With some flight delays and missing baggage, our little jaunt across the country wasn’t entirely smooth, but we didn’t let that dampen our moods. Our first day ended up being a freebie because no one had their bags, and thus the warmer clothing needed for our tours, so we instead got the full tour of the Michelle Dream Cave Hotel. When Butch and Brenda first came to Turkey in 2002, they had no idea they would fall in love so quickly with this incredible country and end up buying a condo and spending their winters there. They also happened to make an amazing business contact and now life long friend, Ahmed. Before they knew it, they began making plans of purchasing land and building a cave hotel. If Cappadocia is known for anything, it’s the caves! The hillsides are peppered with caves. From hundreds to thousands of years ago, these caves were carved into the mountain sides as houses, refuges, stables and pigeon houses. Today they are used as storage for lemons (the temperature remains the same in the caves year round even with the changing seasons), but mostly – they are turned into cave hotels.
It was a long and challenging process to design, build and manage a hotel, partly from Canada, partly from Turkey, with language and culture barriers, but in 2011, The Michelle Dream Cave Hotel (named for Butch’s late daughter) finally opened its cave doors! I was so lucky to be able to tag along on the Auge family vacation and get to experience the MDC Hotel. Normally far above a backpackers budget, I was shown the utmost generosity once again by being allowed to stay at the hotel with the family, Rug and I getting our own straight up ballin’ room with fire place, bar, seating lounge area, two bedrooms and massive bathroom with backlit onyx over the jacuzzi tub. Seriously…?!
We spent the whole morning getting the grand tour, including visits to nearly all of the rooms and even an underground tunnel that they created to run the electrical systems. It took the better part of the day and I was in absolute heaven; I’m a total sucker for open houses, so getting an open house style tour of a unique cave hotel was bliss! It is without doubt the most beautiful, unique hotel I have ever seen. Each room had a singular design that was true to that of it’s former life – the rules of building cave hotels in Cappadocia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – decreed that you cannot change the original layout, or take away anything existing. Thus, each room was completely different from the next, with curious hobbit-like lower rooms, sunken or raised bathrooms, pigeon holes in the walls and even the domed ceiling areas where the fire ovens, or tandirs used to be. It was so interesting to see the beautifully designed rooms all fabulously furnished and yet still see signs of the original rooms from hundreds of years ago.
We were introduced to Ahmed and his wife Solmez with warm embraces and were invited to dine with them at the hotel that evening for a special dinner. It was the first time all of the family had been to see the hotel together. With our bags back in our possession, we were luckily able to change up and don our best for the dinner. We left the ordering to Solmez and were completely blown away by the food. They easily made adjustments for me as I’m not a big meat eater and had special vegetarian dishes prepared (not that we needed mains after the onslaught of delectable mezes that left us all moaning in delight at their tastiness!). There was tzatziki, hummus, acili ezme, kizartma, dolma, lamb, beef and chicken kebab – the dishes just kept coming out! The chef was outstanding in his art and we were all amazed by such a fabulous meal. The MDC Hotel is a luxury hotel, and the food is no exception. It was such a beautiful meal, the whole family and Ahmed and Solmez, all sharing stories and heartwarming tearful toasts, plenty of laughter, full bellies and hearts. I could see instantly why Butch and Brenda had become partners with Ahmed and Solmez; they were such wonderful, warm souls.
An early night was on the books, as we had to be up at 4:45am to catch our 5am departure for our sunrise hot air balloon ride! I had seen images of these renowned balloon rides for years and had always been captivated by them. I couldn’t believe I was here – in Cappadocia – about to go up in a balloon! We bussed it out to the tours main building, had some tea and a breakfast snack and then piled back into a bus after our briefing and headed out to the launch area. The sky was just shifting from its dark blanket of navy black to deep cerulean, with hints of glowing violet and neon pink just beginning to surface behind the distant mountains. Already a few balloons were lifting off into the predawn sky and I felt my heart skipping at the excitement. As we pulled up and hopped out of the van, balloon after balloon was gently lifting off into the brightening sky, and I was eager to be among them. The balloon was massive. Never having been near one before, I was in awe at how humungous the bulbous nylon orbs were up close. The only sounds in the otherwise quiet predawn were the scratching voices over the radio dispatches of the pilots, the low murmur of excited chatter and the intermittent bursts of fire blasting into the balloons hallow to buoy them.
