By , December 29, 2012 12:49 pm

Cappadocia (pronounced Kapadokya) has long been on our bucket list.  A land of fairy chimneys, rock monasteries, and underground cities, it captured my interest and imagination the first time I saw pictures of it.  It is located in Central Anatolia in Turkey, and it was our next stop after Istanbul.  We steeled our nerves and caught our second European night bus for 60 Turkish lira per person (including a shuttle from our hostel to the Istanbul bus station) to the backpacker-friendly town of Göreme, our stunning home base for exploring the Cappadocia area.

Our gorgeous cave room in Göreme

While our plan was to explore the region on our own, we decided to take the ever-popular “green tour” to see some of the more remote attractions in southern Cappadocia.  Typically, we try to avoid guided tours like the plague since they so often mean high price tags, large groups, being rushed through activities, and too little time.  However, we reasoned that this tour would be the easiest way to see some of the harder-to-get-to attractions in the area. You can book this tour through your hostel (which is what we did) or through any of the countless tourist agencies littering the streets.  We paid 80 lira per person.

So… what did this get us?


The rocks of Cappadocia have felt the feet of many cultures… the Phrygians, Assyrians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, and Turks to name a few.

But that’s not what makes them one of Turkey’s largest tourist attractions.  The strange and enchanting landscape created through volcanic activity and natural erosion – combined with the monasteries, churches, and dwellings carved into the towering rocks – is what brings over two million visitors to the area every year.

The valleys of Cappadocia, which means “land of the beautiful horses,” were a refuge for early Christians fleeing from oppression and death by Roman soldiers.  When Emperor Constantine “Christianized” Rome and granted religious freedom to Christians, the secluded region became the perfect place for Christians to remove themselves from society and devote themselves to worship.

The rock churches began as dwellings for Christian hermits, and later became larger monasteries after St. Basil (who has born in the region) convinced them that they would better serve the will of God by focusing on a communal life of prayer.

The earliest frescoes in the churches were painted with red dyes directly on the rock.  Later frescoes were painted on a layer of plaster with various coloured dyes, then glazed with the whites of pigeon eggs.  The vast majority of the frescoes now have images with destroyed faces and/or eyes.  Our guide told us that there are several theories about this.  One is that the Greeks that left the area in the population exchange of the 1920’s carefully scratched out the eyes and took them as souvenirs.  This seems unlikely.  The more popular opinion is that the Qur’an prohibits images of humans in temples, so when the churches were later converted into Muslim mosques, the images were purposely destroyed.

Religious frescoes with eyes scratched out

A View of Pigeon Valley & Uchisar Castle

We were promised a stop at the Uchisar Castle and that’s precisely what we got… a stop.  Our van pulled over at a panoramic viewpoint and let us out just long enough to hear some of the above history and snap a few photos of Uchisar Castle and the surrounding Pigeon valley (so named because pigeons were so important in the area – they were used to send messages, their egg shells were used in the making of plaster, and the egg whites were used as a protective glaze for the painted frescoes).

One of the volcanoes that worked to create the surreal landscapes of Cappadocia

Uchisar Castle

Pigeon Valley

Dwellings and churches carved into the rocks

Derinkuyu Underground City

This is where the tour got good.  Derinkuyu is the largest of about 40 underground cities in Cappadocia.  It was first built by the Phrygians between the 8th and 7th century BC, then enlarged by the Byzantines between the 5th and 10th century AD.


Derinkuyu Map

It extends 8 levels (or 85 m) under the earth (apparently there are possibly 3 more levels yet to be excavated).  There are something like 600 outside doors that lead to the city from surface dwellings.  It was never a permanent dwelling, but was used as a hide-out for local populations when invading armies arrived.  Between 20,000 – 50,000 people and their domestic animals could live in the city, and it was connected by tunnel to another underground city 10 km away.

The rooms consisted of churches, stables, kitchens, storage rooms, wineries, cellars, refectories, and living spaces.  On the second floor there is a large room with a barrel vaulted ceiling that is unique to the underground cities in the area.  It was used as a missionary school.  On the bottom floor, there is a crucifix-shaped church.  There are chimneys, ventilation holes, and niches in the walls for oil lamps.  Only about 20% of the city is open to the public, but trust me… it’s enough to get a feel for how huge of a structure it actually is.

In the event of an attack on the city itself, doors could quickly be sealed with large round stones.  Traps were built into the design, including covered holes in the floor and holes in the ceiling that spears could be thrown through.  The city had numerous wells, many of which did not have surface access to prevent poisoning from above.

