The next morning was the day we had been most looking forward to on our Turkey trip. We were set to take a hot air balloon flight that morning with the Royal Balloon Company and they had arranged with our hotel a pick up time of 03:55 am. Since we knew that this was the main thing we wanted to do in Turkey we had booked our flight about a month in advance. When we were in Pamukkale the hotel owner told us he could get us a flight for around $85/person. We had paid more than that with Royal and were seriously considering cancelling to save ourselves some money, but with Royal’s cancellation policy we would have had to cancel that night and risk not getting a ride with another company. After talking it over we decided to trust our gut and stick with Royal Balloon as they were really well rated and had an impeccable safety record. We did have a few misgivings the morning of, but I cannot explain how thankful and happy I am that we didn’t end up changing our balloon flight!
The bus driver scheduled to pick us up was right on time and we were the first ones in the van. Always. We stopped a few more times before arriving at the hotel the Royal Balloon Company operates out of. Upon arrival we observed that all the people flying that morning were grouped into numbered vans and corresponding table numbers to keep everyone on track and get them up into their balloons. We were in group one, and had only eight other people scheduled to go up with us. After paying and getting our goodie bags, these included a hat and leather miniature balloon for each of us, we went to our designated tables and ate the breakfast buffet provided. Finishing that we were taken out to our designated van and off to get to our balloon before sunrise. Our group included a father and son from Columbia, a woman from Australia, a couple from China, a family of three from Turkey, us, and our amazing pilot Tolga.
The van took us out of town and dropped us up on a ridgeline west of the Göreme Valley. We could see a few balloons that were almost ready to take off and two that were still flat on the ground. Our van dropped us off at the two still on the ground and it was much like wrangling a herd of cats to get everyone over and into the balloon basket as all any of us wanted to do was take pictures. With the group loaded Tolga filled the balloon and we were off. He welcomed us to the “king flight” and explained how we would be spending the next 90 minutes exploring Cappadocia from above. At this Jared and I turned to each other with expressions of confusion and delight. We had booked the shorter and cheaper “queen flight” as we didn’t want to pay the extra €50 for another 30 minutes, but somehow we had ended up on the king flight! To this day we still don’t know how or why they bumped us to that flight, but thank you from the bottom of our hearts Royal Balloon Company. It was one of the most magical experiences we have ever had and that extra 30 minutes really did make a huge difference. So if you do plan to take a hot air balloon flight in Cappadocia take the Royal Balloon Company’s King Flight. Just do it. You won’t regret it!
The 90 minutes we spent in the balloon were utterly magical! Tolga took us through the Love Valley, barely above the tops of the rocks there; then he moved us over to the Red and Rose Valleys; down into the Cavusin Old Greek Town; past Paşabağ Valley, giving us history and information about the regions we soared over, and finally up to 700m where we could see for miles in each direction. Keeping us at the northern end of the region we were given an unbeatable view of the Göreme Valley packed with balloons. There were around 90 in the air at the time, but he said during normal years there can be over 100 and up to 150 at once. Being away from the pack we never felt crowded and with so much airspace a few more balloons would likely have only added more beauty and color to the scene. However, it was sad to hear as tourism is way down all across Turkey that Cappadocia was no exception. Well before we would have liked the ride was over and we began our descent back to earth. Fortunately, there were mimosas and cookies waiting for us! And if you’d like to see more photos from our flight check out our Gallery.
Finishing the mimosas we were all loaded back into vans that took us to our hotels. It was barely 7am when we got back and they didn’t start serving breakfast until 9am. Instead of going back to bed and wasting the morning we opted to make some coffee in the room and drink it on the terrace we had smoked hookah on the night before. When we got there we found it littered with people sleeping on every sitting spot. Obviously that wasn’t going to work so we moved to another terrace to sip coffee and stay awake. When the restaurant doors opened we had our second breakfast of the day, and our second, okay maybe third, cup of coffee to go with it. Fueled and ready to explore we loaded into the car with the first stop being the Göreme Open Air Market. We debated on walking or driving, but in the end decided to drive because we didn’t want to waste time in walking back as the other areas we wanted to see were a ways off. Driving was a good choice because the market was closed until 1pm that day as it was the first day of the Bayram. A short regroup and we were instead off to Paşabağ Valley.
