When I showed my husband a photo of hundreds of hot air balloon in the skies, he did a double take, asked where in the world that was and said, without even knowing how far it was, that we should go.
Thankfully, where in the world, happened to be just across the Mediterranean, in a region in Central Turkey called Cappadocia. So we decided on a set of days (Friday, to Tuesday), I booked us a hotel I could cancel up until a week before… and forgot about it. Looking back, I think I believed the whole idea to be so far-removed from something we would actually do, that I thought it would never happen. Not because it was impossible, I already had a friend who had visited after all, but because the place looked so different to anything I visited, that I assumed it just wouldn’t come to pass. We were having dinner a few weeks later and I looked up the prices for the plane tickets to get there, the price for 3 nights at the hotel I had booked (I had wanted a Cave Hotel more than anything – but these did come at a price and everything else was fully booked at that point) and I started having my doubts. Spending 3 nights was going to cost us quite a bit and I was chewing on the idea of cancelling everything. When I talked about the possibility with Carl, he thought about it and said, “Come on, let’s go. The place is too beautiful to pass up.” And this, ladies and gentlemen, is usually the guy who takes me by the hand, and leads me away from anything he deems ridiculously expensive and not worth the money. I’m glad he did.
Our piece of bad news came a week before, when I was trying to make a booking to go on a hot air balloon. The hotel I was booking with told me every company was fully booked and they would try to find us a last minute deal that would cost us double the amount. I was gutted but still hopeful. Surely someone would cancel in the following week, but no one contacted us. My husband, the eternal optimistic assured my fundamentally realistic but bordering on pessimistic soul, that we’d find a place. I held on to that as the day to leave approached.
We took the 10:30 flight to Istanbul from Malta and then the 16:10 flight to Kayseri airport. It started out well enough, we were upgraded to Business Class for free and the Turkish Airlines food was a delight – but I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got there. We had a shuttle bus waiting for us but by the time everyone got on, it was nearly twilight and it was difficult to make out the landscape as we drove through, coupled with the fact that both of us were very drowsy. Despite how close the place actually is on a map, it still took a day to get to where we wanted to be. The drive to the hotel was another hour and we were only jostled awake by the terrific lurching, as we got closer to our destination. Once in Goreme, the van had to pass through winding roads between random rocks jutting out of the Earth, climbing up and up, negotiating the narrow space with other cars. We rubbed the sleep from our eyes as we made it down from the van and into our hotel.
They weren’t joking when they label them cave hotels. Our hotel was called Cappadocia Cave Suites, and it was literally dug in the rock, with extensions jutting out to accommodate the entirety of it. At that time, it was full night. The hotels were lit up prettily and from a vantage point, it seemed like the rocks were wearing pretty strings of shiny gems.
First Dinner spot, the Organic Kitchen
We went for dinner at the Organic Kitchen, a mere 3 minute walk from our hotel and we were shown a little alcove in the rock with rugs and cushions and a low table. We curled up and had a glass of local red (not fantastic I’m afraid) with a local dish of lamb kebabs and pancakes stuffed with cheese they call Gözleme. We didn’t not know back then that we’d also end up cooking them at one point, but we did know that we wouldn’t have problems with this cuisine. We still had a problem – we did not have a balloon flight booked. So we asked at reception as soon as we got back to the hotel that night. The answer was not exactly what we wanted to hear.
“€300 per person. Black Market price, unfortunately,” the receptionist had been contacted by an agency and told they had, indeed, 2 cancellations. He was almost apologetic at the horrendous price asked. To give you a better idea, prices usually start at €170 euro each. We would effectively be paying double for the same thing. I chewed my lip.
“Any chance of negotiating the price?” I asked weakly.
“It is not my price, unfortunately.” I looked at Carl. This might be our only chance and I really, really, really, wanted to get on a balloon. But Carl told him we’d think about it and that was that. So we spent the next half hour phoning up every single hot air balloon agency and asking them to put us on a waiting list in case they had any cancellations. I was feeling quite down at that point, positive that no one would contact us in time. But Carl seemed buoyed by his optimism and I’ve learnt over the years that I’ve known him, that I should never question it.
We bedded down, exhausted, and promised ourselves we’d wake up super early to see what all the fuss was about. I had a feeling for some reason, that the whole thing was hyped up and overrated, as with many things on Instagram. That I’d be slightly let down when I saw it with my own eyes. I went to sleep, wondering.
7am, on the hotel terrace. A group of Asian girls and boys were taking it in turns to take photos on the hotel’s beautiful carpet strewn terrace. There was virtually no wind, the ideal conditions for a balloon ride but it was quite a smoky morning.