Well with surface access. Used as a concealed ventilation shaft.

I expected it to be musty and hard to breathe so far underground, but the city’s 15,000 ventilation ducts do a good job of keeping the air fresh.

Underground rooms

If you want to go on your own: Derinkuyu Underground City is located in the town of the same name, Derinkuyu.  It is about 40 km from Göreme.  Admission is 15 lira/person.  Bring a jacket – it’s can be quite chilly underground, even on a hot summer day.  Not recommended for people with asthma, heart conditions, or claustrophobia.

Lunch & Hiking in the Ihlara Valley

Ihlara Valley is the longest and deepest gorge (1oo m) in Cappadocia and home to some of the oldest rock-cut churches in the area.

Ihlara Valley

We stopped in a village in the valley for lunch.  Lunch was large, but forgettable… it included bread with honey and tomato tapenade, lentil soup, a main dish, rice, salad, and an orange.

After the meal, we drove to the second of four entrances of the 14 km long valley.  We descended over 300 steps to the valley floor and hiked about 4 km along the river.  Here we saw more churches and dwellings, but mostly took in the magical lighting and vibrant autumn colours around us.

Frescoes in church

Break time!

Duck stretching its wings in the river

Hiking along the valley floor

If you want to go on your own:  Hiking the valley is easy, but getting there is hard.  From the best of my research, it seems you can get to the valley from Göreme (120 km) via public transportation, but it will take you 2-3 bus transfers and the better part of a day.  There is an entrance gate to get into the valley (at least the portion we hiked).  Admission:  8 lira/person.

Selime Monastery

At the end of the Ihlara Valley towers the Selime Monastery in Selime village.  The Selime Monastery was carved by monks in the 13th century and is the largest in the Cappadocia region.

Selime Monastery


View from monastery

Detail of building, including pigeon holes

Interior of church

Impressive interior design

For all you Star Wars fans out there, the surrounding area was used for some of the Sand People scenes in the original movie (only the scenery was filmed, the actual action was shot in Tunisia).

Sand People scenery

If you want to go on your own: Selime Monastery is located in Selime village.  The only way to explore the monastery is through a fairly steep climb up the rocks.  Bring good shoes and consider avoiding it in rainy weather when the rocks can be slick (if it’s raining when you go on the tour, they don’t allow you to climb the rocks).  Entrance:  8 lira/person.

So Was the Tour Worth It?

As with all tours, we felt rushed… we had almost enough time at Derinkuyu, but were definitely rushed through Selime monastery.  It would have been nice to see more of Ihlara valley, though we wouldn’t have had enough daylight hours to really make that happen anyways.  If the tour had left a little earlier (we were picked up at 9:30 am), we could have had more daylight hours for hiking.  As it was, we were back at our hostel by 5:30 pm.  Note: Due to daylight savings time, the sun rises at about 6:00 am and sets at about 4:30 pm in early November.

Though we were rushed, we got lots of good information from our guide.

9D Cinema?!?!?! This is something we would have investigated had we had the time

There is really no information at any of the sites, so we learned a lot more from our guide than we would have got exploring on our own.  As I mentioned, the tour cost 80 lira/person.  We would have spent 31 lira/person on entrance fees alone.  Factoring in lunch and transportation, we probably couldn’t have done it much cheaper ourselves. And, it certainly made it easy to see the more distant Cappadocia highlights.  The group size was reasonable (about 10 people).  We were happy with our experience and would recommend the tour to others.

View from our rest stop on the way home.

By , December 26, 2012 3:33 am

Travelling around the world, we have definitely encountered our fair share of street animals.  All across Central America and in the villages of Bulgaria, we met hundreds (if not thousands) of dogs and cats that live on the street.  Most of them were skinny (often with ribs showing) but happy.  They found their meals in garbage cans, street gutters, market floors and from the odd caring person that would put out food for them.  They weren’t always loved by the people, but they were tolerated.  And they were friendly.

In Istanbul, it took us only a few hours to notice the street animal population was a lot bigger than any other we had experienced.  Not bigger as in more of them; bigger as in FAT.  Really fat.  The cats are fat.  The dogs are fat.  There were no ribs to be seen here.  And they don’t get that way from scavenging.  We’ve seen taxi drivers share portions of their lunch with them (I’m not talking just the bones here – they saved whole chunks of meat) and people generously sharing a loaf of bread with them.

Meet Pig Dog… getting this fat takes a WHOLE LOT of bread (our Turkish coffee fortune predicted her appearance in our lives… now where’s the giant gerbil?)

