Monday, December 21, 2015

No Country for Old Women

Cappadocia may be the strangest place I’ve ever seen. Its main draw, tourist-wise, is bizarre rock formations created when volcanic ash hardened into a soft rock called tuff and was covered in places by lava. As the lava wore away, the soft rock underneath was exposed to forces of erosion that sculpted it into fantastic pillars, cones, and columns. In some places, the rock itself is the draw. In others, it is what local people living there did to the rock.

Our hotel was in a cave. I’d hidden this fact from Phil and Ben, and the look on their faces as we
pulled up (after quite a while lost, of course) made me very happy. Built into the elevated rock wall in the town of Urgup, the hotel was extremely comfortable and truly unique. Our host gave us tea on our arrival and told us that he used to be a mixologist, winning awards for his cocktails in Washington and Brazil. Now, apparently, he is a hotel owner married to a Muslim woman (he is Kurdish), and he no longer shakes or stirs. He pointed us toward a nearby restaurant, where we had the best meal of our vacation. Phil’s dish was a lamb stew baked in a clay pot that was broken to release its contents. Our waiter was quite pleased that we recognized the music playing – not a Turkish local, but Canadian/Scottish folksinger Loreena McKennit.

Phil continued his self-destructive awe at the beauty of Turkey by whacking himself on the head twice and walking into a traffic cone, bruising his shin. But again, that was because there was just too much to look at to waste time staring at the ground. In the outdoor museum of Goreme, we wandered through a thick, cold fog that had glazed every tree branch and grass blade with silver, gazing at the churches and hermit caves carved into the fantastically shaped tuff. In this site, there were monasteries housing desert fathers, and also places where hermits lived outside any religious order, depending on the kindness of the community to survive  Some of the Goreme churches were decorated with frescoes from the tenth century that have survived the centuries virtually intact. As we walked (up many, many flights of stairs; my legs were getting very tired), the sun began to struggle through the fog, creating eerie, beautiful light effects. By the time we’d seen everything, the sun was shining brightly, though not warmly (it was not much more than 27 degrees all day).
After Goreme, we drove through scenery that is nearly impossible to describe but made us think of a cross between Star Wars (part of which was filmed nearby) and
Dr. Seuss. We passed fairy chimneys, which look like arrowheads (or male organs), once believed to have been inhabited by fairies, and conical rocks, and pedestal rocks, tuff with slabs of lava perched on top. We were heading toward the Ihlara Valley, having heard that there were more strange rock formations there, many of which had been carved into churches.

We pulled into a parking lot in the tiny village of Salime (population: 8) and were immediately greeted by a guide, a man who, along with his wife and baby, are 3 of the 8 villagers. He showed us the town’s thirteenth-century mosque. It was in a building
that looked like a shed, but inside it was strewn with layered carpets and decorated lavishly. Then he took us up the very steep (my poor legs!) hill behind the village to see the Salime Cathedral, a stone church carved into the side of a conical lava tuft, with surviving frescoes. I didn’t actually go in because it would have involved sliding down a rock hill and balancing over a narrow rock bridge. My inner physical therapist insisted I wait on the other side, but Phil and Ben took photos.  Our guide lamented the state of business, echoing the Istanbul silversmith’s earlier claim that the political situation had had a terrible effect on tourism.
We drove on to the gorge where the other churches were located and were disappointed to find that we couldn’t drive along it (well, I was disappointed); we had to walk. It was 400 steps down and a much crueler 400 steps back up. I went about 200 steps, marveling at the views, before deciding
that if I went all the way down I wouldn’t be able to return. Phil and Ben continued to the bottom of the canyon, where a chill river ran and frescoed rock churches dotted the cliffs.

That night we returned to the same restaurant. It was just as good a second time, and the waiter put on Loreena McKennit for us again (we are all very fond of her music). We’ve discovered a Turkish liqueur called raki, licorice flavored, that is mixed with water to become cloudy. It’s much like Greek ouzo and a very nice way to end a meal.
We checked out regretfully the next morning, pretty sure we’d never get the chance to stay
overnight in a cave again. We were headed for Kaymalki , an underground village carved out of tuff that went down 8 levels. I am not a huge fan of caves, but this sounded interesting; people had lived there since the 8th century in the Byzantine era, and possibly much earlier. We forewent a guide and started out alone through the labyrinthine tunnels, well-lighted and well-marked. We passed rooms used for food storage, church worship, and living. The ceilings were quite low. Then we got to a tunnel, barely wide enough for a standard American and high enough only for a five-year-old child. Bent double, we got through the tunnel, and a second one. And then we reached a third tunnel, the height of perhaps a three-year-old.  Ben claimed I turned a much whiter shade of pale. I know I started to shake. I couldn’t do it. There was no way. I turned back, leaving the boys to forge ahead. On my return, I passed two guides who scolded me (but became much kinder when I said my back couldn’t manage it) and a group of Turkish women who giggled at my pallor and streaming eyes.
I recovered outside with Turkish coffee (maybe a poor choice for relaxing), while Phil and Ben finished their walk. Phil didn’t see me at the café and was convinced I was lost inside the cave
complex. He begged the officials to allow him to go in search of me, like Orpheus seeking the lost Eurydice in the underworld, while Ben sauntered to the parking lot and found me sitting in the sun.

By the time we reached the town of Uchisar with its remarkable Byzantine stone castle, built into a giant pointed mound of tuff, I was more or less recovered. The castle is not really a castle, but a refuge for townspeople who dug channels and tunnels and rooms in the rock to escape invaders during the Byzantine period. We walked all around the castle; the fog had crept back, turning it to a giant ghostly tuft of meringue above the plain of bizarre rock hillocks. During this day, Phil showed his awe at his surroundings by bashing his skull once and cutting his hand.
We didn’t take a camel ride or go up in a hot-air balloon (two favorite pastimes in the tourist season), but we found Cappadocia strikingly beautiful, unearthly, and more than challenging enough  -- for me, at least.

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