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A Grape for All Seasons: Cappadocia's Wines

When the winemaking company Kavaklidere bought 1,600 acres for a new production center in nearby Gulsehir, it was a signal to the rest of Turkish oenophiles that Cappadocian wine had arrived. Families have been making wines in Cappadocia for centuries; a visit to one of these small producers will get you a double dose of traditional Turkish hospitality. Many of them, plus producers from around the world, convene in Ürgüp for the International Wine Festival held annually in October. Two of the majors offer wine tastings in outposts of their vineyards; a number of wine shops in Ürgüp also arrange tasting events. Stop by Turasan Sarap Evi (on the Nevsehir road in the Esbelli section; tel. 0384/341-4961), May through October daily 8am to 8pm; November through April daily 8am to 6pm. Kocabag (Atatürk Bulv. Göreme Yolu 69, Üçhisar; tel. 0384/219-2979) is a slightly smaller operation with award-winning wines that pack a nice punch.

The Caravansaries of the Silk Road

One of the five pillars of Islam is the Koranic obligation of alms-giving, and in the fulfillment of this obligation, the Selçuks were notorious for their commitment to public works. One of the institutions created by the Selçuks in Anatolia was the kervansaray, or "caravan palace." Used as military bases during wartime and as inns in peacetime, these fortresses provided protection to merchants traveling along the trade routes, offering them up to 3 days of free lodging and an unprecedented system of insurance in the event of loss or injury. Caravansaries were spaced out along the trade routes at a distance of about every 49km (30 miles) -- 1 day's travel -- and from sunset to sunrise when the main gate was closed, guests were officially under the protection of the sultan.

With control over the land trade routes and the centralization of power, Anatolia became the center of international trade under the Selçuk Empire. Thus the "Silk Road" became a great source of wealth, as taxes on overland goods continued to fill the coffers of the sultan. Spices, ivory, and fine cloth were brought from the Far East, while surprisingly, much of the trade was in slaves. The Ottoman devsirme system was to collect men from the Eastern lands, train them in the art of warfare, and sell them off to neighboring southern states.

Caravansaries also operated as marketplaces, where merchants could unload their goods, have a bath, and move on. It was unusual for anyone to stay beyond the 3-day limit, because a person's selling power was linked to the availability of new clientele, and that fizzled out after the first day. A typical journey lasted about a month before a merchant headed back home; by the time a shipment of silk brocade found its way to Istanbul, the price had been considerably marked up.

The caravansaray was built according to one of three basic plans: an open courtyard, a covered building, or a combination of the two. The most opulent of the caravansaries were those reflecting the prosperity of the sultan. Called "sultanhans," these caravansaries were built on an essentially identical plan. The main portal opened onto a courtyard with a small raised mosque at the center. To the left was an arcade providing much-needed shade for protection against the scorching summer sun. On the right was a second portal leading into the apartments, which included a kitchen and hamam. At the back was an ornamental gate for access into the winter hall, a covered structure that shows a striking resemblance to a medieval church. The vaults in the main nave could be up to 14m (46 ft.) high, while the top of the lantern, a central domed space providing the only light in the hall, could be at a height of up to 20m (66 ft.). The walls were thick enough to provide good insulation, and tiny windows in the lantern kept out the cold. Men and camels sometimes slept in the winter section together, which, combined with the smell of spices and smoke from the oil lamps and water pipes, probably required the use of a whole lot of incense.

While the exterior of the fortress structure was plain, the Selçuks had a tradition of richly ornamenting the pishtaq, or portal. The pishtaq, generally limestone or marble, displayed elaborate geometrical carvings, tracery, rosettes, and inscriptions, and was hollowed out into a stalactite niche much like that of a mihrab (a niche that indicates the direction of Mecca).

There were also private caravansaries called hans, mostly located in towns that charged a fee for lodging, while the bedesten was typically a marketplace and workshop only. These sensational structures dot the Anatolian landscape from Istanbul to Antalya and from Erzurum to Izmir, and are used as hotels, restaurants, or the dreaded discothèque; you'll probably have the opportunity to stay in one in the course of your travels.

The best conserved of all the Selçuk hans is the Sultanhani located about 32km (20 miles) outside of Aksaray on the road to Konya. The Sultanhani, built by Alaeddin Keykubat I in 1229, has a highly ornamented pishtaq with a variety of decorative patterns applied in an unrelated, almost spontaneous manner. A fine example of a sultanhan is the Agzikarahan, located 15km (9 1/3 miles) outside of Aksaray on the road to Nevsehir. The Agzikarahan, the third largest in the area along the Silk Road, has weathered time to remain almost intact and encloses a space of over 6,000 sq. m (64,583 sq. ft.). The open section, now used to display carpets, was built by Alaeddin Keykubat in 1231 and includes the central mosque reachable by steep and cumbersome steps. The winter section is attributed to Sultan Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev and was completed 8 years after the open section. Enormous stone vaults rise above the main aisle of the nave, flanked by raised platforms that were used for meals during the day and as sleep space at night. The camels were kept in the side bays. Unfortunately, the central dome has been lost.

