Park those alternative energy cars and hybrid vehicles, hot air ballooning is my new green travel of choice. Can there be a more magnificent place to try my wings than over the Cappadoccian landscape?
Cappadocia is a region in Anatolia, largely in the Nevşehir Province, in the center of modern day Turkey. Together with Göreme National Park, these rock sites form one of Turkey’s eleven World Heritage Sites. Centuries of volcanic eruptions coated the topography with layer on layer of lava and volcanic “tufa”, volcanic ash turned to rock. Nearby, Erciyas volcano is still active with occasional minor eruptions.
Wind and water have sculpted the landscape into spectacular pillars and towers that could have sprung from the imaginings of Tim Burton or Doctor Seuss. Grass covered plateaus crack open, exposing terrifyingly craggy innards. Soft mounds of tufa look like melting ice cream. The variegated earth is set against unflinchingly blue skies. All perfect for a hot air balloon ride.
Sometimes, lava and tufa combined to create “fairy chimneys”, pointed tufa formations topped with lava capstones, reaching 40 meters high. It’s a geological scrapbook that illustrates our planet’s evolution.
Over the ages, people have worked within these rock formations to excavate caves. Homes, storage cells, places of worship and safe havens from invaders remain from as far back as the 4th century.
But I think I’ll save that archeological back story for another time. Come fly with me, instead.
We arise in the dark. A 4 am pick-up drops us at a nondescript catering hall where a hundred other sleepy balloonists have gathered. My kids aren’t quite convinced. While everyone picks at a breakfast buffet (butter carved into giant heads of Greek gods and – confusingly – a crocodile), or swallows coffee to wake up, the pilots check in with the flight controller and weather bureau to chart wind patterns and select a launch point.
Predawn flights are the norm, in part to exploit beautiful sunrises but mostly to utilize stronger morning winds. We’re assigned pilots, and we’re off to the fields with Barış.
In the dimness, we spot a few early starters, floating slowly above the hilltops. An enchanting sight in the quiet morning chill. We spot semi-inflated balloons arising from the fields, like slow-waking elephants. They silently swell and bump bellies. All we hear is the low whoosh of the gas jets, we see shots of illumination as their jets flash flame in the morning twilight.
Our van stops in an empty field. Barış explains that he’s a lone operator, preferring to set up apart from the crowds. (Après trip, I watch balloon mishaps on YouTube. His choice to steer clear of the crowd is sage).
His team unloads the basket (twelve people will hop in). They unfurl the balloon and crank up the gas jets. The crew steps inside the volume – the enormity of the balloon is surprising – they attach ropes and make adjustments. It’s remarkably like race prep for a sailboat.
We climb aboard, to a serious safety talk. And a few more blasts of the jet, and we’re quietly airborne.
The pilot can make the balloon travel vertically, the winds do the horizontal work.
We fly frighteningly close along the upside slope of steep hillsides, Barış clearly in control. Reaching the plateau’s table top, we’re slapped in the face with mindblowing vistas across the entire valley. Everyone is slack-jawed.
The sun rises, painting the skies pink and gold before pouring on brilliant blue.
We fly over farmland. There must be forty varieties of fruit grown here. Cherries and apples, peaches and grapes, pumpkins and olives. Barış offers to scrape apricot trees so we can snatch a few, but everyone’s eyes are glued to the white folded terrain just ahead.
The shadows at play in the creases of tufa are riveting, but there are no brakes on balloons, so we float on past to the fairy chimneys.
We’d explored these formations the day before (on foot), but to see them from a birds eye view is a whole ‘nother story.
The intricate carvings are clearer: archways framing rectangular holes which are doorways to pigeon hotels. They’re everywhere in the rocks. People for centuries have collected pigeon droppings to use as fertilizer, a source of phosphorus for Cappadoccian farmers since antiquity.
Our flight lasted about two hours, but the ride was timeless. We sailed to a remote field for our descent, a happily soft landing.
Our feet on the ground, I think part of us stayed aloft. Barış celebrated another safe journey by cracking open some bubbly wine, spiked with tart cherry juice. We clink glasses, realizing that back in the real world, we’d just be getting off to work.
My family vetoes fancy-pants holidays. We’re more attracted to active ski trips or city crawls. I doubt I’ll ever hop a cruiseline, but this unique balloon excursion was worth the extra bucks.
We used a company called Kapadokya Balloons. I absolutely recommend them (and what’s not to like about their choice of Bobby McFerrin for website tunes?), but there are loads of others to choose from. TripAdvisor and the like can give fuller comparisons, but prices and experiences will be comparable.
Cappadoccia may be the “land of beautiful horses”, but it’s best seen on the fly.