Day 13 – Balloon ride over Cappadocia

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20130809-175801.jpgThe air was filled with the eerie sound of hot gas bursting into balloons all around like and electronic drum beat (in fact our pilot demonstrates his musical ability by playing a quick DJ mix with his gas cylinders). Looking around there are many hot air balloons in various states of readiness - some lie on the ground half inflated, others just rising slowly from the ground while many, like ours are now floating gracefully through the wide open skies of Cappadocia. Our pilot Goksel (pronounced g-er-k-sell) is a bit of a comedian. 'How are you doing my co-pilot?' he says to Tom who is the youngest in the basket. With us are 5 Argentines, 3 agricultural engineers and a lawyer. Goksel explains how he has very limited control over the balloon. 'I can make it go up and down. I can the basket around. But that is all' With balloons on sides someone asks how he prevents us from crashing into other balloons. 'If the balloons kiss that is fine. As long as the baskets don't crash'. I am not sure he fully answered the question! There are many colours and designs of balloons, some just simple patterns, others with the names of the balloon companies and still others with advertising on them. They fill the air like the result of a child blowing bubbles all around them, although fortunately none of them burst!

However, it is the wonderful landscape below that soon takes our attention. It's been an early start (up at 4am) to make sure we're here for sunrise. Now the sun behind the mountains is casting its shadow over the weird and lurid landscape worthy if another planet. There are tall mountains on all sides with a flat area in the middle with 3 broad valleys running through them. The area used to contain a huge lake and from this height you can really visualise it. From the hills the distinct feature of this part of Turkey (Cappadocia which means 'Land of the fine horses' but specifically this area which is called Goreme meaning 'place that must not be missed') starts to be become apparent. There are strange shapes like natural domes flowing down from the hills and sharp drops, crevices, narrow canyons and cliff faces but the particular shape the makes this area unique are the fairy chimneys which are shaped like thin towers, narrow cylindrical bases which cone shaped roofs on top. In places the roofs resemble shapes such as animals.

20130809-200842.jpg We drift with a sense of awe and wonderment as we rise over the mountains and then dip down close to the top of one of the valley cliffs. The wind is perfect according to Goksel and we float towards on our right 'Love Valley' over 'Pigeon Valley' in the centre and away from 'Red Valley' on the left. Goksel has explained the landing procedure which is to face backwards and lean against the basket with your back. But now he says he has 'a surprise'. Down below we can see the support crew with a 4x4 and a trailer below. Goksel is communicating with them furiously by radio. The 4x4 swings around a field as we come in and parks up perpendicular to us. The balloon drops quickly and lines up with the trailer. Goksel throws a rope to his support crew and then lands the balloon directly on the trailer. 'You won't see anyone else do this' he says proudly. I suspect the support crew are please too as it means they don't need to lift the basket on either. Afterwards we have champagne and Goksel presents medals. He makes a mini balloon out the cork and hands it to Tom ('my co-pilot'). After employing us to rate him on trip advisor and become a Facebook friend we say goodbye. We will definitely be recommending him!

20130809-203147.jpg We get back to the hotel a little after 7am and snatch a couple of hours sleep before Necip (pronounced Nee-Jeep) arrives to take us around Cappadocia. The hotel we are staying at, the Sofa Hotel in Avios is a stunning conversion of a small number of houses around a quaint courtyard. Each of the rooms is unique because they used to be one of the original houses (or part of) but there are modern bathrooms.

20130809-230425.jpg Our first stop is a beautiful cave village called Causvin which is only a short drive from our hotel. In ancient times the villagers lived in houses built out of the rocks but now these are in serious need of renovation. The locals have all moved to more modern accommodation but many of the old cave dwellings are now being turned into interesting hotels. Necip explains the history of these lovely houses which date back to Byzantine times. I am obviously listening so intently that as I step backwards I fall into a hole with a horrible feeling of water being washed down a plug hole. The sand breaks my fall and there is an exit at the bottom so no harm done except to my dignity! Kate informs me that she thought that was going to happen! She could have told me sooner! Then we embark on a short hike (the word hike sends the kids into panic but in fact it is only takes about 40 minute).

