Walking the Valleys of Cappadocia
After landing in Istanbul and visiting its sights, the majority of foreign tourists in Turkey make a bee-line for Cappadocia, not only reknowned for its curiously beautiful landscapes, but also one of the cradles of civilisation. Erosion by water over countless millenia has carved the tufa pleateau, formed from the ash of massive volcanic eruptions, into the valleys and strange formations so loved by tourists. The soft rock has long attracted troglodytic peoples who sought protection by carving out homes in the sides of cliffs and even underground, from 18th century BC Hittites to the Christians of the first millenium AD. The latter carved out hundreds of churches and monasteries, decorated with murals and these, together with the fairy chimneys and other water-carved rock formations create a spectacular blend of nature and culture. We definitely had to walk through some of the valleys of Cappadocia.

The volcanos that made Cappadocia (3253m Mt Hasan)

The volcanos that made Cappadocia (3916m Mt Erciyes)

Our bus left Antalya late in the morning, heading east across the fertile coastal plain, with its spreading tourist complexes, before turning north to cross the rugged southern Taurus Mountains. By the time that we had descended onto the Anatolian Plateau, with its plains, rolling hills and fields of wheat, just turning from green to gold, the skies were once again full of dark clouds. We passed though the city of Konya, spread out like a carpet on a flat grassy plain. It was a complete change in landscape – from rugged mountains to wide flat plains - as our bus pushed on to reach Aksaray.

Here we were met by Yunus Bey, who brought us to his pension in the village of Ihlara after 9 hours of travel. After a superb meal of crispy-skinned fried trout, we finally got to bed – time to dream of our coming walks in Cappadocia – the land of the beautiful horses. For the first time since arriving in Turkey we slept with a blanket and it felt good.

Storm clouds over the mosque at Konya

Ihlara Valley (13 km, 60m ascent, 290m descent)
The rain that greeted us on our arrival yesterday had passed on and the morning was cool and clear. Today we would walk with a young Turkish guide, Nur, who knew the area but spoke neither English nor French, leaving a bit of a communication gap. It seemed a bit like a local employment plan, but as has been the case, we just went with the flow of things. The three of us set out from the pension and walked through the streets of Ihlara to the rim of the valley. As soon as we had our first glimpse, we knew that this was a walk that we would enjoy.

Start of the Ihlara Valley Walk
The valley, or rather mini-gorge, curved away from us, smoothly cut rock walls lining a richly vegetated corridor through which flowed the snow-melt swollen waters of the Melendiz River – such a contrast from the flattish almost barren grassy plateau through which it ran.

Deep in the Ihlara Valley

Poplar grove in the Ihlara Valley
We dropped quickly to the floor of the gorge to begin a long meandering journey along its length, as the track followed the river course beneath shady trees, lush grass and herb-fields and a procession of wildflowers blooming red, blue, yellow and white. As we passed, the little dragons sunning themselves on the rock face scattered in every direction. The birds were singing, the frogs were croaking and the bright blue dragonflies were flitting by – it was a serene setting. Over the next few kilometres, we would walk this rich landscape, eyes constantly being drawn upwards to the sight of troglodyte dwellings cut into the smooth tuff walls of the gorge.

Wall and ceiling frescos in the Kokar Church

Even more spectacular were the series of tiny churches cut into the rock walls between the 9th and 11th centuries by the Byzantine Christians, each with its own unique style and beautiful frescos painted on ceilings and walls. We stopped to visit the Kokar, Pürenliseki and Ağaçalti Churches admiring not only the intricate artwork, but the skill in carving these vaulted rooms into solid rock.