If the pudgy pooches and flabby felines aren’t testament enough to Istanbul’s love for its homeless creatures, check this out:

Walking the streets of Istanbul at night, we hear a cat crying – it’s stuck on the 4th floor of an abandoned building (see it’s glowing eyes?) and is terrified

Poor thing!

Fire Department to the rescue!

A crowd quickly gathers

The rescue

The rescue

Safe and sound.  Talk about love!

By , December 22, 2012 1:54 pm

Mosques are everywhere in Turkey (at least the parts we visited). They are not all old either. We saw several still under construction which surprised me. Coming from the prairie lands of Canada, where religion is more or less fading out of the social fabric, I was quite shocked to see how important it still is to people here in Turkey.

Mosques remind me a lot of the orthodox churches we were seeing in Bulgaria, without the inside frescoes but with the addition of carpet. I suspect that’s partly to do with the fact that many of the original mosques were made by converting old Christian churches. They tend to be a large open spaces covered by a dome roof. Outside there is a courtyard, complete with hand/face/foot washing stations and of course, a minaret or two.

All the mosques were free to enter, but you need to be dressed appropriately. That means wearing pants and shirts with sleeves. Women also need to cover their heads (scarfs supplied at the mosques popular with tourists). Last but not least, it is essential that any footwear is removed before entering.

Another interesting feature of the mosques are the loudspeakers mounted on top of the minarets. Five times a day, beginning at around 5:00 AM and finishing up around 6:00pm [These times are approximate, and vary with the time of sunrise (or at least that’s my understanding)], the call to prayer is sung. It’s performed live at each mosque, and is belted out at volumes so high, that we could usually hear two to three different mosques at one time. I actually really grew to like the sound of the call to prayer. There’s something majestic about the heartfelt melodies. I’m not sure what it was, but they somehow moved me every time I heard them, and that was nice.

However, if you are planning to visit a mosque, prayer times are best avoided. Many of the mosques popular among tourists close their doors to visitors during prayer time, and those that don’t do not allow photographs while prayer is in session.


Blue Mosque


Blue Mosque


Blue Mosque


Nusretiye Mosque


Rustem Pasa Mosque


Fatih Camii


Fatih Camii


Mosques at sunset


By , December 19, 2012 12:04 pm

On a day where we saw hundreds of tourists queued up to enter Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, we nearly had Yedikule Fortress to ourselves.  The complex was original the ceremonious “Golden Gate” used especially for the triumphal entry of the emperor into the capital city. Later, during the Ottoman era, it was expanded and served as treasury, archive, and state prison.

It’s easy enough to get to (if you don’t mind a little walking), though you might have to search a little for a tourist map that includes this part of the city.  We simply set out from our hostel near the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, walked to the coast, and followed the coast line to the fortress.

Beautiful walk along coast

Our friend, Trevor, scaring pigeons for an action photo

Admission is 10 lira ($5.50 CAD) and it takes about an hour to explore the whole thing.  There are no guard railings, so if you have a fear of heights you might want to avoid climbing the walls.

After the fortress, we carried on walking along the ancient Byzantine walls and eventually turned back towards our hostel passing by the Aqueduct.

Here are our photos from the day:

Yedikule Fortress

Fortress… climbing these stairs is the only way to get to the top of the walls

Fortress & courtyard

On walls of fortress

Mike takes a photo of me taking a photo from fortress wall

The photo I was taking

Staircase in courtyard


Inside tower and a sketchy staircase

Looking down from tower

Inside tower

Inside of tower

Arrow slit


Mike, imagining what it’s like to be held prisoner in one of the towers

Gardens near Byzantine walls

Walking along the Byzantine city walls, from Yedikule fortress

Byzantine city walls

Byzantine city walls

Valens aqueduct, on our return walk

By , December 16, 2012 2:29 am

This is the closest we came to a Halloween atmosphere in Istanbul. It was October 31st, and we heard not screams of trick-or-treat. Candied apples, popcorn balls, and hay bales set ablaze were in absence too. No rotten eggs, tossed rolls of toilet paper, nor roving gangs of children. It’s not surprising really, as all of those traditional memories of my childhood Halloweens in Canada don’t really exist in this modern age back home either, so it would be unfair to expect them in a country like Turkey where Halloween is more or less unheard of in its entirety.

But there was the Basilica Cistern. It was constructed in the 6th Century AD to collect water transferred from the Belgrade forest 19km away. The Cistern covers an area of 9,800 m2 and is supported by 336 9-meter high marble columns. It’s dark, dank, gloomy, and especially suited to a Halloween visit. Of course there was a fee that needed to be paid. In this case 10 lira per person ($6 CAD).

