URGP, Turkey -- It was perfectly clear to us, from our perch 100 feet above the geological wonderland that is Cappadocia in central Turkey, why the landscape below was called ''Love Valley."
We had the best view in town, tucked into a sturdy hot-air balloon basket that dipped low enough to let us grab apricots from the trees and rose high enough to keep the hawks company. As we floated, Love Valley emerged as a vista of fairy chimneys and moon-like canyons, the result of volcanic eruptions that spewed ash over the region some 30 million years ago.
The deep layer of ash gradually turned to tufa, a soft, porous stone that eroded to form fantastic stalagmites and fanciful cones. The fairy chimneys, depending on your state of mind, look very much like phalluses, which is exactly why Love Valley is so named. As for the chimneys themselves, the precarious placement of rocks and the shapes of the towers are so whimsical, the locals figured that fairies must be at work.
For many people, Turkey is a second- or third-tier destination, a place to visit after all other European capitals have been checked off the list. But even for those tourists, Turkey is too often summed up by a visit to Istanbul, and perhaps a sun-splashed voyage in a wooden gulet along the Turquoise Coast. But to come to Turkey, and not make the trip to Cappadocia, located just south of Ankara, the capital, in central Anatolia, would be a shame.
A one-hour flight to Kayseri from Istanbul is all it takes to get you to the center of this fascinating country, a region with views so spectacular they will take your breath away. Combine that with an excellent tourism infrastructure, a vivid culture, limitless historic sights, and a cuisine that is second to none, and Cappadocia becomes a must-see.
We had come to Turkey with friends and spent one week of our trip in our friend's hometown of rgp, just west of Kayseri, an ideal geographic base for taking in the sights. Before the population exchange in 1923, rgp had many Greek inhabitants, which explains the many distinctive Greek-style buildings around town. We even learned that rgp has close ties to America. A revered local resident, Mustafa Gzelgz, 83, earned a citation from President Kennedy in 1963 for establishing the first traveling library in Turkey, carrying books by donkey to small towns off the main roads. Kennedy donated a Land Rover to help Gzelgz bring his message of literacy to the people.
rgp, like most of Cappadocia, is defined by caves and underground cities. The combination of soft stone and a dearth of trees for lumber suited the region to underground accommodations. Although people started cave dwelling some 4,000 or more years ago, it is still possible today. You can stay in a cave hotel, party in a cave disco, and visit a potter's subterranean studio. rgp is riddled with cave dwellings -- though the government in the 1970s forbade Turks anymore to live in them -- and we met a woman from Philadelphia who had fallen in love with the town, and bought herself a cave for a vacation getaway. Ten years and many renovations later, her $3,000 cave is worth more than $50,000, as cave abodes have come into vogue.
rgp is a charming little town, complete with a lively main shopping strip dotted with first-class antique and jewelry shops, rug stores, bars, discos, and restaurants. Prices are a bit lower than in Istanbul and the selections are as good, if not better, since traders from the east generally stop in rgp first.
There is even a town hamam, or Turkish bath, where you can get scrubbed shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals. A small museum, the post office, and a tourist information office are centrally located. A half-dozen town wineries offer tastings, a good idea before you buy, since the quality we sampled ranged from poor to decent.
Cappadocia is a region with history not only of prehistoric but of biblical proportions. Pilgrims can travel in the footsteps of St. Paul as he traversed this area of Asia Minor. The silk road passed through the region, bringing explorers and their wares into the Turkish heartland. History lovers can scramble below ground to explore cities that sheltered Hittites from their Assyrian enemies and later, Christians from their persecutors.
There are at least 40 underground cities, some as deep as 10 stories. The two closest to rgp are Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, each containing a complex network of passages and corridors complete with wells, stables, fire pits, chimneys for air circulation, and even niches for oil lamps and baby cradles. It was here that as many as 20,000 Hittites hid from their enemies for up to six months at a time, with entranceways guarded by huge mill stones. Local guides are available to take you through the site, which can be claustrophobic at times, since you travel narrow connecting passageways between larger rooms.
The Greme Open Air Museum, the place where Christians established colonies shortly after Christ's death, is a must-see. The best-known monastic settlement in Cappadocia, Greme contains some 30 church complexes, many covered with fascinating frescoes dating to the 10th-century Byzantine period.