Carved interior room of the 9th century
Kokar Church

Entrance to the 6th century
Pürenliseki Church

Interior of the Pürenliseki Church

Interior of the the 9th century Ağaçalti Church

The swollen waters of the Melendiz River

Domed ceiling of Ağaçalti Church

Fresco-covered arches of the
11th century Yilanli Church

Entrance to 11th century Sümbüllü Church

Pews carved out of rock in
Yilanli Church

Domed nave in Sümbüllü Church

Turkish tea-time in the Ihlara Valley

Following the swollen waters of the river, we reached Sümbüllü Church, with its impressive carved facade and multi-levelled interior, before crossing the bridge to check out Yilanli Church, cut high into the cliffs on the far side of the Melendiz. The frescos, displaying biblical scenes were stunning. Heading on, we came across a trackside tea-stall and stopped for a glass of hot çay while soaking up the atmosphere of Ihlara.
When we left the tea-house, the valley began to open out a bit, with steep grassy slopes, before once again reforming its tight and sheer-walled ramparts, shot-holed with the entrances and windows of houses cut into the soft rock high above the valley floor. We climbed up to visit one last church, Kirkdamalti, again with impressive stucco frescos. The sad part was that much of these frescos had been graffitied by people writing over the artwork – the sadder part was that much of this was 19th century vandalism – modern Greek scribbling over old Greek frescoes.  Why would you do that to your own cultural heritage?

Cliffs honeycombed with cave dwellings

Path beneath the cliffs of Ihlara

Fresco at Kirkdamalti Church
Leaving the church, we continued on along a wide path lined with coppiced olives that followed the river to the village of Belisirma, where we stopped for a bite to eat below yet more sheer tuff cliffs and troglodyte dwellings. As we ate, we tried to imagine what life was like in this valley 1000 years ago.

View down the valley from Kirkdamalti Chuch

Troglodyte dwellings near Belisirma

A tranquil stretch of the valley

Leaving the village, we entered a broader part of the valley, where villagers tended their vegetable plots on the rich alluvial soil. As the valley became even wider, it opened out onto a grassy area where cattle and sheep grazed and some of the locals were having a barbecue beneath the shade of a coppiced olive grove. We were getting an idea of life in the valley now, if not that of 1000 years ago – perhaps it is only the cry of the muezzin instead of the sound of church bells that differs.

Broad reach of the Melendiz River
Once again the valley narrowed into a tighter gorge, the sculptured rock walls dotted with carved cliff-houses towered above us, glowing orange in the sunlight, while the brown-green river babbled away beneath us – it was a wilder landscape than previously. However, just as quickly as it narrowed it opened out into another broad flat filled with vines and fruit trees. In the distance, above the vines, dark tuff cones clustered on the lighter slopes above – we were entering a very different Cappadocian landscape.

Path along the Melendiz

Cone formations near Selime

The western end of Ihlara Valley


Cliff dwellings

The site of Selime Monastery

A short wander through the vines and along the overgrown river bank brought us to a bridge on the main road near Sileme and the end of the Ihlara Valley Walk. But if you ever do this, don’t stop here, as a magnificent surprise waits a few hundred metres up the road. During the 8th-10th century, the Byzantine Christians carved a huge monastery and small cathedral into the heart of the dark cone formations and natural rock castle at Sileme.

A passageway within the monastery

View from the monastery platform

We explored its vaulted chambers and rooms with our guide, Nur – an amazing complex cut into the rock, exposed in parts by rock falls, with superb views out of the countryside framed by rock windows. It was a fitting finale to one of the best day walks that we have done.

Monastery chambers cut into the rock

View over Selime from the monastery

Pillars of the subterranean cathedral

The interior of the cathedral - carved into solid rock

Even then our day of open-mouthed surprises was not over. We were picked up by our pension host and, on the way to our next overnight stop, we called in to visit the underground city of Derinkuyu – eight levels of rooms, narrow stairways and corridors, airshafts, even a wine press and stables dug into the soft tufa. It was begun by the Hittites almost 4000 years ago and could hold 5000 people (10000 at a pinch if you were a Byzantine Christian and the Arab armies were coming). It was an absolutely amazing place, but not one for the claustrophobic.

