WEIRD WONDERS OF ANCIENT TURKEY : CAPPADOCIA : In the central region, a fantasy land of multilevel cities carved into the rock

Britton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

When most people think of Turkey they think of the palaces and mosques and bazaars of Istanbul, the Mediterranean sun and sea or, perhaps, the Greek ruins of the Turkish Riviera. Yet many travelers fail to venture out into central Turkey, which has incredible natural wonders comparable to the best U.S. national parks, but with much more history.

After the usual tour of Istanbul in June, visiting museums, mosques, palaces and bazaars, my husband Alex and I flew to Ankara, about an hour away, and there rented an automobile to explore the Hittite temples, bas-reliefs and tombs that lie 100 miles to the northeast. We then headed south to the area of central Turkey unofficially referred to as Cappadocia, taking the half-day's drive from the ruins near Sungurlu down the smooth and almost empty two- and four-lane roads to the region that Alex dubbed "Mother Nature's fantasy land."

Even the slides I had seen and the reading I had done did not prepare me for the unusual landscapes. Cappadocia offers some of the same visual drama as Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, Arizona's Mesa Verde and the Painted Desert and South Dakota's Badlands. But the Turkish region has its own unique natural phenomena.

Pillars, peaks and pyramids, cones and needles (some 10 stories tall), rocks and mounds, plateaus, cliffs and canyons and the distinctive mushroom-shaped "fairy chimneys"--all were sculpted by millions of years of wind and rain washing over the soft volcanic rock, or tufa. To complete the picture, Mother Nature took her paintbrush and colored these geological shapes in hues of bronze, gold, sand, lime, crimson and pink--in the process creating a series of spectacular masterpieces.

Interspersed with nature's sculptures of tufa are cultivated vineyards, orchards and olive groves, which thrive in the rich volcanic soil. Tableaux of women hoeing, tilling and harvesting reminded me of Jean Francois Millet's paintings of French country scenes. Along the two-lane roads between towns and sites, we saw villagers leading donkeys, goats and flocks of sheep, and vendors imploring tourists to buy local handicrafts.

But, like thousands of tourists from around the world who visit the area yearly, it was the natural rock formations--and the cities dug into them, as well as deep into the ground--that interested us most.

As many tourists do, we based our five days of exploration in Urgup, a town of approximately 10,000. We stayed at the Mustafa hotel, a modern luxury resort with a pool, restaurant, nightclub and tennis courts. From there we took day trips a few miles in all directions, visiting villages and rock formations created by man and nature.

Cappadocia has been a part of the Persian empire, a semi-independent kingdom at the time of Alexander the Great, a Roman province and later part of the Byzantine Empire. But what is thought of as modern-day Cappadocia is a collection of spectacular natural sites and villages mostly contained within a triangular area roughly bordered by the cities of Avanos to the north, Urgup nine miles southwest and Nevsehir, about 12 miles west of Urgup.

While the U.S. State Department describes travel to the southeast and eastern provinces of Turkey as "hazardous" due to continuing terrorism by the anti-government Kurdistan Workers Party, Cappadocia is far away from both areas and isconsidered safe.

Its central location amid the pillars and hills makes the town of Urgup the perfect place from which to begin a tour. Urgup is tourist-friendly, with several dozen hotels and pensions, as well as camping facilities, restaurants, shops and clubs, where jazz, rock and folk music is performed at night. Some of these facilities are housed in structures long ago carved deep into the hills.

No one knows exactly how many structures and underground cities were carved out of the volcanic material, which is almost as soft as soap until the air and elements harden it to rock. Hundreds of structures have already been discovered and excavations continue. It's also unknown exactly who carved the structures and when, although it is thought to have begun in pre-Hittite times, more than 2,000 years ago, and continued through the 13th Century, when Christians used existing caves and dug their own to hide from invading Roman armies and Turkish and Arab marauders.

What exists today for tourists to explore are hundreds of churches, living accommodations, fortresses and several elaborate, multilevel underground cities.

With our camera, sun screen and the guidebooks we'd obtained from the Urgup Tourist Office, we drove from village to village, exploring about a dozen cities in all.

The first was Goreme, one of the area's more well-known sites and just a few miles northwest of our hotel. Among the most dramatic settings, the town is surrounded by tufa cones and chimney rock formations (tall cones with rock caps), and is important for a group of monasteries carved into the surrounding cliffs and the frescoes within. The area has been a religious center for 2,000 years, playing host to many religions that have left their respective architectural and artistic marks within the rock.

