I recently traveled to Turkey where I floated in a balloon over sandstone fairy chimneys, slept in a cave, tried to eat politely at a table just 10 inches off the floor and climbed and crawled in the pre-dawn up 6,000-foot-high Mount Nemrut to see monumental stone heads carved there more than 2,000 years ago. I did not steam in a hammam (a Turkish bath) because I had been soaped and sandpapered in one in Morocco last year. And I did not smoke a water pipe because I had done that when times were happier in Syria.
I did visit Istanbul’s monumental sites, including Hagia Sophia, built in the sixth century and the most important church in Christendom until the 15th century, the 17th-century Blue Mosque, so named because of its blue-tiled interior, and Topkapi Palace with its elegant multi-room harem and treasury of bejeweled swords, gold and diamond candlesticks and the emerald-studded dagger made famous in the film Topkapi. I had high tea at the Pera Palace Hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. And as all tourists do, I got lost among more than 4,000 shops of silks and spices, dates, apricots and pistachios, copper, leather, jewelry and carpets and much more in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
I had done those things before on Istanbul visits, but I was new to the mushroom-like rock formations of Cappadocia in central Turkey. These are the so-called fairy chimneys formed 30 million years ago by erupting volcanoes. I was new, too, to the caves that are there, now transformed into an elegant hotel and bed and breakfast rooms.
To see the fairy chimneys at their best (just as the sun rises), I went on a 10-mile hot-air balloon ride. Sixteen of us climbed into the balloon basket, most somewhat tremulously, due to the propane fire that would propel us roaring just above our heads. Our pilot said he hoped none of us were afraid of heights as we rose from a field and headed toward the fairy chimneys — tall, pointed formations some with a mushroom cap-like top, some not.
The air was thick with balloons carrying tourists. I don’t think I’d ever heard of any hot air balloon collisions, and the pilot had a cell phone at least. Better than back in those Jules Verne days of ballooning around the world in 80 days. In any case, I didn’t think our pilot had a trip like that planned for us, especially when he said we would be using 200 liters of propane gas per hour.
We flew at 2,500 feet, high over fields and rivers and flower patches as well as the rock chimneys. We were told where we went depended on which way the wind blew. The pilot wasn’t steering, only making the balloon go up or down. I wasn’t quite sure whether to be reassured, but at least we weren’t going to drop until the pilot wanted us to. I quite enjoyed the ride, though I couldn’t help wondering where we would land if it all depended on the wind. Would we end up balancing precariously atop a fairy chimney if that was where the wind took us? And if so, how would we get down?
In the end, we landed safely in a field. More precisely — thanks to cell phone arrangements he had made — the pilot set us down right in the back of a truck that his ground crew had driven to. We were rewarded for our bravery with glasses of champagne and presented with medals of honor by the Royal Air Balloon Company.
Before that expedition, on my arrival in Cappadocia, I had my first cave sleeping experience. I’m sure outdoor types sleep in caves all the time going across the Appalachian Trail and things like that. I had certainly been in caves before, but I tend to think of them as dark, dank places where one might get lost, the way the young woman did in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I think of caves as fine hibernating places for bears (I expect it is too warm for bears in Cappadocia, though they do live in Turkey). I also think of caves as hiding places for snakes (though none of my guidebooks to Turkey mention any. They say there are Turkish loggerhead turtles, but we have those in the West Tisbury Mill Pond). There are also wolves and yellow-coated, black-headed Kangal dogs in the Turkish wild. And there are deer and wild boar and jackals, but I don’t think of any of those as being cave denizens. In any case, the cave accommodation that I had at the bed and breakfast Sefa in Ortahisar was elegant indeed. No dogs or wolves or jackals; instead there were oriental rugs on the stone floor, vases in niches, electricity and hot showers.
In the south in Sanilurfa, I was invited to an elegant restaurant for music and dancing and fine food. But I encountered an etiquette problem. How do you gracefully and comfortably sit at 10-inch-high tables? There were velvet cushions everywhere to loll on, and I guess the Romans managed to lean on one elbow while they dined supine (at least it looks as if they ate that way in picture books). But I couldn’t do it. Should I be kneeling or crouching or using the easy yoga pose to eat? Kneeling or crouching are uncomfortable longtime positions for those unaccustomed to them. As for the Sukhasana yoga position, I guess it is relaxing for yoga aficionados, but not for me. All the other restaurant guests were too far away across the room for me to see what they were doing with their legs and feet.
I ended up awkwardly stretching my legs out under the tablecloth. Happily, it was almost sheet sized so the other guests couldn’t see me wiggling my toes when the peppers were too hot. Turkish cuisine is tasty, but some of it favors hot peppers. The first two dishes I was served were soup — one bean soup, the other a spicy tomato number. They were followed by charcoal-grilled eggplant and chicken shish kebab, rice with tomato and red cabbage and spicy meatballs. I did the best I could to keep my toes still during the spicy meatball course. Finally, when the meal ended, and the musicians began to sing and play, I extricated my legs and sat as gracefully as I could on my haunches with my knees in the air. After all that, I really longed to be steamed in a hammam. I expect they are different in Turkey from those in Morocco anyway. But there just wasn’t time.
Doing things at an early hour seems to be popular in Turkey. Like the hot air balloon ride, clambering to the top of Mount Nemrut had to be done before the sun was up. The terraces to the colossal heads that King Antiochus had ordered carved between 69 and 34 B.C. have had considerable wear and tear and were not exactly easy to climb in the dark. I did a lot of slipping and sliding, and once or twice almost catapulted off into nowhere, but was caught just in time. But I did reach the top just as the sun rose, and it was a memorable sight.
Here again, a hammam to soothe my weary limbs or a water pipe to calm my frazzled nerves would have helped, but a few swallows of thick, sweet Turkish coffee when I finally was at sea level helped. If I had a swallow or two of it now I might almost feel strong enough for another hot air balloon ride or a Mount Nemrut climb.