Cappadocia, Kappadokya as it is pronounced, was not as difficult to reach as I expected (Turkish).

We had arrived in Turkey through Istanbul’s second airport Sabiha Gökçen (*). The airport hotel  is only a couple of minutes walk from the terminal and is surprisingly good for overnight stopovers. We flew to Ankara the next morning and then hired a car for the remainder of the journey. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to drive from Istanbul. It’s about 600 km, 300 km to Ankara and another 300 km to Cappadocia and on good roads I estimate around 6 hours travelling time.

We arrived in Uçhisar towards 4pm and checked into our hotel, argos in Cappadocia (*). The hotel is essentially the old village rebuilt. Some years ago Uçhisar was moved from the east to the west side of the hill and the old village fell into disrepair, a ruin rather than a ghost town. Since 1997 the houses and courtyards have been gradually renovated and in 2010 the hotel was opened. There are now 53 rooms. The concept “a village with a reception desk” is perhaps overstated, but the labyrinth of narrow streets, stairways, passages and courtyards does give the sense of a hill-top village. From the terrace outside our room we had a panoramic view of the whole region.

There is a guided tour of the hotel property every evening at 6pm. This was originally the site of a monastery and underground there are tunnels and caves which now house the cellars. Terraced gardens for flowers, fruit and vegetables drop down the hillside into Güvercinlik-vadisi or pigeon valley. There are other similar hotels nearby but this is the only one that has a restaurant. Our first evening was fine and we had dinner on the terrace. The next evening it rained and we had to eat inside. There is a good wine list. You don’t often see Turkish wines; maybe they don’t travel; but this is where wine making originated. We tried a “Şiraz”, and the local grape “Kalecik Karası” – kara means black. Both were excellent.

The landscape here is volcanic, formed by the lava flows from nearby, now extinct, volcanoes Erciyes, Hasan and Güllü. Rivers have cut valleys through the terrain. The castles and chimneys that are scattered across the region are outcrops left behind as the surrounding rock has been eroded away. There are different layers of rock, some cream, some rose-coloured. The chimneys are typically cones that have worn smooth, but the castles at Uçhisar, and Ortahisar nearby, are larger and are more irregularly shaped. Hisar means castle. These structures are soft and have been hollowed out to create living spaces, tombs, cisterns and dovecotes. The local farmers encouraged the pigeons in order to collect their droppings which they used as fertiliser.

Next morning we were up at 4am for our hot-air balloon ride. We booked with Royal Balloons (*). We were picked-up at 4:30am for the transfer to Göreme and a first breakfast and then on to the launch site at around 6am. The balloons take about 15 minutes to inflate. It’s worth paying the extra for the longer flight with fewer passengers in the basket. Most of the flight we stayed low over the fields and valleys. At this season, in September, the wheat fields have already been harvested. In the narrow valleys the vines grow very low to the ground rather than being trained on trellises. What look like heaps of black peas are raisins laid out to dry. Only at the end of the flight did we ascend to around 500 metres. This was fortunate because at this height I did have a feeling of vertigo. Shortly afterwards, we made our rendezvous with the ground team in a field and the pilot landed the basket on the trailer. We took photographs and drank Cappadocian sparkling wine while the crew rolled the balloon up into its surprisingly small packaging. The whole operation was very well organised. We were back at the hotel for a second breakfast by 8:30am.

Later in the morning we drove south to Derinküyü taking the scenic route through Göreme, Ortahisar and Mustafapaşa rather than the main road. Mustafapaşa was formally called Sinasos and was significantly affected by the forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. Sinasos had been a prosperous town but around 8,000 Greek-speaking orthodox christians either fled or were forcibly deported. The incoming population did not occupy and keep up the houses which are now dilapidated. There are signs that the village is being targeted for development for tourism.  The road south from Mustafapaşa passes through some scenic countryside. The terrain here is more verdant than the ground we had flown over in the morning and there are more trees, particularly slender trees that may have been cypress and poplar.

Kaymakli and Derinküyü are two of the principal underground cities here. They were built as refuges for the inhabitants in times of danger. Both modern towns are somewhat scrappy and undeveloped compared with the main tourist centres around Göreme. We decided to visit Derinküyü (*), which is the larger site. The name means deep well. The tunnels and caves have been excavated down through eight levels but there are thought to be many more. The city dates back possibly 2,700 years but was subsequently lost and then rediscovered in 1963.  The site has not really been developed yet and there is little in the way of explanations, maps or reconstructions. You can go around on your own but we took up the offer from the local guide.

