Monday, 6 August 2007

Captivated by Cappadocia

It is an eerie feeling standing in a cave which served as a secret church for the early Christians nearly two millenia ago. But that is the wonder of Cappadocia, the most fascinating part of Turkey, which we visited recently as part of a seventeen-day self-organised trip around the country. Boasting an extraordinary lunar landscape, the region has only relatively recently boosted its tourist infrastructure. Fifty years ago, vandals and robbers desecrated 11th century wall paintings of remarkable perspective and clarity in the cave churches of Goreme that emerged after Christianity had the blessing of Rome (the emperor, that is). Today despite their efforts, a magnificent historical monument remains. A visit to this extraordinary open air museum costs YTL20 including the particularly impressive Karanlik Kilise or Dark Church where the light acted as preserver to what must be the best preserved thousand-year old frescoes in the world. Our day trip, with private car, guide and driver cost $195 with Argeus Travel, an excellent local agency.

Nearby it is an extraordinary sensation clambering across the region's lunar landscape amidst remarkable sculptures of nature in what locals call Imagination Valley or looking down at the peribicalar or fairy chimneys near Urgup. We didn't see all that this fascinating region had to offer but did enjoy staying in the truly wonderful Yunak Evleri cave hotel which offers breakfast and dinner with one of the most breathtaking views imaginable (though you do need to smoke out the morning wasps). Particularly good for food is the nearby Dimrit restaurant, where we had a splendid dinner before taking in the mesmerising Islamic dances of the whirling dervishes.

We had flown on the efficient Sun Express from Izmir to Kayseri, having spent ten days in the seaside town of Foca, or ancient Phokaia, where we were well looked after at the Focantique, a self-styled boutique hotel on the seafront. A day trip to Ephesus arranged by the hotel with private driver enabled us to see the well-preserved classical city and its splendid 25,000-seater Great Theatre together with Mary's House and St John's Basilica at a more leisurely pace than a coach trip, a blessing in what turned out to be 44C heat. Foca is a sleepy sort of place in many ways, but popular with Izmir families and boasts well over a dozen restaurants, many of them serving splendid fish as well as kebabs along the harbour front. The town has plenty of daytrips to visit the Siren rocks and pass an island said to resemble the great Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk when viewed from the correct angle. Although there is a small and very busy town beach, the best place to enjoy the seaside is at the nearby Hanedan resort - involving a YTL1,50 dolmus - minibus - ride and a YTL10 admission charge for non-residents, which includes umbrellas generous enough to give proper shade to two. There are excellent beach cafes, with a tented traditional version offering fresh pancakes and spa treatments available in the hotel. Izmir is served from London by Sun Express and Thomas Cook Airlines. Restaurants we particularly liked were the Zeytin near our hotel; the Fokai, slightly hidden high above the yachts and boats in the main harbour; and for fish, the Mozaic Balik. The town also boasts a small hammam with efficient scrubs and massages.

We flew Turkish Airlines from Kayseri to Istanbul where we enjoyed the awe-inspiring Aya Sofya, a Christian church forcibly turned to a mosque, but secularised as a magnificent monument by Ataturk. We visited several mosques, including the Blue Mosque, which is more impressive out than in (a real contrast with the Aya Sofya). Particularly impressive were the archaeological museums, especially the displays of Babylonian street panels in the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the amazing burial chambers in the main museum. Admission is a bargain at YTL5 covering three museums. A day at the Topkapi palace is a must, and for us it was enlivened by a military music display in the extensive grounds. The harem, for which a second YTL10 fee is charged, is the most interesting part of the palace. We also took the 'touristic' ferry down the Bosphorus affording wonderful views of the shoreside houses and occasional palaces as well as giving a sense of the maritime importance of Istanbul. The ferry at 10.35 or noon offers the best option for a day out with a lunch break before returning.

We stayed in a delightful Ottoman hotel, the Dersaadet, right in the heart of Sultanahmet. Breakfasts are taken on a terrace with views of the Marmara sea and Blue Mosque (the terrace also acts as a bar until midnight) and the staff are unfailingly helpful. Rooms are furnished in traditional wood, but though small-ish, are well-equipped and good value at about £70 a night. Two particularly good local restaurants worth a visit are the Sera in the Hotel Armada, where the YTL58 chef's tasting menu gives you the chance to taste over a dozen dishes while you gaze over the Marmara sea from the wonderful terrace; and the fish restaurant allegedly favoured by the city's elite, the Balikci Sabahattin set in a garden in a surprisingly rundown neighbourhood. Full dinner with wine for two costs about YTL160 in both restaurants. Escaping Turkish food for a night, we greatly enjoyed the good value Dubb Indian restaurant, and for a top-notch dinner 18 floors over the newer part of town, we couldn't fault the drippingly trendy Mikla restaurant in the Marmara Pera hotel. Expect to pay YTL260 for dinner and wine for two there. Other local kebab houses offered lunch with beer for under YTL10 a head, and wine is needlessly expensive in most places we ate across Turkey. We returned to London via BA but there are also EasyJet and Turkish Airlines alternatives.

Our visit provided a good mix of sun and sightseeing, enjoying good accommodation and excellent meals across the country. Turkey is modernising fast but its history and culture remain endlessly fascinating.

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