Climbing a passage between levels in
the underground city of Derinkuyu

A room in the lower levels of Derinkuyu

Finally, after this great introduction to Cappadocia, we checked into our pension at Mustafapaşa (aka Sonosa to the Anatolian Greeks who lived here until the 1920s) to discover that our room was actually carved in to the rocks behind – a chance to become latter-day troglodytes for one night.

A modern cave dwelling - our pension
in Mustafapaşa
That night, as we were sitting around a glowing brazier drinking Turkish coffee and chatting with our hosts and some French guests, the owner’s sister told us that she was a trainee balloon pilot with one of the local companies. The fair Nello’s eyes lit up and we quickly found ourselves booked in for a Saturday morning flight, with a nice discount to boot. There always seems to be a surprise around the corner in Cappadocia.

Gomeda Valley (12 km, 330m ascent, 210m descent)

A local watches us pass by
Our day started with a surprise – no tomato or cucumber on the breakfast plate – the first time in our 4 weeks here. After that, things reverted to normal. We were once again on our self-guiding own, as the fair Nello and I set off to climb rapidly up from the village square and leave Mustafapaşa behind. Armed with our copious trip notes, we strolled along a dirt country road across the flat dry landscape, turning down several offers of a lift from passing tractor drivers, who clearly thought us mad for choosing to walk.

Topping up at a spring
After filling up our water bottles at a spring, we dropped down a cobbled road to pass through a small ravine lined with rounded white formations of tuff – the soft rock formed from volcanic ash. It was a taste of our course for most of the day. The road reverted to dirt and led us up on the other side to a high point on the plateau, from where we could see the strangely eroded course of the Gomeda Valley as it cuts its way through the tuff strata – a long and ragged ribbon of white rock.

Low valley near Mustafapaşa
Heading across the Cappadocian plateau toward Gomeda Valley
Continuing on the road we descended steadily, until a point where the guide notes said to follow a track towards a cave and down to visit some old rock churches. We did, but nothing else seemed to follow – we saw some nice examples of troglodyte houses built over a rock arch, but nothing after the cave seemed to fit the notes, so we retreated back to the road and followed it a bit further.

Rock dwellings in the Gomeda Valley

Interior of a rock dwelling

Ruins of a byzantine church

Archway in the valley

It passed the ruins of an old church and a doorway leading to a very narrow tunnel that descended into the bowels of the earth (the small underground city mentioned by the notes, perhaps, but again nothing else seemed to fit).

After 10-15 minutes of knowing where we were, but not knowing exactly where we should be heading, we abandoned our efforts to locate the church below the cave and descended directly to the river to pick up the track and start following it downstream, relying more on the red dot and arrow way-marking than our guide notes. It was an interesting few minutes, but we were back on course, though probably via a different route.

The river track wound its way along a sometimes overgrown path, crossing the stream several times on small stick bridges and passing beneath large rock arches where the stream had undermined the tuff. On either side, the white eroded rock formations framed the narrow valley. It was a warm and pleasant morning – the birds were singing, the lizards were sunbaking on the rocks and the butterflies were flitting from shrub to shrub.

Emerging from the underground chambers

Tan-coloured cliff face

Passing a small cultivated field, we picked up a tractor track, generally following its course as it wandered from one side of the stream to the other. Soon the valley opened out and we climbed up to a low sandy ridge. On the opposite side of the valley, a series of troglodyte high-rises were cut into the cliff space, a spectacular sight.

The lush valley landscape

This was the start of the Gomeda rock villages, and for the next section of track, we passed many such dwellings – at times the valley was tightly enclosed by low rock walls and at times it was much broader, until finally it opened out to a grassy bowl backed by a wall of grey and white cliffs completely honeycombed with rock dwellings.

It was the perfect place to sit in the grass and enjoy our lunch beneath these incredible works of a people long gone.