I clambered up the side of the sturdy wicker basket and hopped in – the baskets were enormous; they could easily hold 20 people! We had one half for our group and the other half was a group from Japan. Our pilot began his preparations as he heated up our balloon, and gave us a quick briefing for landings and emergencies. Moments later we felt the box lightly lurch off the ground and we were airborne. I was completely giddy as the balloon lifted us effortlessly into the sky. We drifted east and then dipped down to settle into the canyon below us which was bestrewn with fairy chimneys, those bizarre and beautiful formations that Cappadocia is so well known for. Our pilot expertly maneuvered us between the towering chimneys and then slowly brought us up and over them, our basket barely inches from the top of the rock as we all gasped and then clapped and cheered at our pilots skills.
And then up, up, up we climbed, high above the fairy chimneys, high above the little town of Urgup and soon high above all of the surrounding towns and cave hillsides. Far to the North, the intimidating peak of Mount Erciyes loomed, hazy in the pink pre dawn, looking as though it were floating on the blanket of rosy clouds, an celestial sight. Moments later, the king himself, that bright and glowing orb, burst his head forth from beside the base of Erciyes and showered us in a tangerine glow. The balloon slowly twisted around, doing a few full, gentle rotations, allowing each passenger a perfect rolling view of the spectacular sunrise. I don’t know if it will ever be possible to see a more magnificent sunrise in all my life. The colours were so vibrant they seemed as though plucked off a painters exaggeration of a sunrise portrait. Everything was so ethereal… The mist that hung delicately in a hazy veneer. The fairy chimneys, now like crumbling sandcastles far below us. The canyon base and walls like some archaic footprint in the mud of a lost giant. And of course – the balloons. Nearly 70 of them scattered throughout the colourful sky, seeming as if they are sitting frozen in time and place against the heavens, but each drifting slowly on their own course. I can try my best to describe this experience, but it’s one that you simply need to see and do for yourself. My heart was pounding hard the entire time, not of fear or adrenaline, but of pure euphoria at being able to witness the world from such a phenomenal space. If you ever go to Turkey, I promise you, you will not regret taking a ride in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia. And I promise you that you will never see a more epic sunrise!
After our second attempt at landing (they actually land the balloons right on top of the trailer attached to the truck! The ground team drives around like crazy while communicating to the pilot above until they can find the right spot where the balloon will come down and plop the basket right on to the trailer- it’s really impressive!), we all climbed out and were treated to champagne and grape juice to celebrate. It was such a remarkable and amazing experience and we were all left beaming and talking about it the rest of our trip.
Our group didn’t have much time off – we had another tour for the day all lined up! In a couple of hours, we would be off to explore the Rose Valley with our lovely guide Kezban. There was just enough time for a 45 minute nap back at the hotel before we had to get up and scarf down a quick breakfast. Oh my goodness… the breakfast at MDC Hotel was outstanding! It takes buffet breakfast to an entirely new level, trust me! I nearly swooned when I found out they had kaymak here too, and ate an entire bowl each day drizzled with honeycomb honey and pomegranate syrup called nar eksisi. There were fresh mandarines with the leaves still attached, fresh olives and almonds, flakey heavenly pastries, crumbled feta cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, eggs and sausages, freshly made-to-order omelettes and gözlemes, and every kind of jam, sauce, chocolate and nut you could imagine. I was in heaven!!! The MDC kitchen once again put me in awe at their mastery!
