(CNN) — A rich palette of shimmering caramel swirls, ochres, creams and pinks unfurl across the landscape like an enormous hand-woven carpet. Poplar groves line paths carved out by ancient lava flows from three now extinct volcanoes, criss-crossing valleys dotted with conical peribacs.
This is Cappadocia in central Turkey, famous for its whimsical “fairy chimneys”, to give peribacı their English name.
Cappadocia is full of them, as well as rock churches and monasteries. The area is dotted with ancient farming communities with stone-cut dwellings and outbuildings, where ordinary people lived alongside monks.
When the volcanic ash cooled, it left behind a soft porous rock called tuff. For thousands of years, the tuff has been eroded and shaped by water and wind.
It is easy to carve but hardens on contact with air. Until the 1950s, most of the population lived in these surreal rock formations, a tradition dating back centuries.
Today it is one of Turkey’s most striking tourist attractions, often seen from above by the floating legions of hot air balloons that regularly fill the skies.
But, locals say, the real way to appreciate it all is on foot – or clog. Here are some of the best options for exploring Cappadocia:
Zelve Open Air Museum
Cappadocia is often explored by visitors by hot air balloon, but it is equally captivating for the food.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images
Here it is possible to imagine what the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia looked like when Orthodox Christianity was at its height during the medieval Byzantine period.
“Zelve was continuously occupied from the 6th to the 20th century, which is incredible,” says Tolga Uyar, a medieval art historian at nearby Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University. It’s over 1,400 years old.
Like most inhabited caves in Cappadocia, the spaces have been reused, recreated and transformed. Today, Zelve is a model of a rock-carved civilization preserved from early Christian times to the modern Turkish Republic.
Well marked trails make it easy to get around Zelve and give an idea of what you are likely to encounter elsewhere in the valleys.
The magical, otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey is home to ancient secrets and enchanting stories.
In summer, much of Cappadocia appears arid and lifeless. The plains approaching Ihlara Vadısı look no different, until you look over the edge and see the verdant treetops lining the Melendiz River below.
The length of the Ihlara Valley stretches along its banks, the location of a pleasant eight-mile hike beginning at Ihlara village and ending at Selime Manastırı.
In early spring, bush nightingales chirp love songs, flowers dance to the “oop oop” call of the ibibik or hoopoe, and the rush of water lulls you into silence. contemplative.
As everywhere in Cappadocia, there are centuries-old churches decorated with wall paintings.
There are picnic areas or small restaurants on the banks of the river in Belisırma for lunch.
At the point where the valley opens, the imposing monastery of Selime, believed to date from the 8th or 9th century BCE, appears. Worth climbing the 300 steps to look inside.
Çavuşin to Kizılcukur
The landscape has been sculpted by thousands of years of erosion.
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Several walks start from Çavuşin, a village that was once home to a mixture of Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians known as Rum.
Here, the huge Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, dating from the 5th century, is the largest troglodyte church in the region.
Hikers must pass through the village to the cemetery, where a track leads to Kızılçukur. It winds through orchards filled with apple and apricot trees and past fields of grapes ripening on the vine.
There are several old churches along the way, the most famous being Üzümlü Kilise (Church of Grapes). At Kızılçukur (Red Valley), the hoodoos are pink in color during the day and take on a beautiful red hue at sunset due to the iron ore in the tuff.
It is possible to follow the trail on your own, but many churches are hard to find or locked. Having a Turkish speaking guide who knows who to ask for the key makes the experience richer and more rewarding.
It is recommended to hike with a guide to make the most of the area.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
It started by accident. “One day I met a couple (tourists) and we walked with my dog for a few hours,” he says. “At the end, they tipped me. Then I decided to be a walking guide.”
Since then, Güngör has been sharing his knowledge about his favorite places.
Over the past 25 years, it has seen locals shift from agriculture to tourism. Rid of agricultural additives, the landscape has been transformed with the reappearance of species of flora and fauna thought long extinct.
In spring, rare galatica irises bloom. The dark blue or purple petals of these flowers, accented with touches of yellow, spring from narrow crevices. Güngör knows where to find them, as well as wild asparagus, orchids and thyme.
Alone, if you’re lucky, you might spot a turtle hiding under a bush or an eagle soaring in the sky. With Güngör, hikers “will see churches and monasteries from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries that they could not find on their own”.
He also does night walks under the full moon, hikes with the best light to photograph the valleys or those suitable for hot days.
Güngör loves what he does because guiding tourists through the valleys is more than a job, he says.
“Cappadocia is like no other place. It is full of positive energy. As I walk, I become one with nature.”
People have been living in caves in Cappadocia for centuries.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
For those who don’t want to walk, there are horseback rides. Cappadocia has long been referred to as the “land of wild horses” after the free-roaming animals known as yılkı.
Before the mechanization of agriculture, working horses on farms were released in winter at the end of the harvest, to roam at will. In the spring, they were rounded up and put back to work, but once the tractors replaced them for good, they were on their own.
Cemal Koksal, born and raised in the nearby town of Ortahisar, is passionate about the business he started 15 years ago with his brother and horse breeder father.
“The peace and naturalness of riding in such a unique and fascinating landscape on my favorite horse helps me stay close to nature and my family roots of breeding and working with horses,” he says.
Cemal Ranch organizes different tours in small groups (maximum 14 people) suitable for beginners, even children, up to more experienced riders. Everyone gets a short training session before any tour and helmets are mandatory.
Participants of longer tours can sample meals cooked by Koksal’s mother.
This is the only horseback riding outfit with sunset access in the Rose and Red Valleys of Cappadocia. “Watching all the beautiful valleys as they change color in the sunset light is magical.”
He adds, “I am the happiest on horseback and the happiest on horseback in the beautiful valleys of Cappadocia. It is the ultimate in freedom and tranquility.”