OUR PILOT IS LATE. We’re standing in an uneven cluster, stamping our feet against the chill of 5am, and all around us balloons are taking flight. They float like bubbles in oil, slow and imprecise. The dragon’s roar of a dozen nearby burners shatters the morning stillness as crews shoot fiery plumes into their envelopes. We watch as the airships rise, silhouetted against a rapidly lightening sky.
“Where is he?” someone asks for the umpteenth time, anxiously eying the approaching sunrise. “I’m about to miss the best view of my life.”
At last, Andrew pulls up, leaps from the cab of his Jeep, and strides over to our balloon. It’s on its side, the nylon envelope stretched out on the grass. He crouches and crab-walks into the basket. “Ready?” he shouts. He pulls the trigger and releases a shaft of flame into the opening of the balloon. From six meters away, I can feel the heat on my face.
It’s like a kitten trapped under bed sheets. A small pocket of heated air rolls and skitters inside the bag, pushing at the sides in erratic play. Another trigger-pull and it’s a mountain lion, and then it’s slowly lifting off, changing shape in the wind.
The crew hollers warnings as the basket rights itself, pulled into position by the air straining inside the envelope. Andrew tips his face towards the burner and the fire paints oranges and yellows across his broad grin. “We’re going up!” he yells, and the crewmen lean back on their ropes, using their body weight to keep the balloon down.
We hurry to the basket, which is divided into five areas — the pilot’s hold and four viewing compartments. A crewman picks us out from the group, dividing us by weight, and one by one we clamber over the sides. Inside, we’re instructed to find the nearest hand-holds — heavy-gauge rope woven through the wicker.
“Now into landing position!” We crouch. “Now the other way!” he shouts, signaling a landing to the right, and inside the basket we shuffle and crouch again. Safety drill completed, Andrew pulls the trigger.
The craft lifts, and a meter above ground, hovers. The workers surround the balloon and shout and point and work the ropes, and inside Andrew triggers the burner. And then we’re flying.
We rise smoothly on a flawless vertical trajectory. On the ground, the Jeeps shrink until they’re Matchbox cars, and the crew — still rushing and pointing — is mute.
In the air, everything is quiet. I’d expected whooshing or flapping or whistling wind, but I’m astonished to discover that at just 100 feet above the ground, the world falls silent.
Andrew’s a balloon-pilot god. With over 1,000 flights to his career, he’s developed a precise touch. Pilots work without a steering wheel, relying on existing wind currents and simple physics: hot air rises. When he triggers the burner, he heats the air inside the envelope and we go up; he lets the air cool and we fall. It’s a neat trick.
Now imagine doing it over a landscape of rock towers.
Volcanic lava cooled into a hard layer of tuff on the rocky floor of Cappadocia. Over time, erosional forces caused the softer underlying material to wash away, leaving a landscape of conical towers that resemble mushrooms or — as the region’s alternate name of “Love Valley” coyly suggests — erections.
As we float close to the chimneys, I can see a neat grid of tiny square windows cut into the rock, ringed by a faded fresco of precise red triangles. At the base of the formation, a human-sized doorway lies in shadow, and a dozen meters above it an interior room is visible where the rock face has fallen away.
We’re looking at the remains of centuries of human habitation of the towers. Nobody knows who first thought to carve their dwellings out of the rock, but when early Christians followed St. Paul to the area to escape persecution they recognized it as an ideal place to build homes, monasteries, and hideaways from the numerous regional conflicts of the Byzantine period.
The chimneys also housed their pigeons, which were essential for food, fertilizer, and frescoes; the paintings were created by mixing pigment with the whites of the birds’ eggs.
The living chambers were accessed by removable ladders or interior stairways, keeping residents’ activity hidden. Passersby catching glimpses of candlelight from inside the columns concluded that fairies lived there — hence, “fairy chimneys.”
Andrew’s walkie-talkie crackles, and below us a cluster of Jeeps bounce into position. “In ten minutes we’ll be on the ground,” our pilot says, and works the trigger a little.
We’re hovering near the tip of a chimney, nearly close enough to touch. With a cocky grin, Andrew feeds a bit more flame into the envelope and we follow his gaze. He’s brought the edge of our balloon a few feet from the tip of the tower, dangling us dangerously close to collision. Then, with a tiny squeeze, he nudges us even closer.
“Show off!” someone calls out, and we break into nervous laughter. One more squeeze and the balloon shifts to within 12 inches. We’re holding our breath, afraid of exerting even the slightest force. Finally, Andrew opens the burner and heat washes over our faces. As our basket clears the formation, we burst into applause.
Our pilot, it turns out, was worth the wait. On the ground, the chase crew is waving.
Ballooning in Cappadocia
There are numerous hot air ballooning companies operating in the region, but the licensing and credentials of their operators vary.
Kapadokya Balloons is considered to be a premium company with highly qualified pilots. They take payment by credit card but you save on fees if you pay in cash. A standard one-hour flight costs 165 euros per person, while the “exclusive deluxe” ride (longer airtime, fewer people) goes for 230. Turkish lira (TL) and Canadian and American dollars are accepted.
- Make sure you bring warm clothes, even in the summer months. The early start and exposure to the elements can make for a chilly ride.
- The best spot for photographers is at the outer corner of the basket, where you can get uninterrupted panoramas of up to 270 degrees.
- Flights may be postponed due to strong winds, especially in winter. Don’t leave the ride until the end of your trip.
Cappadocia became UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 based on cultural and natural criteria. Of particular interest to those with a curiosity about the religious history of the region, the Göreme Open-Air Museum is a cluster of rock-cut churches, monasteries, and chapels, many with intact frescoes.
The site is only a 15min walk from Göreme. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the busiest times for tour visits. Entrance is 15 TL, and note that flash photography is not permitted.
The region is home to 36 underground cities — also called troglodyte dwellings — where inhabitants hid from the many passing armies and looters. Check out Derinkuyu (the deepest) and Kaymakli (the widest). Visit the local tourist information booth for tour options.
Bring your camera and follow the path running from the hilltop lookout point above Göreme along the nearby hills and into the valley below. This will take you close to several of the chimneys. Bring a few lira to buy fruit, nuts, and handicrafts from the many vendors set up along the way.
Where to stay
Some of the cave homes are still inhabited, and many have been turned into hotels or pensions in the village of Göreme.
Adventure Center offers several tours to Turkey that include a stay in Göreme. Depending on your tour choice, hot air ballooning, a trip to the underground museum, an area hike, and a visit to an underground city may be available as included or optional excursions. [Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]