Few things are worth rising at 4 a.m. to see. A full lunar eclipse or Halley’s Comet passing by every 75 years would likely qualify. But I can say from experience that a hot air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia is most definitely worth an early rise!
Cappadocia is a region in the centre of Turkish Anatolia that is renowned for its distinctive and mystical topography. The spectacular landscape was created by three now extinct volcanoes that triangulate the Nevsehir plateau. Mount Erciyes in the east is the highest at close to 13,000 feet, then Hasan in the southwest at almost 11,000 feet, and finally Güllüda in the northwest at a modest 7,000 feet.
Millions of years ago, all three volcanoes spewed volumes of volcanic ash, mud, and lava over the area, blanketing the ground with mountains of debris. Wind and water slowly sculpted the soft, porous volcanic pumice into elongated shapes, cones, and pillars while leaving the harder lava (basalt) rocks balancing precariously on top of the formations. The process continues to this day and you can see new fairy chimneys being shaped while ancient ones are ever so slowly crumbling away.
The name “fairy chimney” was given to the conical stones by early settlers in the area who superstitiously believed otherworldly spirits had a hand in creating the outlandish monuments. They heard strange noises coming from the formations and believed spirits not only created but also inhabited the stones and that, when the wind whistled through the porous rock, they could hear the fairies trying to communicate. The spirits were believed to be benevolent and eventually families carved homes in the formations to be close to the friendly fairies.
Due to the unique nature of the terrain, hot air balloon rides in Cappadocia are big business, and by the time we arrived at the lift site well before sunrise, dozens of balloons were in various stages of ascension almost as far as the eye could see in the pre-dawn light.
Our balloon company, Ürgüp Balloons, deposited us close to our brightly coloured yellow balloon with alternating stripes of blue, red, yellow, purple, and green. The balloon was in the final stages of inflation and our 10-person group was warmly greeted by Captain Ersoy Ugar, a certified flyer with many years of ballooning experience.
Several brawny handlers were attached to each balloon and with remarkable patience and good grace, assisted us in climbing aboard into the small basket. Captain Ersoy briefed us on the important and very necessary protocol regarding positioning ourselves for landing, and with a blast of the burners we 10 intrepid adventurers were smoothly lifted off the earth to greet the rising sun.
The weather had been cool and overcast every morning for weeks and the sun did not break through until mid-day. But today Mother Nature was smiling on us—the sun rose with the balloons, making us part of an awesome cosmic spectacle. At first there was little wind and we seemed to hang suspended silently in space, like a bird floating on a current of air. After a few moments of balancing between heaven and earth, a breeze caught the balloon and we began to move toward the stone formations stoically awaiting our visit.
And visit them we did. We got so close to some of the fairy chimneys it was easy to reach out and touch them from our floating perch. There were dozens of balloons in the air; at times it seemed as if we would bounce off each other. Sometimes we were above other balloons, sometimes below, but all the while Captan Ersoy kept in touch with the other Captains via walkie-talkie to insure the safety of all the balloons and their precious cargo.
A Rare Treat
Cappadocia is a wonderland and it is not hard to buy into the ancient fable of the fairies when you first come across this magical landscape. We happened to be there in the spring, which is an exceptionally lovely time to visit. In spring the normally arid landscape is softened by the profusion of wildflowers and trees showering the sandy-coloured countryside with patches of lilac, gold, pink, and orange.
I was also fortunate to be escorted through the area by Özkan Güleç, the owner of Peerless Travel and an expert on his home region of Cappadocia. Visiting this extraordinary place with a native—and happily an English speaking one—was indeed a rare treat and one that will live with me for many, many moons.
Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveller and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at www.luxuryweb.com