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Cappadocia, TurkeyNovember 4, 2009 By: Mary Winston Nicklin Travel Agent
A monastery in a past life, Gamirasu Cave Hotel houses a 12th-century church within its walls
Once a stop on the fabled hippie trail, the Anatolian region of Cappadocia has emerged in recent years as one of the world’s hottest travel destinations. It’s not just the volcanic landscape (a hiker’s dream) that lures travelers here; the cultural history is likewise seductive. In fact, the entire Göreme Valley was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 for its ancient underground cities and rock-hewn churches decorated with Byzantine frescoes. Don’t miss a hot-air balloon ride at dawn over the moonscape of fairy chimneys weathered by water and wind. Another must: wine-tasting at Turasan Vineyards, as wine production in the region dates back 4,000 years. For centuries, the region’s inhabitants have dwelled in troglodyte houses, and a stay in Cappadocia is not complete without checking into one of the unique cave hotels. Your clients won’t exactly be roughing it—these digs have marble bathrooms and Wi-Fi.
Book a hotel in the village of Uçhisar for sweeping views over the vineyards and sculpted rock formations. From afar, Uçhisar’s natural stone fortress appears to rise in the sky like a giant anthill. It’s possible to climb to the top to take in the stunning panorama. Twenty years ago, a French architect named Jacques Avizou was so taken with the village, then in ruins, that he purchased a plot of land with the best views over Pigeon Valley, thereby rescuing some abandoned houses. Perceiving the architectural potential in the traditional dwellings, Avizou restored them with elegance and charm in harmony with the surrounding landscape. These houses that now constitute the boutique hotel, Les Maisons de Cappadoce, are decorated with exquisite items that Avizou collects on his travels. Though each semi- subterranean house is self-contained with its own kitchen, fireplace and outside terrace, guests benefit from hotel-style services: daily housekeeping, laundry and breakfast (a basket brimming with homemade jams, fresh bread and eggs) delivered daily to the front door.
We loved the three-bedroom Maison des Roses, rumored by villagers to be “the most beautiful house in Cappadocia,” for its pool and outside fireplace. The Maison des Chevres has an idyllic garden, and the Studio les Chevres—all in white—is a honeymooner’s nest. Nice touch: The lavender sachets in the shelves, and colorful handmade slippers. Gardens are lovingly landscaped with lavender, roses and trees laden with fruit. Buzz: Les Maisons will soon open an onsite restaurant. Sevim Tawil (011-90-384-219-2813, [email protected]) can recommend the perfect house for your clients.
Opened in 2002, the Museum Hotel was the result of another masterful renovation project committed to “responsible luxury.” Owner Ömer Tosun toiled alongside local artisans who restored the property, encompassing 10 houses and 60 cave ruins, by hand. Today, the hotel is registered as an official museum, due to its impressive collection of artifacts and textiles. Each of the 30 guest rooms—spanning five different categories—is individually decorated with colorful kilims covering the stone floors. The Harem Superior Suite has an enormous bathroom with Jacuzzi, while the Divan Superior Suite boasts a sultan-worthy divan facing a fountain and a wall of windows. Outside on the pool terrace, guests soak up the views and ogle at the owner’s pretty pet pigeons while opera plays in the background. Not to be missed: An open-air massage under an arbor on the terrace—the ultimate massage with a view. Insiders tell us that even the prime minister has dined at the hotel’s restaurant, so foodies will no doubt appreciate the cooking classes. Contact Manager Gözde Özpolat (011-90-384-219-2220, [email protected]) for reservations.
On the outskirts of the important tourist center of Ürgüp, Esbelli Evi, the first boutique hotel in the region, has been frequently cited in the press since its opening in 1990. Just prior to our visit, BBC had stopped by to film "25 Unusual Hotels" in Europe. When we walked through the door, we were welcomed by jazz riffs floating through the rooms. Owner Süha Ersöz (011-90-384-341-3395, [email protected]) encourages his guests to make themselves at home, be it checking e-mail on the three laptops available in the sitting room, thumbing through his CD collection or helping themselves at the honor bar (beer glasses are chilled in the freezer). “My guests hang out together in the common areas, dine together and make lasting friendships,” he says. “Of course, they also have privacy if they want it.”
Ersöz led us through passageways and courtyards to show us the eight suites and six standard rooms, some dating back 1,500 years. There’s even a small Standard Room housed inside a fairy chimney. Tastefully decorated, the rooms have hardwood floors and marble bathrooms with music speakers fitted in the walls. Shelves were hand-chiseled from stone by local craftsmen. All suites have kitchens, with fridges instead of minibars. “The Flintstones room for kids” is how Ersöz describes the family suite where young guests can pretend to be cavemen. One twin bed incorporates an ancient wine press, carved from the wall, a vestige from the days when the region’s inhabitants used grape-crushing vats in their cave houses. Nice perk: Washing machines are available for guests.
Clients looking for authenticity in an off-the-beaten-path setting will appreciate the ambiance at Gamirasu Cave Hotel, tucked away in the tiny village of Ayvali, where chickens dart across paths. Perched above a stream, the cave hotel was a monastery in a past life and houses a 12th-century church within its walls, the original frescoes intact. The breakfast is a real hit among guests, a lavish spread of organic fruit, local honey and bread baked by the villagers.
First opened in 1999, Gamirasu has 28 vaulted rooms spread throughout seven different houses. Above the mulberry trees and rose bushes, a suspension bridge connects the terraces. Rooms are moderately priced and guests get free Wi-Fi, bikes and transfers to busy Ürgüp just 10 minutes away. We liked the Eagle Nest Deluxe Suite (#21), which boasts its own sauna, Jacuzzi, ornate fireplace and picnic table outside on the terrace. Note: There are steep steps that make access difficult for handicapped or elderly clients. Host Ibrahim Bastutan (011-90-384-341-5825, [email protected]), a native of the village, is happy to answer any questions when making bookings. His cousin Suleyman Cakir runs the tour operation of the family-owned business.
A travel agent for 25 years, Earl Starkey specializes in Turkey. “I first went to Turkey 15 years ago and fell in love with it. I just kept going back because of my own interest in the country and its people,” says Starkey, who splits his time between New York and Turkey.
He joined Protravel International as an independent contractor in 2001, and in 2002, opened his own agency in Turkey called Sophisticated-Travel, providing tailored trips combined with concierge-type service. “I wanted to give my clients an authentic experience in Turkey without sacrificing any of the comforts that Americans expect. We particularly pride ourselves on having the best guides in Turkey and we specialize in FIT s and cultural, culinary and archaeological groups and incentives. We do private shore excursions and also provide gulets (Turkish sailing schooners) and yachts for sailing the Turkish coastline.”
Starkey loves Cappadocia. “A couple of my favorite boutique hotels there are Yunak Evleri and Sacred House. [Among] restaurants I like Somine for dinner in Ürgüp, and The Old Greek House for lunch in Mustafapasa,” Starkey says.
Besides seeing the amazing churches and monasteries at the Göreme Open Air Museum, he recommends “a hike through the Rose Valley or farther out to visit the lovely landscape of Ilhara Valley.”
“Cappadocia is also a great place to see the whirling dervishes at Sarihan, where they have nightly ceremonies. Sarihan is an authentic Silk Road caravansary, so it is particularly atmospheric to see a ceremony there,” he adds.
The Harem Superior Suite at the Museum Hotel has a fireplace and red and white wine taps