Passing beneath the white cliffs of Gomeda

Dovecotes carved into the rock face

A trogolodyte high-rise complex

Climbing up to the entry of a house

The complexity of the troglodyte dwellings

The rockface troglodyte village of Gomeda

Now isn't that cute - the baby tortoise I mean

View back over the site of Gomeda village - carved into the rock face

Once we finished lunch, we quickly reached the point where we climbed out of the Gomeda Valley on a wide dirt road, crossing the dry grasslands of the plateau and another small ravine. Ahead the sky was becoming distinctly darker as an afternoon thunderstorm tried to head us off at the pass. We pushed on quickly in the direction of Ortahisar village, spurred on by the sight of its volcanic plug castle standing out brightly against the darkening sky and by the odd peal of thunder closing in.

Triptych of an approaching storm
We reached our pension, itself carved into the rock, and settled down on the terrace to admire the many more rock dwellings on the gorge walls across from us. We had just started the obligatory Efes at the end of walk when the first drops of rain began to patter on the terrace roof – how sweet rain sounds when you have just avoided being out in it.

The castle rock at Ortahisar

Storm clouds over Ortahisar

View of 3916m Mt Erciyes from the castle at Ortahisar

A ray of sun lights up the castle
The walk today was both similar and different to yesterday – similar in that it followed a valley cut through the tuff strata of Cappadocia, but one with a different type of rock, a different landscape and different archaeology. It made us wonder what else Cappadocia might have in store for us.

The White and Pigeon Valleys (11.5 km, 330m ascent, 260m descent)
Grey clouds were still hanging around from the thunderstorms of the previous day when we set out from our pension in Ortahisar for the short drive to the start of our day’s walk.  We drove by Göreme, the tourist heart of Cappadocia, and stopped a little later at the side of the road running past the White Valley. The day’s goal was to walk up the valley to the village of Uchisar and then back down the neighbouring Pigeon Valley to Göreme.
We headed off down the wide dirt road towards the mouth of the White Valley looking for a wooden sign that marked the start of the walk, as indicated on our self-guided notes. Alas, by the time we realised that such a sign was missing, we were well into the valley itself, surrounded by some of the more spectacular fairy chimneys of the region.

An impressive rock spire

The entry to White Valley

A cluster of fairy chimneys
As directions are of little valley without a starting point, I pocketed the guide and took a bearing on the first of a few waypoints that it gave. We then followed our own course that gravitated towards that waypoint – navigation is actually quite easy in the White Valley – there is a tractor track that leads into a stream / footpath running along the valley floor, with numerous side tracks that climb up from it to explore or view different parts of the fantastic rock forms that line the valley, before dropping back down to this central spine, and so on.

White Valley landscape

Dappled sunlight on the fairy chimneys

Following the river course

Homage to Notre Dame

In parts the creek had worn a 2-3m deep gulley in valley floor, fun to walk along as it passed through tunnels and arches, but fairly restrictive on viewing the fairy chimneys and white rock walls, smoothed and etched by water erosion. Wherever a track headed out, we followed it to get the grandiose panoramic views, and thus slowly worked our way up the valley.

The eroded forms of the cliffs lining the White Valley

In an natural tunnel of the river

A massive rock cone

The cliffs lining the upper part of the valley were glaringly white. Eventually we climbed the track leading up this bare side wall to the plateau to be greeted by the fresh orange juice salesman on his motor bike. As we quaffed the sweet chilled juice, we admired the views back over the length of the White Valley and ahead to Uchisar and its rock castle.

The whiteness of the upper White Valley

The volcanic plug above Uchisar - for 4000 years a fortress

Graves with a view on top of Uchisar fortress

On the Plateau above White Valley with Bozdağ Mountain in the background

Reaching the village, we climbed up a paved road to the square beneath the castle for quick snack before ascending the castle itself and taking in the panoramic views over the Cappadocian landscape.