Even then, the backdrop was just incredibly gorgeous. Imagine, hundreds of balloons the size of a thimble from the distance, dotting the skies. Balloons, in as many shades as you can imagine, drifting this way and that, or appearing static, like they were somehow levitating. They seemed light as feathers, like you could hold them up with one hand or blow them away in one breath. They hung, suspended, like they were strung up with invisible wires, slowly but surely making their way east of where we stood, into the rising sun. Carl joined me a bit later and we just stood there as we waited in line to have our photos taken, staring. The silence, if you ignored the happy chattering, was absolute. Sometimes, a balloon got close enough that we could hear its thrusters fire up. A cat joined us on the terrace then, winding itself around my husband’s legs. She would grow fond of him in later days, and he of her. We only christened her Puss on the very last day unfortunately, but she didn’t seem to mind that much. It was absolutely glorious – and very difficult to put into words. I was so elated that I thought then that if we didn’t make it on a balloon, this scene would be enough to carry my happiness throughout. So I made my peace with it and we went down for breakfast, where balloons still hovered close, and we were happy beyond imagining.
Göreme itself is a commercial town, built to accommodate the tourist’s needs, with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. It is an excellent base and I suggest you book your stay there if you intend on going. Of itself however, it has little more to offer. Which is why we booked 2 tours, the Blue Tour and the Red Tour, both focusing on areas close together in the same zones, away from Göreme.
We saw valleys, and 5thcentury churches carved in rock. We saw frescoes of divine figures from the 9thcentury, some vandalised, some preserved intact. We saw Roman ruins of baths and cemeteries, underground cities the inhabitants would flee to in times of war. Strange geological formations formed millions of years ago, when volcanic activity shifted the entire area that had been nothing more than a huge lake, pushing the Earth up in layers and eroding it over the years. You had the feeling you were on a different planet or at the very least, a different continent altogether. They called large, mushroom shaped rocks “Fairy Chimneys” and the earliest settlers carved homes and churches into them because they were the perfect hideout. It was, and still is, a land of contradictions, where East clashed with West where persecutors turned persecuted and the dwellings changed hands and religions over the years. You shivered as you stared at frescoes where the figure depicting Jesus had his eyes carved out. You try to imagine but could never come close, how people lived for months in tunnels even I could not stand straight in. We fell in love, stone by stone, valley after valley.
- We went on tours on our first and third day of our stay. On the morning of the first day, after we had spent the previous evening calling up balloon agencies if you remember, we went for a walk on Lovers’ Hill. It’s a beautiful flat plateau that afforded the most amazing views over Göreme, and although I would later visit at sunset too, that particular moment was magical for 2 reasons.
It was empty. It was just us and a dog, sleeping contentedly in the sun.
Royal Balloons phoned us to tell us there were 2 cancellations for €170 each if we wished but we’d have to go pay now. Needless to say, we flew to our hotel where Carl was promptly picked up, taken to their offices and we were confirmed 2 spots on the following day. We were over the moon.
On the day of our balloon ride, pick up time was at 06:30. We were (obviously) on time (this was the first time I did not have to nag Carl to hurry up) and we were taken to have breakfast at the Royal Balloon headquarters. We were given the number of our bus and taken to our balloon. The excitement was like frisson in the air. The balloon lay on its side, deflated but slowly forming into shape. I was hopping from one leg to another, both out of cold (I had seriously under packed for this holiday) and out of this childlike thrill at what was about to happen. I think the moment which made my heart leap more than anything, was the precise moment the basket left the ground with an imperceptible wobble. You would never have thought you were floating – it was only looking down that you realised you were not anchored to the Earth anymore. There is no lurch like on a plane, no feeling that your gut just fell through the seat. There was just a feathery lightness, the feeling that we weighed nothing. And so we flew.
I would never do the experience any justice with words so I won’t even try. Pictures tell a thousand words anyway and the length of this post is getting out of hand. I apologise! Suffice it to say, that it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Visibility was crystal clear, we could even see Mount Erciyes in the distance. The floating sensation, the sweeping panorama, the balloons that dotted the sky and there you were, with them, just another dot on a colourful landscape. We closed off the experience with champagne and strawberries dipped in chocolate and a medal for… having enjoyed the trip, I presume? The real winner was our pilot, Buse, one of the 10 female pilots amongst 200 men. It is not easy to steer a balloon to a desired location when all you could do was go up or down. Her cool and incredible instinct were spot on.
Carl and I went to have a nap after the flight. When we woke up we looked at each other and seriously wondered whether we had just dreamt it. But the photos were on our phones and the medal lay on a heap of clothes by the bedside. We had done it. When the day after we went to watch the sun rise over Lovers’ Hill and the balloons floated around us just within reach, we looked at each and smiled. This was one hell of a holiday.
You might be wondering at this point, why Tea, Sugar and a Dream? I decided to call it so because the phrase simply gathers in it all the gratefulness we had at the end of our trip. You see, “thank you” in Turkish is “teşekkür ederim”, a mouthful as you will probably agree. One local broke it down for us in three very simple and similar sounding words in English, namely tea, sugar and a dream. It took some time to get used to it but I helped us remember the word for gratitude in Turkish.
So teşekkür ederim, Kapadokya. Thank you for being warm as tea, sweet as sugar and completely incredible, like the best of dreams.