Our first stop was Derinkuyu Underground City where we meet with Nadir, our guide. Nadir grew up in Cappadocia playing hide and seek as a child in the vast underground city we were about to explore. Derinkuyu was built by the Hitites about 4000 years ago who carved out this vast underground labyrinth that housed over 5000 people on 8 different floors under a vast mountain. After the Hittites, early Greek speaking Christians came to Derinkuyu, fleeing the persecution of the Romans. During times of peace, the Christians would live in the cave city and cultivate crops and raise their animals in the sun. However, in times of war when they were threatened by various waves of invaders, they would live underground for months at a time.
In 1985, Derinkuyu became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, only the first four floors are open to visitors. I was glad we had a guide who knew these tunnels from the games of his youth, otherwise, we would have been hopelessly lost. I was surprised by how cool and refreshing the air was inside the caves. Nadir explains that the temperature stays a consistent temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit inside the caves no matter what the temperature outside. During the hot Cappadocian summer, a visit to the caves is a cool alternative. The air is also fresh due to the airshafts that run from the lower floors all the way to the top of the mountain.
Our next stop on the Green Tour is the Ihlara Valley, a deep slice of green serenity cut into the volcanic rock by the Melendiz River. Ihlara is about a forty minute drive from Derinkuyu. It is time for the hike portion of our Green Tour. Our driver deposits us at one end of the valley with directions to meet him in Belisrma village, approximately four kilometers away.
We descend the more than 300 steps down into the valley floor. Ihlara Valley is so green. The air is filled with little puffs of white, butterflies and purple dragonflies. The sound of the song birds and the croak of the frogs punctuate the constant melody of the rush of the creek. The tall poplar trees reach up towards the sky. Along each side of the gorge, high walls of pink rock are dotted with caves. A tortoise lumbers across our path on his way to the stream.
This tranquil valley was also inhabited by early Greek-speaking Christians who caved numerous cave churches into the walls. We hike up to the Dark Castle Church, one of the hundreds of Byzantine era churches that used to serve this valley that was home to more than 80,000 people. However, today, we feel like we are the only people here in the middle of this green oasis. The people of this valley were also forced to leave in 1923 as part of the population exchange.
After our hike, we arrive in Belisirma Village for lunch. We eat at the Çinar Restaurant. This restaurant consists of little houses built on the river, each little house with its own round table, rugs and cushions. We take off our shoes and climb into our private little house to relax on the pillows. Of course we have çay, Turkish tea served in slender, figure eight glasses. We eat the traditional food of Belisirma: trout, meat casserole, fresh fruit and salad. After a long hike, there is no better way to relax than in your own little thatch roofed house over the musical stream. After lunch, we dangle our feet over the side and cool our toes in the creek as we eat our dondurma, Turkish ice cream.
What do we mean by saying “a journey to Armenia”? Walking in Yerevan? Or seeing Ararat? Or exploring Khachkars? Trying national food? Communicating with local people? Spending the night in a village house? Climbing mountains? Feeling the nature? The answer is very simple: all the above mentioned and even more.