The view over Göreme from Uchisar fortress
From the castle, we walked down through the village streets in the opposite direction before taking a very steep and narrow track that descended into Pigeon Valley, with its garish yellow coloured dovecotes and white cliffs, splashed with patches of purple wildflowers.

A yellow-tinted fairy chimney

Dove cotes carved into rock

Uchisar and the upper Pigeon Valley

Fairy chimney high-rises

Rock dwellings below Uchisar

Following the river through a natural tunnel

Reaching the lush valley floor way below Uchisar, we followed the river through a long natural tunnel and past garden plots and tiny vineyards beneath more fantastically shaped yellow cones with troglodyte houses and dovecotes.

Looking down the gorge in Pigeon Valley

The layered cliffs of Pigeon Valley
At one point we missed a turn to reach a deep gorge plunging suddenly down from the valley – an error well worth it for the view. However, the track ahead had a dangerously exposed section on the cliff edge. We met up with a Belgian couple also contemplating how to get past this obstacle, when we noticed an old peasant – perhaps he might understand and point us in the right direction. We were in for our surprise of the day and a lesson in not judging people too quickly.

The "hidden" valley

Mushroom rock

Ahmet not only spoke English and some French, but he also gave us a botany lesson as he guided the four of us out past the upper end of the gorge and over his “panoramic route” that he had helped blaze. Panoramic – spectacularly so – but safer? That was debatable, as we negotiated the steep track on steps cut into the tuff, a fixed rope descent and a passage across a razorback ridge, all high above the valley floor – my exposure meter was nearing the red-line in parts.  It was a great experience and gave us some views other tourists would never see, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to try this on their own.

Ahmet and the fair Nello on his "panoramic route"

When we reached the valley floor and wide tractor track, Ahmet said good-bye and returned to tend his vines. We pushed on along the track though the tiny fruit orchards and into Göreme to find our pension for the night and complete the walk – yet another incredible and different aspect of the Cappadocian landscape.

Ahmet leads us on a tricky descent

Curious rock dwelling (homage to Edvard Munch)

The lower Pigeon Valley

Cathedral-like Cliffs in the Pigeon Valley

The fairy chimneys of Göreme

It hadn't been a long walk by any stretch, but in these spectacular valleys so much is crammed in to such short distances. This gave us time to check out Göreme, the tourist hub of Cappadocia. Göreme, itself, is the home to some incredible rock dwellings carved into fairy chimneys, many of which have been renovated and given a new lease on life. Even part of our pension was built into a fairy chimney. That night, at dinner, we celebrated walking the White Valley with a glass of Cappadocian white –  I wonder what we will be drinking tomorrow after we walk through the Red and Rose Valleys.

Meanderings in the Red and Rose Valleys (8 km, 290m ascent, 290m descent)
After our early morning balloon flight, we had a late start for our final walk in Cappadocia. Luckily it was quite a short walk that would take us through the Kizilçukur and Güllüdere Valleys, not far from Göreme. Given their alternate names of Red and Rose Valleys, we were looking forward to seeing some different and colourful landscapes.

View over the lower valley to distant Uchisar

These two valleys have been etched out by erosion from the side of Bozdağ Mountain, the large flat mesa that we had seen yesterday from the heights of Uchisar. The late start also meant that the cloud cover had begun to disperse and increasingly the sun was gaining the sky.

The beautiful pink and white banding of the Rose Valley
Our pension owner dropped us off at the start of the walk at the end of an earth road not far from the village of Cavuşin, to where our guided notes told us to walk. “The track is that way” he said – it seemed to match the notes for the start of the walk so we set off – only to realise that he had directed us to the wrong valley entrance, Rose not Red. Rather than walk back over flat country, and with our past experience of realising the notes were at best a general guide,  we decided to climb over the high plateau between the two valleys to find a known point on the track and reverse-engineer the route.

