How is it that one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world, the Cappadocia region in central Anatolia, is relatively unknown outside Turkey? Its claim to fame is due to a bunch of rocks. Not just any rocks but a UNESCO protected collection of formations known as fairy chimneys on a high volcanic plateau, which is scattered with surreal statuesque silhouettes carved out from wind and rain over eons. Sandstone erosion has left these precariously balanced boulders of basalt perched on narrow bases, ready to topple at any moment.
This rugged area was important to early Orthodox Christianity and home to hundreds of rock churches and monasteries hewn from the soft volcanic stone, and even underground cities, which sheltered thousands of early Christians from persecution. Sculpted by monks, priests and master stone cutters, it’s a dizzying miracle of nature made useful by man.
Its vibrant colours change with the seasons. Blanketed in snow through winter; a checkerboard of crimson roses and gurgling fountains in spring; and full of feral olive trees that have been allowed to run wild inhabited by nightingales come summer – there’s more than a touch of magic here.
The best way to explore these unique structures is with a private guide who can make sense of what you see. The kingdom of Cappadocia was established in Central Anatolia after the death of Alexander the Great and in Persian it means the land of beautiful horses. All the valleys in the region flow into the River Kızılırmak (Red River) and the castle at Uçhisar stands watchful on a hilltop keeping check over the long valleys and fairy chimneys.
The main tourist path consists of Aksaray’s Ihlara Valley, the Göreme National Park and underground cities in Nevşehir and Soğanlı Valley in Kayseri. Passing through the incredible Pasabag Valley to the subterranean city of Kaymakli, dating back to the Byzantine times, there’s a raw sense of life on the edge.
Man’s ingenious capacity for survival against attacks from marauding invaders is felt on the hairs on the back of your neck as you wander through the caves and rocks around the Goreme Open Air Museum. This is the advent of Christianity as lived by a community of church and monastery dwellers and intricate, well-preserved frescos survive to this day on its walls and ceilings.
It’s surprisingly easy to get to and only a short flight from Istanbul. Kayseri airport is just an hour’s drive from the ancient citadel of Uchisar, where the obvious option for a bed for the night is in a luxurious cave hotel, of which there are quite a few. Humans have used these fairy chimneys as dwellings throughout history, carving them into homes and places of worship. There are traces of civilization over millennia.
Located a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Uçhisar on the site of a thousand-year-old former monastery, the Argos is an inspiringly beautiful boutique hotel consisting of six stone mansions connected by flower filled courtyards and underground tunnels. Its 53 rooms are a delicious concoction of exposed stone walls, antiques, Turkish rugs and open fireplaces. And for a table with a view The Seki restaurant’s outdoor terrace captures splendid views of the moon-like plateau looking out over the natural fortresses of Başhisar and Ortahisar.
Apart from the view, their recipe for success is quite simple: fresh local ingredients interpreted with contemporary cooking techniques to create unique flavours. A gourmet journey of duck confit wrapped in chard leaves with spicy apricot sauce and roasted almonds; followed by lamb cutlets with grape molasses, firik pilaf and fresh garden herbs; topped off with a traditional quince dessert. Dishes are complemented with Anatolian wines. In fact it’s an area renowned for wine making and Kalecik Karası and Syrah grapes are lovingly tended in terraces all around Cappadocia.
There are over 5,000 kilometres of tunnels in the underground city below Argos, connecting mansions via a subterranean warren of passages, hollowed out living spaces and shelters, one of which houses the private wine cellars.
Argos in Cappadocia is beyond postcards, photo opportunities, and souvenir shops. It’s a magical spot that steps you into another world. Another time.