One of the two famous Medusa carvings

By , December 12, 2012 2:16 am

We’re not always museum people.  We definitely don’t visit them in every city or even in every country, but we try to hit up the really unique or interesting ones.  In a city that just oozes history, we couldn’t miss the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (which is actually three museums in one – the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Museum of Islamic Art in the Tiled Kiosk and the main Archaeology Museum).  And it did not disappoint.

We were surprised to find the museum (located on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace) nearly empty of tourists, though maybe it was just a slow day. Admission was a reasonable 10 lira ($5.50 CAD).  If you plan to go, leave yourself at least half a day to wander through the buildings.  If you don’t get museumed-out like we do, you could easily spend a full day there.  The collections include Greek and Roman antiquities (including a large collection from the mega-famous city of Troy), a mummy and sarcophagus collection, a timeline of coins used in the area, detailed information about the Byzantine period and an entire floor dedicated to Istanbul’s history.  The collections are impressive – in scope, in size, and in the level of preservation.

Here’s a few of my favourite photos from our visit:

Reflection of the Tiled Kiosk Building

Tile Kiosk

Engravings on Tomb (6 feet tall)

Mike, with pieces of the Ishtar Gate of the city of Babylon

Skeleton of Sidonian King Tabnit ll

Alexander Sarcophagus, 4th Century BC

Detail of Alexander Sarcophagus, 4th Century BC

Stunning Sarcophagus

Detail on Sarcophagus

By , December 8, 2012 10:50 am

I had long ago heard of Whirling Dervishes but, to be honest, had no idea who they were, what they did (well, ok… I figured it probably had something to do with whirling), or where they were.  Until I got to Turkey.

While we were walking by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, we were (surprise, surprise) approached by a man trying to sell us tickets to a Mevlevi (Whirling Dervishes) show.  Still knowing nothing about them, I decided there and then to attend… with a name like “Whirling Dervishes” how could you go wrong?  Tickets cost 35 lira per person (normally 40 lira, but he was giving us a deal. The same deal he gives to everyone else).

The show took place in the waiting room of the Istanbul Train Station and, I must admit, until the Dervishes took the stage I was still unsure if it was legit.  The “ticket” was a generic piece of cardstock, lacking a date or a number.  To my relief, it was accepted at the doors and we were shown into a small room with three rows of plastic chairs set up on three sides of the performance space.

The band came out first, followed by the Dervishes.  Since the “performance” is actually a religious ritual, most Orders prohibit photography and recording.  We were told nothing of the sort, however, and while I didn’t use a flash, photos were obviously fair game.

Two of the musicians

Every part of the ceremony – from the music to the singing to the clothing to the Dervishes’ every movement  – was highly ritualized.  From the moment the music started, I could sense a deep meaning behind every note and action – even if I didn’t understand it.  It is not choreographed – in that the Dervishes are not always in perfect sync as they whirl – which contributes to the raw feeling and emotion being displayed.

For about an hour, the Dervishes completely transformed the waiting room into a totally different place.  Except for the LCD screens of the tourists’ cameras and phones that kept tugging me back to reality, it almost felt like I was transported to a different time and space.  Eventually, I put MY camera down and let myself get completely mesmerized by the ritual.  I especially enjoyed watching the faces of each Dervish as they got lost in the ritual of whirling.

Whether you take the time to research the history of the Whirling Dervishes or not, experiencing their ritual is not something to miss in Turkey.  It is almost mystical to watch, and a true thing of beauty.

Info Box on the Whirling Dervishes:

In a nutshell, the Order of the Whirling Dervishes is a branch of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  The Sema ritual they perform has deep roots, beginning with the inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273).  By revolving, the dervishes acknowledge the existence and majesty of the Creator, give thanks to Him, and pray to Him.  The ritual, which has been performed for seven centuries, unites three fundamental components of human nature – the mind (through knowledge and thought), the heart (through feelings, poetry and music), and the body (by spinning).  It symbolizes the universal values of love and service.

In 1925, Turkey outlawed all Sufi orders, included the Mevlevi Order.  It is believed to have survived by continuing their rituals in small villages until 1954, when they were granted limited permission to perform the Sema for tourists.  Even today, they are still banned as a Sufi order.  To find out more about the order and the ritual, click here.

You can experience the Sema ritual nearly nightly in Istanbul.  There are also regular performances in Cappadocia and, of course, Konya (where the order originates and which holds the Mevlana Commemoration Festival in December each year).