Back at the hotel and before supper I strolled round the modern village of Uçhisar and climbed up to the top of the castle. With more time I would have liked to walk down into the valley below. We had to leave the following morning to drive back to Ankara. We drove back to the capital by a different route, following the D300 from Nevşehir to Aksaray and then the D750 north to Ankara. This turned out to be a spectacular route. The terrain here rolls open and treeless towards a barely discernible horizon, the straw and olive fields in the foreground shading into a distant cerulean blue-green haze. Although the wheat has been harvested the pumpkins still lie in the fields. There are only a few towns. On the way we pass the flat expanse of Tuz Gölü, the salt lake. This was the only disappointment on this drive; we stopped briefly at the viewing spot, but it was all tourist hustle.


The locals couldn’t understand why we would want to go to the capital but the main reason was to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations (*). The museum is on a hill just below the citadel and there is a good view over the city from the café in the gardens. The building itself is the now renovated storage rooms of the Mahmut Paşa bazaar. The brick-vaulted central hall houses the large-scale stone artefacts while the smaller exhibits are arranged in chronological order in the surrounding rooms. The museum houses artefacts from the Palaeolithic period to the present. The Neolithic village at Çatalhöyük was occupied between 9,000 and 7,500 years ago. The Hittites were dominant in the region between 3,800 – 3,200 years ago, followed by the Phrygians and Lydians. Some 2,600 years ago, in 620 BCE, Anatolia was incorporated into the Persian Empire, then in 330 BCE it became part of the Hellenistic empire assembled by Alexander and subsequently a component of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

At the top of the hill is Ankara Kalesi. Kale is another word for fortress. It isn’t what I expected. The fortifications at the top are now just a collection of walls which you can climb along, though there are no guard rails. The citadel itself is built-up with houses, many of which have become tourist shops and restaurants. It predates the Seljuk Turks conquest of Anatolia in 1073 but the original date of construction is not known.

After visiting the castle we took a taxi to Anitkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum (*). We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard. The central courtyard is bounded on three sides by covered walkways and on the remaining side by the main hall, marble clad and largely empty except for the ceremonial sarcophagus. On the east side is an avenue shaded by trees called the Lion Walk leading down to two towers, Independence Tower and Freedom tower. The concrete buildings are clad in local travertine. It is undoubtedly impressive but even the travertine cladding, warmer than concrete or marble, cannot overcome a certain uncomfortable monumentalism. I would have planted more trees.

We had originally intended to go to Boğazkale, some 200 km outside Ankara on the road to Samsun, to visit the ruins of the Hittite capital at Hattusa. However, after visiting the museum in Ankara, we decided instead to go to Gordion, the capital of the Phrygian empire, which is only about 60 km distant from Ankara. It is just outside the barrack town of Polatli. Somewhat fancifully, the main burial mound here has been identified as the mausoleum of the mythical king Midas. Gordion is also where Alexander cut the Gordion knot, an intricate bark binding used to secure the shaft of an ox cart. Accounts of the event and its significance differ. The artefacts in the small museum (*) are well displayed and the tomb chamber in the tumulus, reached by a long curving tunnel, is impressive. The Phrygians used juniper, cypress and pine to construct the chamber. A little further on from the tumulus is the site of the citadel, but it is really just a jumble of old stones and doesn’t communicate much. After visiting Gordion we drove back to Ankara to catch our return flight to Istanbul.


We had three days in Istanbul itself, which is nowhere near enough. Our hotel was the Biz Cevahir (*) in Cantakuran in Sultanahmet, less than 5 minutes walk from the main sites in the old city. On our first morning we visited Hagia Sophia (*). It was built between 532 and 537 in the reign of emperor Justinian on the site of earlier churches. It became a mosque after the Turkish conquest in 1453 and at that time most of the mosaics were whitewashed over; only the mosaics of the Virgin Mary and the six-winged Seraphim were left visible. Since 1935 it has been a museum.   It is difficult to get a sense of the place when you first enter among the milling tourists. Unfortunately, scaffolding covered the north side of the central nave when we visited. The mihrab at the far end aligns to Mecca rather than the east and the offset adds to the initial sense of muddle and a-symmetry. But climb up to the galleries and you start to understand the place. I liked the simplicity of the architecture and the decoration:  the domes, the ochre paintwork, the mosaics, the calligraphy and the geometrical patterns. Also, the windows here are open to let in the breeze and look out over the Bosphorus on one side and the Blue Mosque on another. I had a sense that this was unexpected but it only occurred to me later that this is because it is unusual for a church. The exterior presents an image of massiveness, probably a consequence of the heavy earth-hued buttressing. The mausoleums of various sultans are accessed by a separate entrance. We decided to visit the mausoleum of Selim II (*). It was designed by Mimar Sinan the chief architect of the Ottoman empire.

