Tour leader’s Jeremy Seal’s ‘tasting notes’
This tour combines my two favourite parts of Turkey, places of luminous, even unearthly beauty, which give magical insights into both the contemporary culture and historical sweep of these lands.
We start in Cappadocia, a compact and compelling volcanic region right at the heart of inland Turkey, which could not be more distinctive from the surrounding sere steppelands. Geology like this is seen nowhere else on earth; the other place to look is in the mind, where the obvious reference point is Tolkein. The volcanic eruptions which once buried the land beneath a hundred feet of a pliant lava have been shaped by the weather (over millions of years) and humankind (over perhaps a few thousand years) into what we see today; bizarre natural formations and valley canyons as well as troglodytic settlements: homes, chapels, monastery complexes and extensive ‘underground cities’ which throw remarkable light on the settled history of these lands.
We have been careful to distinguish the Cappadocian part of this tour in two respects: all too often visitors to Cappadocia fall victim to its popularity when they suffer the crush which can befall them at major sites like Göreme’s Open Air Museum, the best known cluster of rock-carved Byzantine chapels and monastic spaces. The problem here, as anybody who has endured the struggle for access to the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings will also know, is that these chapels were not built for crowds but for solitary contemplation (which is why there are an estimated 3,000 of them across the region). Nor was access to the extraordinary underground cities, where local populations sought refuge from raiding Mongols and Saracens, designed to allow large numbers of people access at any one time but the tunnels were deliberately made narrow so they could be easily shut off in times of danger. Bearing this in mind, we’ve opted largely to visit far less well known but hugely rewarding sights - the ‘underground city’ complex at Mazi, the intensely moving church at Pancarlik - which I’ve been thrilled to discover in the decades I’ve been visiting Cappadocia, and which we are sure of having to ourselves. And though we do include Göreme’s Open Air Museum, we’ll be sure to visit before the crowds (you’ll forgive us the early start, I’m willing to bet, if only from the moment you see the tour coaches massing as we conclude our visit).
The other aspect of this part of the tour is the walking; there is a fair amount of it but it’s largely on the flat along valley bottoms of compacted dust, which makes for delightfully easy going. The landscapes are enchanting: orchards (this being September, guests can look forward to discovering that there is truly nothing like a Cappadocian apple), walnut groves, smallholdings and bird song, plus wonderful carved and decorated details like the valley-side pigeon cotes which until a few decades back the local farmers regularly emptied for the precious fertilising guano collected there. We’ll stop and talk to locals busy harvesting walnuts; I’ve more than enough Turkish to engage them en route.
The ‘transfer’ section of the tour gives a real sense of just how extraordinarily rich the historic heritage of Anatolia really is. Our first stop, Eski Gumuş, is right on the edge of Cappadocia and rarely visited, but this hidden monastery is home to perhaps the most exquisite wall frescoes in all Cappadocia. Then there’s Konya, home to Sufi visionary and ecstatic whirler Mevlana, but now a place of rather sterner and orthodox Islamic character, with an abiding sense, I often feel, of eastern steppelands like Iran. People are often moved by the rapt devotion on show at Mevlana’s Konya shrine; I’ll confess the austerity of the modern city can feel unsettling and I’m often ready to move on to gems like the wooden mosque at Beysehir and the amazing carved monument at Eflatun Pinar, a spring sacred to the ancient Hittites and in its way quite as otherworldly as Cappadocia’s landscapes.
It’s with this wonderful mass of fresh impressions and experiences that we board our gulet at Göcek. Anybody who’s travelled with Westminster Classic Tours will know what to expect onboard ship, but they may not be familiar with the particular beauty of the Lycian shore. What I especially love about this region is not only the landscape – the deep wooded coves and the high mountain backing – but the sense that these ancient people were resistant to absorption by the classical world; in their particular architecture - the amazing and ubiquitous boat-shaped sarcophagae, the pillar tombs at sites like Xanthos - there’s less of ancient Greece and as much of Persia, even Egypt. Here we are truly in the East.
I can’t think of a better way of combining the amazing Anatolian interior with these heavenly shores; I’ll hope you’ll agree. Let us know if you’ve any unanswered questions.
Jeremy Seal, Bath, 6/3/14