the moon and the star, I was back to a magical world. A knock on the door makes a return to reality.

“Come on. We need to have a quick dinner. I have a surprise for you.” I was always afraid about Firat surprises, but not scared enough to reject them.

After dinner, Fırat said he would take me to one of these shows for tourists. He argued the one he had chosen was pretty reasonable and had a bit of Turkish culture, especially traditional dances. It was quite fun, mainly to observe the tourists looking at those beautiful women. Even been a show created to attract tourist, I was able to see much of the Turkish folk culture. Dances, instruments, music, and even ritual like the Dervishes or the brides’ dance. 

Our return to the hotel was something special. It was freezing outside, the moon was bright, full, contrasting with the dark of the night, stars blinking here and there, made a perfect companion to the silvered moon. It was a fairy scenario, the Cd Firat gave me was playing, we stopped a little in the roadside, admiring the view and naturally took some photos.  

22nd February 2011.

No, it was that time I would fly in a balloon over Cappadocia. Firat was keeping this topic out of our conversation. I was a bit frustrated but tried to stay calm. We had a delicious breakfast in the hotel restaurant. “It’s cold outside.” Firat concerned about my clothes was touching seemed he saw me as a fragile woman who he needs to care all the time.

“I know, don’t worry, I will be warm.”

Sometimes, not to say many times, I am a bit naïve. Firat told me we were visiting the Love Valley, I was expecting something more, how I speak, near to the feeling, but I was surprised for something a bit different. Letting the car on the road shoulders, we steep in a small hill, I wasn’t seeing anything special until we reached the top. A forest of rock formation scattered through the valley below. “This is the Love Valley.” I began to laugh.

The Love Valley was called that, not because was associated with some spiritual feeling, but because of the enormous phallic-like formation, a homage to male fertility. 

“Yeah, people really are funny. Love and sex are interlaced on their mind.” I could say while laughing. “You should call this Sex Valley, not Love Valley.” Firat kept silence. I knew sex was a taboo topic between us. His conservatism about sex and woman was irritating sometimes.

We left Love Valley to another one: Paşabağ Valley or Monks Valley. In this we find the most beautiful Fairy Chimneys, as they call them, most having a cap on top. The formation is a result of erosion in two different types of rocks. We continue with our exploration, now the village carved into the stone, the name: Zelve. The most interesting is that it was used until 1950. The people only left then because it was starting to crumble.

The idea of people living there, sleeping, cooking, bathing fascinated me. We walked among the rocks, climbing the ancient stairs. We entered the place where they probably grind grain, to made bread. They had an oven just right there. It was fascinating.

A shortstop in the museum store brought more surprises. Books, souvenirs, and a Turkish man who was going to Brazil next week. He was excited about the country, asking me about who was the climate, the cities, and the people there. Another concerned he had was about the food. We talked for some minutes, and when I met Firat again, he was a bit upset about the time I spend chatting with a stranger. 

From there we went to another gem excavated in stone:  Çavuşin. To reach the church, I needed to climb the stairs and more stairs. Always on top when it regards to Anatolia. Returning from the church, Fırat decided to stop for a juice. I was a bit upset with him, mostly because of his anterior behaviour in the museum store. We had, let say, an acid exchange of opinions about what is appropriate to a woman and what is not. I refuse the juice, choosing to walk around the small restaurant located in the base of the hill where the church was carved. Suddenly, the man who served the juice offers to show the pottery “factory” existing over there.

I had read and heard some stories about the ceramics production in Cappadocia, but now I had the opportunity to put my hands and make some an object – a small bowl. Firat was surprised with my ability to modelling the pot and how I was having fun there. 

After my artisan time, we visited the shop and bought something. A replica of a Hittite wine bottle. One thing caught my attention: they went to significant efforts to reproduce objects and drawings from the history and culture of that region. Research books were open upon the painting tables. That impressed me.

From there we went to a restaurant, not any restaurant, but a carved in stone one. Too bad, he was under frantic activity for an event would happen at night. Still, we got excellent food in a private room. It was great.

After lunch, our next stop was a carpet store. The Turkish rugs are magnificent, I had seen them in İstanbul; however, I wasn’t prepared for the lesson I had and the beauty which was presented to me. I came back eager to have one. (The carpets had a post)

Kaymakli, the city underground. In times of war, people used to escape to these genuine underground labyrinths. There are several towns like this in the region and connected by a tunnels system. If you could not imagine what was like living in houses dug in the rocks, so would that be like living in houses dug under the ground? I have no phobia in tight places. But it was tough to walk around. After the underground city one more visit:  The Open Skies museum of Göreme. There we had some excellent examples of churches, houses, and a convent with its cafeterias. The place was beautiful, even if it to see was looking outside this world.

