Let’s play a time machine! It is the middle of the fourth century AD. We stand in a town square of about 60 thousand inhabitants, in Asia Minor, in part of present-day Anatolia, a province in (again present-day) eastern Turkey. It is morning, the beginning of the working week. The central part of the city, which was just fallen asleep, turned into an anthill in a few minutes. The traffic of passers-by, at first, seems chaotic to us, and yet each of them unmistakably rushes towards his goal. Children run into a nearby school, producing a tremendous amount of noise. Artisan, blacksmiths, shoemakers, potters hastily open their shops in the square and surrounding streets. You can smell the food from the tavern on the corner. Women carry water from wells in camel skin sacks. The lame elder man hurries to the doctor. The priest enters the church in the square. You can hear the bleating of sheep, and a few chickens are uninterestedly pecking at the sand. A funeral will take place in the afternoon at the city cemetery. And yesterday, on a feast day, Christ was celebrated in crowded, vividly painted churches. They sang, ate, and drank carefreely. Two young people in God’s temple vowed eternal fidelity to each other. The city is so rich and supplied with everything that it can survive for months without outside supplies. A city of peace and abundance!
Yes, and we almost forgot the most important thing. We were carried away by the story. The city to which time playing has taken us, taking us back 17 centuries, is not on the surface of the earth! About 60,000 of its inhabitants live, from time to time even for two to three months, on 20 or more floors underground! And at the same time, not a single inhabitant came out of the underworld. Our time travel is not fiction. It is neither Harry Potter nor Indiana Jones, nor any similar commercial fairy tale. It is true! During these early centuries, the Arabs forced Christians to hide by their invasions.
They did this in such a way that entire cities with their associated logistics would move underground (closing the entrances from the inside with large millstones, weighing several hundred kilograms) into perfectly ventilated underground labyrinths, some of which have stood since the time of the mysterious Hittites. The underground cities of the Turkish province of Kapadokya (Cappadocia) are one of the world’s greatest wonders. After all, that whole zone does not even look like it is on earth. We would rather say we found ourselves on the Moon. Let’s take a look around! Is there a more lovely (and quieter) way to explore the surface of the earth than flying a balloon?
And so, a little dazed by yesterday’s descent into the underground city (at the entrance where a warning, written in capital letters in several world languages: heart patients are strictly forbidden to enter), and walks, sometimes on their knees, its squares, steep, claustrophobic streets and stairs, to a depth of, fortunately, only the fifth floor (they did not allow us to go deeper), we board at dawn in a spacious balloon gondola. All of us, warm air from huge gas burners, more or less simultaneously rises in height, so here we are hovering over that Moon on Earth in almost perfect silence. We, the twelve of us, share the sky over Cappadocia with passengers in about 40 more such colorful toys, balloons with gondolas full of tourists from all over the world.
Killie sovereignly pilots the balloon, a charming Englishwoman who was among the first to start commercial balloon flights in Cappadocia. And she drops us relentlessly on the trailer behind the SUV, which then takes us to a farewell glass of champagne and a slice of cake. Unforgettable!
Unlike Croatia, Turkey is a tourist country, par excellence. People have a vision, a concept, a strategy, a realization, and who knows what else. They have, imagine, even a smile on their face! And they make very much money from all that. I believe none of us are sorry to pay for something worthwhile, especially if you remember what you paid for your whole life. And you definitely will remember Cappadocia and your underground and above-ground breathtaking experiences in it.
Every step through this province is a new story. Even when you are resting, you are in an ambiance that you will not find almost anywhere in the world – an underground hotel. Ours was in a town of the unusual name Ürgüp. It is a pity to fall asleep amid such beauty. We had lunch, of course, Turkish specialties (it reminded us of the famous Dalmatian čevapčići) in a huge and, you guessed it, an underground restaurant. Behind the large wooden door on the slope of a sandy hill are hidden magnificent spaces where a couple of hundred guests are having lunch. No one would assume that.
How much Turks are business people is also told by the following fascinating story. In one of the most respected world carpet factories (and, for the second year in a row, the prestigious Architectural Digest magazine declares their carpets the most beautiful) in the grand presentation hall, vendors quickly covered the floor with about 40 beautiful rugs. Next to us was a carpet worth 20,000 euros (estimated by the weaving quality and density). One of the vendors, to our surprise, started talking to a group of Japanese tourists in Japanese! Have a conversation, not just say a few words. Right when we thought it was some kind-of odd exception, here we are in a pottery and jug workshop, for which the province is also famous. While showing the old-fashioned way of modeling jars (they still make them that way today) and moving a large stone pulley-flywheel with his feet, the master chatted with those same Japanese in fluent Japanese, as if they were going to school in Osaka together! This same polyglot tells us (but in English this time) that after such professional processing of customers, usually, an act or deed of sale follows. The jar or the carpet from the previous story is sent by express mail and is already waiting for the customer at home when he gets back from the trip. Through the conversation, we also learn that one Tokyo travel agency alone brings in Cappadocia about 80,000 Japanese tourists a year!
Cappadocia is probably one of the most beautiful and attractive tourist destinations in the world. A wonder of nature, a place from a fairy tale.
And one more thing for the end – we hope that soon we will experience a beautiful and peaceful morning, this time flying in a balloon over Motovun, Plitvice Lakes, or Trakošćan, for example. If the Turks in Cappadocia learned this from the English, we should also learn from those who know it and do it the right way.
TEXT & PHOTO – Voljen Grbac