Sharp grey ridge in the lower valley

The site of Haçli Church in a red tuff cone

Altar area of Haçli Church

White tuff walls of the ravine
The known point was Haçli Kilise (The Church of the Cross), cut into the base of a large rock cone. After a quick visit to see its carved ceilings and 9th century byzantine frescoes (just in case we never found it again) we climbed up to a small rock window to get our bearings over this richly eroded landscape. The different coloured strata formed from the ash of different volcanic eruptions were fantastic - greys and whites lower down the valleys, changing to shades of tan, pink and red, with a dash of yellow, higher up the slopes. Feeling more confident about where we were in the landscape, we headed downhill between steep white rock formations into a small, but lush, ravine and a clearly described track junction.

View of the track through a rock window

The Red Valley and Haçli Church

Ah ha! the Archway - now we are on track
Having verified the route by locating an archway in the streambed some 100m further on, we reversed direction and started to follow the track, this time with guide notes that matched it.

Facade of a troglodyte dwelling

A decorated dove cote

Visitors from Pigeon Valley
A short climb in the right direction from the junction past fruit trees and tiny vineyards brought us to a white rock with a series of windows and doors cut in – not another ancient church we thought. However, on entering the unimposing facade of Sütunlu Church, we discovered the most amazing sight – climbing up some steps we found ourselves in a room with thick pillars, decorated arches and a 10m high vaulted ceiling, all carved inside the rock by hand centuries ago. It was the most unique church we had seen.

Hand-carved cathedral ....

.... simply amazing

Leaving the church, we climbed steeply up onto the bare white rock above it, where the track picked a meandering course though erosion channels  to a viewpoint over the small ravine from where we had come. To our right was Haçli Church again – we were about to complete our first mini-loop.

Back at Haçli Church, we climbed higher up the ridge above to find a carved rock room – shade for lunch with magnificent views over the colourful formations of the Red Valley, layered strata near the top of the mesa and rippling red formations in the water-etched sub strata with the odd dash of yellow.

Intricately eroded white and pink ash strata in the Red Valley

The ridge between the Red and Rose Valleys

On the lower slopes of Bozdağ Mountain

After lunch, we climbed a little further to a platform between the two valleys on the slopes of Bozdağ Mountain, our high point for the day and an opportunity for a 360° survey of this landscape. To the west, the superb colours of the Red Valley that we had been admiring over lunch, to the east the more subtle shades, but no less wonderfully shaped rock formations of the Rose Valley, to the south the stratified layers of the mesa and to the north, a view over the distant whiter valleys receding to the silhouette of Uchisar fortress on the horizon.

Westward panorama over the Red Valley

Eastward panorama over the Rose Valley

From here there were two options for the descent. We tried the first, but declared it too dangerous, when it started to descend via a one-person wide rock shute on very steep and loose earth. The second was marginally better and we picked our way carefully down a steep and treacherous track into the Rose Valley.

Dry river bed passing beneath a rock arch

The beauty of the Rose Valley

Light at the end of the tunnel

Approaching Agathangelus Church
At the bottom, we crossed some small vineyards to reach a damp stream bed that had carved its way through a tunnel and series of arches – it was our route out of the valley, stopping only to explore the ruins of the 6th century St Agathangelus church, another troglodyte church with beautiful reliefs carved into the rock ceiling.

Carved ceiling reliefs in Agathangelus Church

The hand-carved interior of the church

The stream bed soon morphed into a tractor track that led us out of the valley between white rock walls to rejoin our initial route coming in – we had completed another larger loop in our meanderings.

The spectacular walking was now over and we followed the dirt road back to Cavuşin with its old village built into the tuff rock – superb even it was mostly destroyed by an earthquake many years ago, exposing the interiors of the cliff-houses.

In the end, it didn’t really matter what track we took as the whole area of the two adjoining valleys is spectacular and perhaps it is more pleasant to just walk and appreciate the landscape than to have your nose stuck in some indecipherable guide notes. Now, what wine will we have to celebrate the end of this walk – a red or a rose?

Cavuşin village - new and old