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Taking off in Turkey

By Sarah Richard

Turkey is my “country crush”. It all started some years ago when I booked myself a one-way ticket to Fethiye in Southern Turkey to complete my Divemaster qualification. I basically knew nothing about the region, other than Google telling me it was one of the cheapest places in which to do this kind of course.

travel, flights, hotels, hot air ballooning
Cappadocia’s stunning rock formations give it its name as “the land of the fairy chimneys”

 

Naively, I thought I would complete my training and leave, continuing on to my dream career of diving around the world. But Turkey had a different idea – it captured me on the first day and I have since spent years going back and forth, each time the love affair deepening. Despite this, I always knew the best was yet to come after being told of a magical place called Cappadocia, described as “the land of the fairy chimneys” (for its stunning rock formations) where hot air balloons cover the sky from 5am each day. I’d seen the pictures: not just of the balloons, but also of the houses that looked like caves, and of Turkish feasts set on balconies overlooking it all. None of it looked real.

It was only when I arrived there myself and held my camera up to the view from my hotel that I could confirm that Cappadocia was, in fact, even more beautiful in the flesh. The pictures did it absolutely no justice.

Still, we all know that something worth having doesn’t come easily. In my case, it was the seemingly easy flight from Istanbul to Kayseri, which was only supposed to take one hour; mine took seven. Our hotel receptionist smiled when we rushed into the lobby so many hours late, apologising that we hadn’t been there at the arranged time for our driver to pick us up. “Don’t worry,” came the reply. “No one has ever arrived in Cappadocia on time; we knew you wouldn’t either.”

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Early mornings create a memorable hot air balloon experience

 

Ballooning at breakfast

There’s no denying that my main reason for visiting this part of Turkey was to take my first ride in a hot air balloon. While the balloon companies try to fly every day, flights are cancelled if weather conditions aren’t right – so it’s as hit-and-miss as the domestic flights. With only three mornings available, I had very limited time, but high hopes. I set my alarm for 4am, wondering if it was worth even going to bed; but this sleepy town has a way of relaxing you, and the cosy rooms of Aydinli Cave Hotel lulled me into at least a few hours slumber.

Once up, we were whisked away via minibus to ButterFly Balloons HQ, and given a light breakfast and coffee as we patiently waited to learn whether conditions were safe enough for ballooning. Happily, the pilot nodded his head in agreement – all systems go – and we piled back into the vans to head out to the valley from where we would lift off. While zooming through the mountains and chasing the morning sun, we passed hundreds of balloons getting set up, excitement in overdrive at what the next few hours would hold.

Our balloon carried 10 people – small compared with the vessels that hold up to 40, and one of the reasons I chose ButterFly Balloons over other companies. The pilot took the middle portion of the basket and the guests stood around the edges. He fired up the gas and our balloon started to rise; it was incredible to think that we were floating in a basket held up by just a canopy powered by heat. We floated above the Cappadocian valleys, along with the pigeons and in line with the sun. Hundreds of other balloons followed us, and as a group we dominated the sky in the most spectacular way.

We flew for around an hour, reaching dizzying heights above the clouds, until it was time to return to earth. Expecting a bumpy landing, we all applauded the driver as he softly placed the basket straight into the open trunk of the truck. As if the experience could be any more perfect, a table of chocolate, strawberries and champagne awaited us at the bottom to “cheers” the awakening of a new day.

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Goreme in Cappadocia is known for its cave hotels

 

Paths less travelled

While seeing Cappadocia from a hot air balloon is a must, there are so many other things to do on sturdier ground. The town of Goreme itself is stunning, home to the “fairy chimneys”, cave hotels and an open-air museum; four days was just not enough time. This may also have been because I spent many of my hours searching for baklava, a new hobby of mine that included eating as many varieties of the nutty, honey-soaked pastry as I could and rating them from one to ten.

On another day, we took a private tour organised through the hotel, as it was the same price as the over-crowded group tours and we got to set our own itinerary. (This also fitted in very well with my baklava hunt.) Our private guide took us to Derinkuyu, a 5,000-year-old underground city that was once home to 20,000 people. While this was mindblowing enough, we found it a bit too touristy, and asked if we could go slightly off the beaten track. The rest of the day was spent taking pictures from viewpoints with not another person in sight, drinking coffee on a balcony all to ourselves and wandering around forgotten and rarely visited parts of the different towns of Cappadocia.

My final morning’s sunrise was, by all accounts, one of the best of the whole year. I took my camera and climbed up onto a hotel rooftop to wait for the magic. And magic it certainly was. First the sun appeared over the chimneys, and then came dozens of hot air balloons, soon swelling to hundreds, perfectly covering the golden sky as far as the eye could see. It was even better than you can imagine from the photos. On that morning, at 5am, thousands of miles from my home on the other side of Asia, I saw the most beautiful sight of my life, and discovered that Cappadocia was definitely the golden jewel of Turkey.

FACT FILE

WHERE TO STAY

Aydinli Cave Hotel

+90 384 271 2263 | thecavehotel.com

WHAT TO DO

ButterFly Balloons

+90 384 271 3010 | butterflyballoons.com

HOW TO GET THERE

Turkish Airlines flies direct to Istanbul six times a week from Hong Kong (11 hours). Connecting flights (as many as 18 per day) take you from Istanbul to Kayseri in 75 minutes.

This article first appeared in the Oct/Nov edition of Expat Living magazine.

Got the travel bug? There’s plenty of places to visit in Asia.

For more things to do in Cappadocia, check out Sarah’s blog.

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