There, at the Goreme Open Air Museum, where the labors of man and nature merge, we climbed slopes and stairs to witness a spectacular cluster of churches and monasteries carved into the earth's unusual shapes. Many of the churches are decorated with Byzantine frescoes dating from the 7th to 13th centuries. Among the most beautiful was the Church of the Buckle--a Byzantine church carved and painted in rich colors celebrating scenes from the New Testament. The museum is run by the Turkish government as an outdoor gallery for which you pay an entry fee of about $1.

More than a dozen Christian monasteries and churches are chiseled into the rock here. Some are single rooms, perhaps 8 by 10 feet, or a collection of small rooms. Some are graced with carved stone pillars and dug high up into the hills, which required that we climb steep wooden staircases, added in modern times.

As Alex and I drove through the town's modest collection of buildings--some ancient, some new--we noticed a restaurant. We parked the car to take a further peek, and the owner of the Goreme Restaurant, Ozer Serinsu, came to greet us. He escorted us inside and into a flower-filled garden, explaining that the restaurant once was a stable run by his father. Serinsu and his brother had converted the structure into a restaurant in 1980. We needed little prodding to stay for a lunch of typical regional food, kebabs and rice and the eggplant that is a staple of many Turkish meals.

A 10-minute drive north of Goreme, another site awaited us: The Zelve Outdoor Museum--a series of red, pink and beige rock canyons pitted with openings for dwellings, churches, monasteries and even a mosque. Until about 30 years ago, the town was inhabited. But finally, over the course of centuries, the cave walls began to weaken and fall and the local people were moved to the village of Yenizelve.

Nine miles northwest of Urgup we visited Avanos, a village of potters who take their raw materials from the red clay along the banks of the Kizilirmak River. The river in the center of town, and narrow streets with dozens of pottery shops displaying colorful hand-painted ceramics, make this pretty town an excellent place to buy gifts. We purchased two plates, one white with a lily and tulip design, the other blue with a tree of life, for which I paid $12 and $4, respectively.

Similar pottery was also sold in abundant variety at the Kapadokya El Sanatlari handicraft center just outside Urgup, on the road to Nevsehir. There we also saw jewelry, leather masks and other handcrafted items. And it was there that Alex succumbed to a big splurge and bought me a silver and quartz necklace with earrings to match (about $90).

In addition to pottery, we saw hand-woven carpets everywhere. In every city, town and village in Cappadocia, small shops and stalls and "factories" exhibit and sell beautiful kilims, carpets of wool, silk and cotton with designs reflecting the style of the region in which they were woven.

At Kaymakli, seven miles southwest of Urgup, we explored the intricate underground city carved beneath the earth. A labyrinth of rooms, with eight levels open to tourists, reveal a mass kitchen, winery, chapel, stables, burial chambers, ventilation shafts, baths and underground springs--all connected by tunnels.

On another day we traveled west to the nearby village of Uchisar--a town wrapped around a massive pinnacle of tufa. There we drove upward through narrow winding streets, stopping occasionally to inspect some of the many carpet shops. Eventually, we reached the imposing Uchisar Fortress, a citadel carved into a mountain by feudal chiefs during the Middle Ages, and visible from many places throughout Cappadocia. As many who had come before us, we looked out at the scenic wonders surrounding us, grateful we'd come so far.

GUIDEBOOK: Rockin' Out in Cappadocia

Getting there: There are connecting flights between LAX and Istanbul on Lufthansa and Delta (both through Frankfurt) and British Air (through London); advance-purchase, non-refundable, round-trip fares start at $878. Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Ankara for about $212 round trip.

Driving and rental cars: The U.S. State Department recommends avoiding road travel at night, especially off main highways on remote roads. We made reservations to pick up a Hertz rental car in Ankara before leaving the U.S.: telephone (800) 654-3001. Other companies that rent cars in Ankara include: Avis, tel. (800) 331-1084; Budget, tel. (800) 527-0700; Dollar, tel. (800) 800-6000; National, tel. (800) 227-3876, and Thrifty, tel. (800) 367-2277.

Tours of Cappadocia: Tursem Tours, 420 Madison Ave., Suite 1003, New York 10017; tel. (800) 223-9169.

Pacha Tours, 1560 Broadway, Suite 316, New York 10036; tel. (800) 722-4288.

World of Oz, 211 East 43rd St., New York 10017; tel. (800) 248-0234.

Where to stay: The following hotels range in price from $75 to about $150.

Robinson Lodge, Uchisar; from the U.S., tel. 011-90-384-21-39945.

Nevsehir Dedemen, near Nevsehir; tel. 011-90-384-21-39900.

Mustafa Hotel, Urgup (no telephone available).

Perissia Hotel, Urgup (no telephone available).

Cappadocia Turban Hotel, Urgup (no telephone available).

For more information: Contact the Office of Tourism Information Attache, 821 United Nations Plaza, New York 10017; tel. (212) 687-2194.

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