The scenery is like something from a Star Trek movie. Smooth rounded rocks with narrow pathways squeezing through them. There is are occasional places where we need to scrabble up an steeper incline and others where we arrive at breathtaking precipices.

20130809-230618.jpg As we go Necip explains a little of the geography of the area (I hope I was listening carefully enough!). Basically there we several volcanoes in the area including the large mountain we had seen as we drove from the airport. It's extinct now but when it was active it sprayed ash over the lake that used to be in this area. The ash laid over millions of years and created a soft rock which is now exposed to the element. Rain and snow have then carved these smooth soft rocks. During the trip we also get a better look at some of the fairy chimneys. Necip explains that there are several layers of rock created at different times and in this case the upper layer is much stronger than that below. So the lower levels are eroded faster creating the pillars while the top (or cap) is left on top looking like a roof or helmet (Callum sniggers a lot!).

20130809-230526.jpg Finally we reach the end of our hike and reward ourselves with ice cream before looking at the church and monastery of St Simeone, built right into these unusually shaped rocks. Of course Callum and Tom both wanted to climb them which required a lot of dexterity and also some squeezing through narrow holes and dragging yourself over ledges when the footholds ran out.

20130809-230659.jpg After lunch we explored a new are of the strange fairy chimneys, this one had weird shapes at the top instead of caps. With Necip's help we saw a couple of seals, a camel, a lama and several dogs as well as quite a convincing statue of the Virgin Mary. Finally we spent an hour looking around the amazing monastery built into the caves. This monastery was the main teaching area for new monks and nuns and it was capable if accommodating several hundred at anyone time. After a relaxing couple of hours back at the hotel we headed out by ourselves to get something for dinner.

In the forefront of our minds was last nights 'experience' where we searched out an local restaurant however while the place we selected looked good from the outside we all immediately felt we'd made a mistake once inside - there was no one else there. Callum and Kate decided however to be brave and seeing some unusual dishes in the menu they decided to order brain soup. Tom and I played it safe with lentil soup! When they arrived Callum and Kate both started to regret their choice.

20130809-230500.jpgThe soup had a blood red liquid floating on the surface of a dull red/brown broth (not the most inviting colour). Using a spoon to check beneath they found the small pieces of what was clearly brain (cow brain in this case according to the waiter). To their credit they both tried the broth and then both ate a piece if brain. The preceded to insist that Tom and I tried it too. The broth was quite nice - basically salty - but the brain tasted like a very slimy mushroom. I am afraid one piece each was all we could manage. The main course were fine (lots of sniggering about the names of the food - I had a Testi casserole). But our confidence was waning. Kate found something in her food that she swore was an insect cocoon (which Callum hid in brain soup) and we paid quickly and left!

Tonight we sought more familiar surroundings and walked over the very rickety wooden bridge which was swaying badly in the wind across the river and found a smart ice cream restaurant that also sold international meals. The restaurant was a large with an ice cream parlour inside that also sold some very tempting looking deserts with a veranda outside which had rectangular wooden table seating four each lined up along the river band but under the cover of a glass wall to keep out the increasing wind that was now blowing hard upriver.

The food was very nice but we nicknamed this restaurant which was really called Mado, 'We don't have that' because that was a fairly familiar refrain as we attempted to order. 'We'll have one hot chocolate' - 'I am afraid we don't have that'. 'But you have chocolate milkshake?' 'Yes'. 'What about pomegranate juice?' 'No'. 'But it's on the menu?' 'Yes'. 'Do you a menu that only has the stuff you've actually go?' 'No' (no sign if a smile!). Still the pizzas were great and we enjoyed playing Pitt until eventually making our tired way back to the hotel.