The queues at the Basilica cistern and the Blue Mosque were too long, so we strolled around the Hippodrome, and then headed back to the hotel. In the afternoon we took a taxi to Beyoğlu to visit Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (*). The taxi driver didn’t know how to find it in the narrow streets, taking us initially to the nearby museum of another write Orhan Kemal. The museum is in a narrow house on a corner plot. The novel contains 83 chapters and there is a numbered exhibit corresponding to most of them. In fact, although conceived together, the museum and the book can be appreciated independently. I did take my copy of the novel, with its entry ticket printed in the last chapter. It is now stamped with a butterfly motif. Pamuk’s manifesto for the museum is that it should be different from the state-run museum which records the public history of the nation and should be the template for another kind of museum, a museum of the private and individual.

We walked down the hill to Tophane to catch a tram back to Sultanahmet. It was uncomfortably packed. The entrance to the Basilica Cistern is close by to the tram stop and this time we decided to stand in the queue. The cistern, a substantial columned vault, turned out to be well worth the wait. Walkways have been built through the columns and carp swim in the shallow water. It is contemporary with Hagia Sophia.

There were many restaurants on the streets around the hotel. We had supper at Aloran just down the street both evenings we were there. The thing in these restaurants is the kebab cooked in a clay pot, the top of which is knocked off with a knife with much fire and flourish. Between the hotel and the restaurant is a Four Seasons Hotel which occupies what was once the Ottoman prison.

Our second day was a cruise on the Bosphorus. The guide from Istanbul Walks (*) picked us up from the hotel after breakfast. First stop was the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, another of the chief architect Sinan’s works. Rüstem Paşa was grand vizier and married to a daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roxelana. The mosque was built after his death in 1561. It is beautifully tiled with the Iznit tiling that is also used in the Blue Mosque. We then visited the spice market and brought coffee and Turkish delight before walking down to the jetty at Eminönü to embark on our boat. The tour took us initially further up the Golden Horn and then back into the Bosphorus. We headed north up the European shore as far as the second suspension bridge and then returned along the Asian shore to Üsküdar.

The second bridge crosses the narrowest point where the strait is only about 750 metres wide. On the European side is the Rumhelihisari, constructed in 1452 by Mehmet II opposite the Anadoluhisari, which occupies the other bank and was completed in 1394. This was the obvious point to blockade the Bosphorus to prevent supplies reaching Constantinople ahead of the final assault. The Asian shore is less built up than the European side, and some very nice villas line the tree covered hills. We left the boat at the jetty at Üsküdar for lunch at a restaurant called the Filizler Köftecisi. It is just opposite the Maiden’s Tower and was fairly busy on a Sunday morning with people having a late breakfast. A swimming competition was taking place on the shore with the competitors swimming out to the tower.

After lunch we went up the Çamlica Hill. It would once have been a fine view of the city but the hill itself is now overdeveloped and uglified with a collection of radio towers. Our last stop during the afternoon was the Dolmabahçe Palace. This was built in the 19th century, replacing the Topkapi palace as the royal residence. It is constructed in the European style. The setting on the side of the Bosphorus is pleasant but it is not I think a very good building. The guide explained that it was conceived from weakness. The Ottomans decline relative to the European powers meant that the sultan needed to impress and had to be closer to the European’s embassies in Beyoğlu.

On our final morning we visited the Topkapi palace (*). The name means cannon gate: kapi means gate and top means cannon. The queues were long and it took 40 minutes to get the tickets. We should have brought a 3 day museum pass on the first morning. We would have wasted 25 Turkish Lira each but saved a lot of time. The harem was open the day we visited and required a separate ticket. This palace of pavilions and courtyards and terraces is much more impressive than Dolmabahçe and has fine views over the Bosphorus. It is now a museum and the exhibits include a number of relics but the most interesting I thought were the illustrated manuscripts.  There is a collection of porcelain and other kitchen ware in the kitchen buildings.