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Beyond the tourist trail, Turkey’s otherworldly region harbours untouched villages, nomadic tribes and well-hidden ancient treasures. Here’s how to find them
Many visitors to Cappadocia take a ludicrously short whistle-stop tour cramming as many of the region’s plentiful sights as possible into just a couple of days. Yet there’s much more to this region than simply following the crowds and jostling for camera space with busloads of tourists all on the same organised tour. Without doubt, the jaw-dropping frescoes of Goreme’s rock churches, the panoramas at Uchisar Castle, the Instagram-famous, heart-shaped swings of Love Valley and of course the obligatory hot-air-balloon ride at sunrise all deserve your time. However, those with a thirst for history, nature and culture could easily spend an extra week here and still not have all of the attractions covered.
Exploring Cappadocia’s off-the-beaten-track beauty will uncover lesser-known gems that are often as impressive as the main sights, but without the accompanying crowds. Here’s a guide to some of the best places that a standard tour simply won’t include.
Visit a farming and grape-harvesting village far from the main tourist scene
Picture a peaceful and scenic village, without a single tourist in sight. Elderly women in headscarves work earnestly on their land, while the unmistakable fruity fragrance of freshly pressed grapes travels along the balmy breeze, delighting the senses. Here, amid the harvest scenes, lies a secret church so well hidden from the conventional tourist trail that you’ll need to track down a village elder to lend you the key.
The tiny, barely inhabited, wine-harvesting area of Cemil is a true hidden treasure, and locals are keen to share its secrets with those who venture there.
Although it is nearby Mustafapasa, which is usually billed as an off-the-beaten-track location, its fading frescoes and interiors mean the lesser publicised Cemil is a better bet – and, arguably, the location is more picturesque. These quarters were left abandoned following the 1923 population exchange agreement, where Greeks in Turkey were returned to their country of origin and vice versa. The location now has an air of haunted spirituality. Besides the church, where you’re likely to be the only visitor, nearby Keslik is also worth a visit. Once a Byzantine monastery complex, home to almost 200 monks, it boasts a well-preserved labyrinth of tunnels carved out of volcanic rock and even the remains of an ancient winery. Greek alphabet symbols stand out against blackened walls, while intricate religious frescoes also remain. A visit here merits a whole day.
Discover the secret activities still taking place in a ghost town
Soganli, a spectacular abandoned ghost village, has lain empty for almost a decade, allegedly with just one single, full-time resident to its name. This earthquake-ravaged area had been occupied since Roman times, until the government finally relocated its few remaining inhabitants. The reason? Rock erosion was literally disintegrating the surroundings. The cave houses had been carved out of a perilous rock face, and villagers were prone to avalanches of boulders raining down into their living quarters. Rumour has it that one man steadfastly refused to leave his beloved home, and he is now the sole occupant.
By day, however, a group of women arrive to produce and sell the local specialty – beautifully embroidered Soganli-brand dolls. The tradition was initially borne out of a tragedy – when one woman lost her baby, she created a doll substitute to help her cope with the trauma. Now it is a full-time business, with some dolls sparkling in crystal-studded dresses and carrying babies in their arms in recognition of their origins.
For the adventurous, the pigeon-hole-studded surrounding valley is compact enough to be hiked in a day. Although the dramatic lunar landscapes are virtually impossible for travellers to tire of, the Hidden Apple Garden is the perfect place to stop for lunch should you need a change of scenery. Around here, the surroundings are suddenly transformed into lush, verdant countryside. This paradise garden offers respite from the harsh sun under the shade of its many fruit trees, and as if the scenery wasn’t enough, meals are mouth-watering too.
Afterwards, bed down at the Henna Hotel.
Ebru Art House: a unique shopping experience for art lovers
The streets of Cappadocia are filled with kitsch trinkets for the tourist industry, from rock church ornaments to bejewelled hot air balloons to hang on the wall. Few visitors can resist the temptation to take a few home – but how about combining mainstream shopping with a visit to an art house that uses a traditionally Turkish art form to hand-make products right in front of your eyes? Guler Hanim is the only artisan in the area to practise Ebru art – and she delivers an indisputably authentic shopping experience.
She combines a plant resin and horsetail paint brush with ox-bile and thistle-root-infused paints inside a trough, plus an ancient, centuries-old marbling technique that was once used as a regal watermark by sultans. Not merely a symbol of luxury, it had spiritual significance as well, as it was once used to illustrate texts in the Qu’ran. Guler can demonstrate how the colours literally float on water, the miniature wave forms joining to create patterns, before transferring them onto a silk scarf for your purchasing pleasure. And the artistically inclined can try their hand at painting their own scarf, too, if they wish. Guler also sells reproductions of famous paintings, such as Turtle Trainer by Osman, the original, 13th-century founder of the Ottoman Dynasty. A self-styled mystic, Osman used turtle imagery to represent his followers, whom he saw as slow, simple and in need of his leadership – a small clue, perhaps, to the size of his ego. Nonetheless, this – along with many others in Guler’s shop – is a classic art piece.
Visit an open-air palace and its surroundings, without the crowds…
Aksaray is truly one of Cappadocia’s best-kept secrets. The area was once a significant location on Silk Road trading routes and consequently travellers can visit ancient, ruined ‘caravanserai’ buildings where traders once camped with their camels en route to lands afar. ‘Serai’ is derived from the Persian word for ‘palace’ – and indeed the interiors are suitably majestic even today.
Yet caravanserai aside, the most awe-inspiring palace of all in these parts is undoubtedly the Open Palace (Aksaray) at Gulsehir. A monastery complex originally inhabited as early as the sixth century, its cave buildings, carved from the fairy chimneys, are filled with tunnel-like passageways to explore. Its impressive exteriors are reminiscent of Petra in Jordan, but without the orange hues, while a signature, mushroom-shaped rock can be found on the ground too. Filming has recently been taking place there for a secret, as-yet-undisclosed, TV series, but aside from the occasional cameraman passing by, or the amusing discovery of fake weaponry planted as props, visitors are likely to find themselves exploring in blissful solitude.
Finally, the best attraction of all in this area might be the criminally under-publicised St John Church – a smaller version of one of the churches in Goreme but without the crowds. Again, expect to find yourself totally alone, in stark contrast to the pushing and jostling in top tourist locations like the Buckle Church.
The best Biblical art treasures are on the ceiling, accessed by an ultra-Instagrammable spiral staircase, with each fresco detailing an event of spiritual significance.
Visit a yurt-inhabiting Kyrgyz community and learn about tribal life
Though scarcely seen by the average tourist, the under-the-radar Kyrgyz population represents a significant minority in Cappadocia. Originally nomadic tribes hailing from the mountains of central Asia, they now pitch colourful tents in the valley, marking the traditions of their ancestors, and invite travellers to step inside their world. In this desert-like landscape, often described as the “land of the beautiful horses”, both Turkish and Kyrgyz people alike indulge in horseback riding – but that’s where the similarities between the two cultures end. To the latter, horses have historically been a vital part of everyday survival. They drink and cook with mares’ milk, while horse meat is a regular delicacy on the dinner table. Even their traditional music often incorporates the beat of horses’ hooves.
Visitors can enter their yurts to see the intricate embroidery within, try on their traditional clothing and learn the significance of each garment, ride horses alongside members of the tribe and try a spot of archery too. Barely publicised, it is an unmissable window into another world. The nomadic tribes are notoriously difficult to locate, but a bit of online research and a call to the Turkish Tourist Board should help to secure up-to-the-minute locations.
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