I always wondered if it was worth visiting Cappadocia, seeing that it is in the middle of nowhere and a long way from Istanbul, but when you get there – the city of Göreme in particular – and have the chance to explore, then you will probably enjoy it almost as much as I did!
The most famous sight in Turkey’s Cappadocia region is the Göreme Open Air Museum, situated only a 20 minute walk from Göreme Town, and a short ride from Ürgüp. It holds the region’s best collection of painted cave-churches. Medieval orthodox Christian monks carved the caves from the soft volcanic stone and decorated them with elaborate Byzantine frescoes. The valley, and other cave-dwelling habitations in Cappadocia, may have been inhabited since Hittite times, but Göreme is known for its thousand-year-old churches, most of which include murals and frescoes inside that wow the tourists on a daily basis. Despite my initial concerns to travel to the Cappadocia region, I was happy to have settled in Göreme.
In summer, it is best to visit early in the morning if possible because the heat is intense at midday. Also, tour groups fill the small churches by mid-morning and it’s more difficult to enjoy them. For one thing, groups may block the entrance, which cuts off the natural light, which is the only source of light in most of the churches – unless you bring an electric torch! However, I found the tourism aspect here in Göreme to be very organised; surprisingly so, actually.
There are more than 10 cave churches in the Göreme Open Air Museum. Along with rectories, dwellings, and a religious school, they form a large monastic complex carved out of a roughly ring-shaped rock formation in the ethereal landscape of Cappadocia. Entrance to the site is on the north side, and undoubtedly the best way to explore the cave churches of Göreme is via the clearly marked path, working counter-clockwise. Each one has a modern Turkish name, given by local villages based on a prominent feature. I wasn’t able to see all of them, but I made sure I visited good handful.
Sometimes I forgot I was in Turkey when exploring Cappadocia. It almost seemed like walking around little mud towns in Africa, such as Timbuktu, or something. The whole site is very impressive, though, and it wasn’t too busy during my visit – unlike some other major tourist attractions in the region (Petra, Giza, etc.). Entrance to the caves themselves was very spooky; like entering another world through timeless portals. And when inside (on most occasions), it was a pleasure to see the famous frescoes of Cappadocia! It made me think about what it must have been like to actually live here like a caveman many centuries ago!
Most of the frescoes in the churches have been damaged by wind, water, weather, earthquake, and shepherd boys who sought refuge in the caves and used the faces of the figures as targets for pebble attacks, having been taught that images were sinful. But the beauty of the churches and their decoration is still apparent. Considering Cappadocia’s terrain, I am not surprised such weathering has occurred on this frescoes, as it seems a rather harsh place to survive – for both the frescoes and the cavemen!
The best-preserved frescoes are in the Dark Church, which is subject to an additional admission fee (TL12). These paintings were restored at great expense, and I am all in favour of the additional fee, as it helps pay for the restoration. It also keeps out most other visitors, as only those who are truly interested in this kind of art will pay the additional fee, therefore the church is usually not crowded (unlike the Chora Church in Istanbul, for example, whose murals are much more touristy).
The Göreme Open-Air Museum is open every day from 8.30am to 7pm for TL25. In the winter months, it closes earlier. Parking costs an additional TL5.