Halfway between Aksaray and Nevsehir is the Alay Han, the first sultanhan to be built in Central Anatolia. Erected in 1192 by Sultan Kiliçarslan II, the Alay Han is under threat to become another "day facility" by the same investor who "preserved" the Sarihan in Avanos. The Sarihan (www.sarihan1249.com) located 5km (3 miles) outside of Avanos, whose name means "yellow han" for the color of its stone, stands on an old trade route between Aksaray and Kayseri. Except for the mosque, the caravansaray follows a traditional sultanhan plan. It now serves as a daytime cafe and an evocative setting for a nightly staging of the sema, or rite of the Whirling Dervishes, which takes place in the winter hall or sleeping quarters. Sarihan is 5km (3 miles) outside of Avanos center, on the road to Kaysari (tel. 0384/511-3795; reservations required; admission 35€; Apr-Oct nightly at 9:30pm, Nov-Mar at 9pm -- show starts promptly, so get there early).

Exploring the Underground Cities

While the idea of a prehistoric people seeking shelter in caves is not a foreign one, it's startling to have discovered a system of underground cities as sophisticated as those found in Cappadocia. Over 200 underground cities at least two levels deep have been discovered in the area between Kayseri and Nevsehir, with around 40 of those comprised of at least three levels or more. The troglodyte cities at Derinkuyu and Kaymakli are two of the best examples of underground dwellings, although the lesser-visited sites have the advantage of not having to brave the crowds.

It remains a mystery as to who first started the digging, although Hittite artifacts found around the caves -- and the fact that many of the towns' names go back to the Hittite or Sumerian language -- suggest they were inhabited as far back as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The early Christians probably sought temporary shelter from the persecution of Roman soldiers; and after the 6th century, these dwellings provided protection from raiding Arab tribes. The crude carving of the surface levels of rock gives way to a smoother, more refined face, which indicates that the levels were carved by different people at different times.

Each rock settlement had access to the safe haven of these underground dwellings by way of a secret underground passageway that would provide swift and unseen escape in times of emergency. In fact, an access tunnel can still be found on just about every villager's property. Additionally, the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, about 9km (5 2/3 miles) apart, are believed to be connected by an underground tunnel.

Every crucial entry point into the city was either camouflaged or blocked by a keystone, a large stone wheel that, once fixed in place, was immovable. Keystones were fixed at every level of the city as well. The labyrinth of tunnels and blind passageways hundreds of feet below the ground give shocking testimony to the tenaciousness of a civilization to survive and prosper by sentencing itself to months of existence deep within the earth.

Going underground can present some uncomfortable conditions for those a bit squeamish. Although passageways are well lit and even the lowest levels are ventilated, a few of the access ramps are long and narrow, requiring visitors to ascend or descend in single file, and for even those of average height, hunched over. On a busy day, problems can arise for those at the lower levels, as visitors might be stuck waiting for the last of an endless group of arrivals to clear the passageway before exiting.

Arrows mark the direction of the visit (red for in, blue for out). As long as you stick to the route, you should be okay, but don't wander off with a flashlight, because this labyrinth was designed to confuse intruders just like you. It's fine to veer off track in the presence of a guide -- incidentally, a great and terrifying way to see how dark absolute darkness can be.

Try to avoid peak visitation hours by getting there early; tours clog the narrow one-way tunnels and cause small galleries to become loud and stuffy. Curious about the possibility of a power outage, I was told that in the event that the lights go out, a backup generator would kick in after 10 seconds.

Did You Know? -- Twenty thousand people living underground produce a lot of solid waste. Lime added to cow's liver serves as a natural accelerator of the decomposition process -- an important fact for those long periods underground.

Taking on the Ihlara Valley

The main entrance to the valley is a little over 1.6km (1 mile) north of the village of Ihlara, allowing entrance to the main gate leading to the long stairway down. The cliff walls are dotted with churches and abodes on both banks of the river, with most of the sites of interest clustered around the wooden footbridge at the base of the main entrance and over near the village of Belisirma. The 3.5km (2 1/4-mile) hike from the main entrance to the village of Belisirma is a relatively easy one, and many people choose to have lunch at the restaurant near the riverbed and call it a day. It's also possible to begin the hike at the village of Ihlara following the left bank of the river, adding on about 3km (1 3/4 miles) to the total. The shorter hike takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on your level of fitness, while a hike up the entire canyon will take about 5 hours.

If you come by private car, you'll probably have to leave it in the parking lot at the main entrance, which doesn't do you much good way over at the opposite end of the canyon in Belisirma or Selime. An easier way is to take a guided tour; this will make seeing the valley a whole lot richer, giving you the background information necessary to appreciate the rock churches, rather than taking just a lovely walk through the gorge. Not to be overlooked is the bonus of having someone waiting for you at the end of the canyon, thus saving you the long hike back. (You can also hike up and out to the main road and catch a rare dolmus back to the main entrance.) Guides are expensive, though, so if you've got the stamina, then by all means, go it alone.

It's a 1 1/2-hour drive from central Cappadocia to the Ihlara Valley. From central Cappadocia, follow the road through Nevsehir, to Aksaray, and then to the village of Ihlara. The traditional hike begins at the main entrance about 1.6km (1 mile) outside the village. It is not advisable to take a dolmus (the only choice for public transport), because doing so will require three separate dolmuses plus a taxi from the village of Ihlara to the entrance to the valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.