By Barbara Penny Angelakis Senior Travel Features Editor,
Few things are worth getting up at 4 a.m. to see. Perhaps a full lunar eclipse...or Halley’s Comet passing by every 75 years...or a hot air balloon ride over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is a region in the central Turkey that is renowned for its distinctive and mystical landscape. This spectacular landscape was created by three now- extinct volcanoes that triangulate Anatolia's Nevşehir plateau. Erciyes in the east is the highest at close to 13,000 feet, then Hasandağ in the southwest at almost 11,000 feet and finally Güllüdağ in the northwest at a modest 7,000 feet.
Millions of years ago all three volcanoes were very active and spewed volumes of volcanic ash, mud and lava, over the area, blanketing the ground with mountains of debris. Wind and water slowly sculpted the soft porous pumice into elongated shapes, cones and pillars, while leaving the harder lava (basalt) rocks balancing precariously on top. The process continues to this day, and you can see new fairy chimneys being shaped while ancient ones are ever so slowly crumbling away.
The name fairy chimney was given to the conical stones by early settlers to the area who believed spirits had a hand in creating the outlandish monuments. They heard strange noises coming from the formations and believed spirits not only created but also inhabited the stone and that when the wind whistled through the porous rock, they could hear the fairies talking. The spirits were believed to be benevolent and eventually families carved their homes in the formations to be close to the friendly fairies.
Due to the unique nature of the terrain, hot-air balloon rides in Cappadocia are big business, and by the time we arrived at the lift site, dozens of balloons were in various stages of ascension almost as far as the eye could see in the pre-dawn light.
Our balloon company, Ürgüp Balloons, took us to our brightly colored yellow balloon with alternating stripes of blue and red. Our magic carpet ride was in the final stages of inflation and our 10-person group was warmly greeted by Captain Ersoy Ugar, a certified flyer with many years of ballooning experience.
Several brawny handlers were attached to each balloon and with remarkable patient and good grace, assisted us in climbing aboard into the small passenger basket. Captain Ersoy briefed us on the important and very necessary information of how to position ourselves for landing, and with a blast of the burners we 10 intrepid adventurers were smoothly lifted off the earth to greet the rising sun.
The weather had been cool and overcast every morning for weeks and the sun did not break through until mid-day. But today Mother Nature was smiling on us, because this morning the sun rose with the balloons, making us part of a spectacular cosmic spectacle.
At first there was little wind, and we seemed to hang suspended silently in space, like a bird floating on a current of air. After a few moments of balancing between heaven and earth, a breeze caught the balloon and we began to move towards the stone formations stoically awaiting our visit. And visit them we did. We got so close to some of the fairy chimneys it was easy to reach out and touch them from our perch in the sky.
There were dozens of balloons in the air, at times it seemed as if we would bounce off each other. Sometimes we were above, other times below other balloons, but all the while Captain Ersoy kept in touch with the other captains via walky talky to ensure the safety of all the balloons.
It's not hard to buy into the ancient fable of the fairies when you first come across the magical landscape of Cappadocia. I happened to be there in the spring, which is an exceptionally lovely time to visit. In spring the normally dry arid landscape is softened by the profusion of wild flowers and trees showering the sandy colored countryside with patches of lilac, gold, pink and orange.
I was also fortunate to be escorted through the area by Özkan Güleç, the owner of Peerless Travel and an expert on his home region of Cappadocia.
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