Hiking is a favorite pastime around rgp, and indeed a two- or three-hour walk through the lunar landscape of Red Valley, and a climb up to Uchisar castle rock is one of the best ways to appreciate the changing forms and light of this most unusual environment.Imagine our surprise when we met Turkey's own famous hairy potter in the tiny town of Avanos, a few miles away from rgp. Located on the Red River, Avanos is known for its distinctive red clay earthenware pottery, still made with techniques that date to Hittite times in the second millennium before the Christian era. The main street in town is more of a potter's square, a rustic, tumbledown collection of Greek and Ottoman buildings housing shops and studios.
The most famous studio is Chez Galip, belonging to master potter Galip Korukcu. We recognized him from the tourism video we saw on the plane. His cave studio not only houses gorgeous wares, but also it is home to Galip's hair museum. After snipping a lock from a departing lover a decade ago, the potter, himself possessed of a Gene-Shalit-type do, started collecting hair from female tourists who visited his shop. There are two cave rooms literally covered, floor to ceiling, with snips of hair, each taped onto a card bearing the donor's name. Weird? Just a bit. But we couldn't resist Galip and his shears.
Just outside of town, the Sentez Avanos Hali carpet factory offers excellent tours to groups and individuals, a great way to get a better understanding of the ancient art of Turkish rug making. Visit each stage of the rug's production from the unraveling of silkworm cocoons to the tedious handwork at simple, wooden looms. The tour is free, but your credit card may get a workout.
We slept deeply during our week in rgp, which is home to a handful of tourist-friendly cave hotels. The best of the bunch is Esbelli Evi, lovingly restored by Sha Ersz, a lawyer and a fastidious bachelor who treats his clients like personal guests. The eight rooms may be the oldest in the hotel business, as they date to the sixth century. The upper floor's reception and reading room, part of an 18th-century addition, are outfitted with antique rugs and elegant furnishings. Downstairs, the honey-colored cave rooms are simply fitted with kilim rugs, antique brass beds, and some include a fireplace. One room was originally a kitchen, another a stable, and a third a wine pressing room.
Although the hotel doesn't have a restaurant, the self-serve fridge is stocked with drinks, and the hotel's friendly staff serves breakfast on the rooftop terrace, which offers a panoramic view of the dramatic countryside. The menu is freshly-squeezed orange juice, cheese, olives, yogurt, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled eggs, freshly-baked breads, coffee, and homemade preserves.
Without exception, the food we ate in Cappadocia, and everywhere else we went in Turkey, was outstanding, a natural Mediterranean diet based on olive oil, fresh meats, cheeses, and produce. Typical appetizers, or mezze, might be grilled sardines, rolled grape leaves, spiced lamb meatballs, and roasted pureed eggplant. Baby lamb chops are a national source of pride. rgp has several excellent restaurants, including Karvan above the main square, and Yaprak for Turkish pizza.
Spend at least four days in rgp; you need that long to see the sights. If you can stay a week, even better -- that will give you time to sip a glass of raki, a potent anise-flavored Turkish liquor, on your hotel terrace and watch the sunset over a landscape that will surely haunt your dreams.
Beth D'Addono is a freelance writer who lives in BelmontHills, Pa.
How to get there
Lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Instanbul available at press time started at $502 on Delta Airlines in association with Lufthansa, connecting through New York. Turkish Air flies twice daily from Istanbul to Kayseri; lowest round-trip fare started at $157.
What to do
Kapadokya Hot Air Balloons
$230 for a four-hour flight.
Where to stay
Book well in advance; the rooms fill up quickly. $60-$90, including breakfast.
Hotel Asia Minor
Fax: 341 2721
This charming cave hotel is centrally located. $35-$50, breakfast included.
A 600-year-old Ottoman-style house with 11 comfortable rooms, some carved from natural stone. $40-$50, including some cave rooms.
Where to eat
Kayseri Street, rgp
The best restaurant for rustic local specialties. $10 to $20.
In the rgp bus terminal
Inexpensive kebabs and pide, delicious Turkish pizza. $5 to $10.
Kayseri Street, rgp
For a more upscale meal. $15 to $25.
Tafana Pide Salonu
Kenan Evren Cad 47, Avanos
Serves a local specialty, kiremit, or lamb stew, and excellent pide. $5-$10.
Turkish Tourist Office