The day two was finally over until now nothing about my balloon experience

23rd February 2011

Third day in Kapadokya. Yesterday, I was a little frustrated because the balloon ride did not happen. Fırat even hadn’t talked about it. He only said that late at night, he would meet some friends and see what he could get. When he came back and said everything was set, despite not knowing if the weather would be proper to flight. So I had one of my sleepless nights. Anxiety always gets me that way. Flying a balloon is not new to me. I flew more than once in the company of a boyfriend who was a balloonist. Only the flights took place in the region of Atibaia, São Paulo State, Brazil, which is nice, but it is not far as beautiful as the Kapadokya.

I was awakened by a “You have five minutes to dress up, they’re coming for us.” The heart raced, and of course, everything went wrong. I did not find about my clothes, gloves, hat, boots. I looked like a child on my first day at school.  Finally, I got ready, and we ran to meet Fırat. The van was waiting for us. We drove about 300 meters and got into a kind of “field” where some people were inflating the balloons. What a feeling!

To my surprise, I won a piece of cake and çay as a courtesy. While nursing by çay, I walked around the place, observing the frenetic work to prepare the balloons to fly. The fire made a beautiful contrast with the sunrise, and the sounds of people talking and music transformed the place in a rave. There was almost a hundred people there and five balloons. I was intrigued by how many of us will fit in the large basket I was seen just a few metres from me.

When the balloons were ready to go, we entered the basket, and I count how many people were there. 23. 23 of us were tightly fitted inside the place, the basket looked fragile, and I was a bit apprehensive about it.  The usual precautions and the balloon leave the ground. Softly, the dance begins. I count nearly a dozen of them there, flying side by side in a well-rehearsed choreography. And the pilot goes telling what we’re seeing. Love Valley and other formations are beneath us. He approaches the ground just to show his control over the balloon, at least regarding going up and down.

Be there, with the sound of the wind, and the other colourful balloons passing by, was incredible. The noisy Korean tourists and their cameras where enough to make the silence less present and the wonder less impressive. I had my earphones and iPod, the music playing was “Burning in the Skies” [Linking Park], and even the skies weren’t burning, my mind was. Everything about that winter flight was exceptional. The red, blue and white balloon. The fire moving from red to yellow and then to blue. Crossing valleys and building from the high changed my perspective from the Cappadocia.

After 30 minutes of flying, we were said to hang in something because the descend would be more stringent. It was actually fun. The pilot tried to leave it more exciting warning how dangerous it was and needed to be careful handle. I felt totally “cool” after jumping from a rock, getting stuck in the snow, facing roads with curves of more than 180 degrees that sometimes ended up unannounced, walk along the edge of abysses, a balloon landing was “piece of cake”.

On the ground, champagne was waiting for the baptism of the initiates. Photos with the group were taken, a diploma giving as a memory of our experience, then we were ready to go back to our hotels.

Returning to the hotel, we had a quick breakfast and left for another visit. 

We retook the road, now I was going to a place the guide insisted it was “belissimo” (beautiful, with an Italian accent and everything else). My vision from the car window makes that possibility very real. I saw dramatic skies in blue, dark grey and white clouds “We’ll see a valley”, Firat spoke out suddenly. “A beautiful valley that was inhabited long ago. Full of churches. You’ll love it”. 

Ihlara Vadisi or Ihlara Valley was really all Firat had said. But, first, we need to go down, down a lot. “If you climb this all later without complaining I will give you a gift.” The guide said. I felt like a child going to be vaccinated being promised a lollypop as a reward for good behaviour. I smiled and looked to the steps that lead to the bottom of the valley. “How many steps?” I asked. “More than 300” He answered. 

In the bottom of the valley ran a noisy green river, running fast as it was aiming to meet the sea sooner than later. The misty made the surround mysterious and fairytale-like. The fact we were alone there, no other people were visiting the place at that time, make everything much more surreal. I was backing in time, entering all the building once had people being born, growing, and dying. Churches were prayers were made for health, happiness, or a good harvest. Each painting in the carved walls was a reminder of how the times and religion had changed. From beautiful saints’ portraits in the beginning, then denigrated and erased when the faith refuse icons and saints’ images. 

Questions were popping up on my mind. Questions like: How would it be to live in a valley? How do they travel from one place to another? How children lived there? And the elderly, how they lived? What would be the average length of people’s lives? So many questions. Fırat smiled to each one saying sometimes I make him remember from small school kids he worked with. Always asking questions, always wanted to know and more, always asking questions he did not have the answer. I laugh.

We left the valley after two hours of intense exploration. I made the stairs (counting almost 400 steps) and felt absolutely victorious when returned to the top. Now we were following to see the crater of a volcano.  The place where is the lake inside the crater of an extinct volcano was beautiful, even now I can recall Firat speaking out “Belissimo”.

From there, we went back to see more valleys. I even can’t remember the name of all. That would be our last day in Cappadocia. To commemorate we bought a bottle of wine, some pistachios, seeds and nuts. Parking the car in a high place, near the border to a valley, we watched a tempest coming and taking the valley on its arms. Wetting the ground and shaking the small bushes around. The darkness in the skies and the beauty of the valley below made a unique spectacle. 

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