Of all the areas we explored in the Cappadocia region, we unanimously agreed that Paşabağ Valley, which means Pasha’s vineyard, was our favorite. It is also known as Monk’s Valley so we didn’t realize we had flown over it that morning until later. The rock cap shapes found here are totally unique to this valley and even have their own name, mushroom shaped fairy chimneys, and some of the rocks have double and triple caps. Being such a large, spacious valley we only felt claustrophobic once or twice when we went into some of the main buildings. Otherwise while still very busy it didn’t feel that crowded. As we explored the old dwellings it became apparent quickly that the people who lived here through the ages were very skilled climbers. These dwellings were likely made by hermits, possibly the monks of St. Simeon, who instead of living on top of pillars like the Saint, carved out the tufa pillars from the bottom to the top creating rooms 10-15m up. We spent a few hours climbing, hiking, and exploring before heading up the road to Devrent Valley.
Devrent Valley, also known as Magic Valley, is a place where your imagination can run wild. This valley has no dwellings, but instead is home to a variety of different shaped rock caps ranging from a camel to a dolphin. Just like watching clouds, the weird shapes give you free reign to see, or not see, anything you want in them. Naz and I did a short hike through one section of the valley playing make believe and having a blast being kids again before we were back in the car. This time we weren’t looking for alligators or statues, we were looking for wineries.
The Cappadocia region produces some seriously good, and not very well known about, wines and we were in search of a place to do a wine tasting. Driving to the town of Ürgüp we were on a mission, but as we didn’t have a certain place in mind we stopped by the town’s tourist office to be pointed in the right direction. This seems like a good idea right? Stop by the office designated to help tourists find things in town, too bad the woman working there missed that memo. She was utterly unhelpful and instead we had to ask at a taxi stand down the street. The drivers pointed us towards our first clue, a small wine shop where we did a tasting but it wasn’t what we were looking for. They in turn pointed us on to a second shop just up the hill. After a snack of street corn we ventured upwards to yet another wine shop. This time they didn’t even do tasters, but they showed us a third place still further up the hill (it was a big hill). The third shop was another bust but they gave us the missing piece of the puzzle by directing us to the Turasan Winery. Here we were finally able to do a sampling of wines made onsite and we bought a few bottles. The wine was ridiculously good and I was sad we couldn’t take more back with us.
Feeling really good we had knew we had to return to where we started the day, the Open Air Market. This small valley and UNESCO World Heritage Site is literally jam packed with hand carved churches created by early Christians. There are 11 refectories and 11 churches you can visit dating to the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries. By this point in the afternoon we were were hot, tired, getting sunburnt, and dangerously close to punching the next person who bumped into us but we all had a great time exploring. These churches are the only area in Cappadocia that comprise a national park, and I think that is largely due to all the frescos and paintings found in them which ranged from comical to inspiring. The works of art like those found in the Dark and Apple Churches were stunningly beautiful and complex; while others like those in St. Barbara’s Church contained paintings from the Iconoclastic Period that looked like a child’s doodles. By the 11th and final church we had all had enough. Ready for a nap we returned to the hotel for some rest and a snack before our last adventure of the day.
Naz had kindly arranged for the hotel to call us a taxi to take us to Turkish Night, where we would be watching a show of traditional Turkish dances and eating traditional Turkish foods. On the ride over we learned there was a miscommunication with the hotel and the driver, and he had undercharged us by a lot for where we were going. Luckily he took his irritation out on the hotel staff and not us, as he kept his cheery banter during the ride even inviting us all to his son’s wedding the next month. Based on the recommendation of the event staff we arrived about an hour early to find ourselves some of the first people there. We didn’t mind though as the place had been set with mezes and the alcohol cart was open for us to enjoy while we waited. The mezes were scrumptious and the beer refreshing, and it was fun waiting and watching the venue fill up as more and more people arrived.
Promptly at 9pm the show started and the fun really took off! At the time we booked we wondered if it would be like those cheesy showss with mostly tourists. This was not like that at all. The dancing was authentic and impressive, the food was tasty, and it was all you could drink! Our fellow show goers took advantage of that by making the raki flow, and we realized quickly that basically everyone else (at least in our section) was Turkish. There were so many Turks that the waiters thought we were Turks and spoke the whole night to us in Turkish! Luckily it was so loud only a smile, laugh, or a nod was expected in return to their comments. The variety of dances were entertaining and the audience participation, including the older woman who went on the floor with the belly dancer resulting in the two engaging in splits competition of sorts, had everyone roaring and cheering.
Be it the raki or the spirit of Bayram, whatever the reason, it was an absolute blast! The best moment may have been at the end when they brought out the Turkish flag and the crowd began to impromptu sing a song to Atatürk. It was fantastic. Our faithful cab driver was there to pick us up as promised with Naz recapping our night to him, and we made it back to the hotel where we all passed out within minutes.