We skipped off on our tour driving about a half hour to our first stop, which was a scenic view of the town of Goreme on one side, the caves carved into the chimneys looking like pock marks in the hillsides, and the mighty peak of Erciyes on the other. We cruised onwards, until we reached the Rose Valley where we had about a two hour hike through the beautiful landscape where we ventured inside some of the old abandoned caves, seeing old churches, and old pigeon houses. Some of the windows would appear 100 feet above and seemed impossible to reach, but within the otherwise smooth rock face were staircases built into the rock. It was a beautiful crisp day, the sun and physical exertion making it just warm enough to walk in a tank top and shorts. We stopped next for a delectable lunch buffet with a spectacular view of Mount Erciyes, the snowy peak now fully visible in mid day. It was strange to think that only that morning we had been hundreds of feet in the air, staring at that same peak floating in the pink haze of pre dawn. It already seemed like a lifetime ago!
We finished off the day by taking a tour with Kezban through the underground city of Derinkuyu. Never used for full time inhabitation, it was instead used as a hiding place from the invading Romans. We walked lower and lower, going down about 4 stories of the known 8 that existed. Unfortunately due to lost government funding, the excavation of the city stopped and so no more levels could be explored. I was completely lost right off the start, realizing quickly why you had to take a guided tour into this maze! They had arrows pointing which way to exit and which way to enter deeper, but it was so confusing once you were in there; it all looked the same! Kezban explained all of the mechanisms and functions of the city (like the stables being located at the front of the cave to make it seem like it was merely a stable, nothing more, and the huge round rocks that would be rolled and jammed into passage ways, impossible to move from the outside, and the ingenious toilet system -not being able to leave the underground, they would add meat to the waste buckets to create a composting toilet!). Some of the passage tunnels in the city were so narrow and short that you had to basically go into a full squat, your bottom near touching the floor and shuffle your feet to move you along- this was yet another defence mechanism by the resourceful people, but mostly it was hilarious to watch Rug try and maneuver his way through some of the passages!
It was a long and wonderful day where we got to experience the best of Cappadocia, the things that make it such a unique and special place among not just Turkey, but the world. The next day was a freebie so we hit the little town of Urgup to explore and check out the carpet store. I had never really understood why carpets in Turkey were so special or expensive so it was a great experience to head to a store, see piles of the carpets up close and get a wealth of knowledge about them from an experienced proprietor. We were shown the differences between the $700 carpet and the $7000 carpet, and shown carpets that were already 120 years old and still holding together. They were luxurious and brilliant, plush and sturdy. It was impossible not to yearn for a big, beautiful Turkish rug to take come, but alas, on my backpackers budget, it was nothing but a day dream! We grabbed lunch at a nearby restaurant and ended our day with yet another fabulous goodbye dinner with the family. Leah and Bryan left in the middle of the night, and in the morning, after yet another fabulous breakfast buffet at MDC Hotel, Rug and I piled our bags into the shuttle and embraced Butch, Brenda, Solmez and Ahmed and said our hurried and difficult goodbyes.
How can I put into words my deep gratitude for the generosity and hospitality that Butch and Brenda showed me? How can I express my thankfulness to the entire family, Leah, Bryan, Val, Dave, Butch, Brenda, Rug, Nat and Perry for accepting me with open hearts and arms to their special family vacation? It seemed too good to be true that the timing of Rug and I’s plans to go to Turkey overlapped with their family vacation plans to go to Turkey. It would have been easy enough for the family to say it was a family vacation time, and that Rug and I could meet up after Turkey, in Jordan. But instead, without hesitation they simply invited me along, as if there was no other option even worth considering. They not only invited me along, but allowed me to bunk with Rug in the beautiful hotels they had reserved, and arranged all of the transportation within the country, including some domestic flights. They treated me as if I were one of their own kids.
For some reason, such unhindered generosity has always been difficult for me to receive or understand. I have no problem being on the giving side of such things, but being on the receiving side is difficult for me. I suppose it arises from those deep seated feelings of unworthiness that have plagued me my entire life. Never thinking I am good enough. Worthy enough. Deserving of love and generosity from myself and others… When faced with such caring, love and kindness, those old feelings surface and I can’t help but think, ‘Why would you be so kind to me? I don’t deserve your kindness, I’m not worthy, I’m a horrible person, a monster, how could anyone see anything else?”. It’s awful to think that those feelings are still inside of me, buried deep, but ready to surface at times of such generosity from others. I had to battle down the feelings, to dig deep and find within myself a place where I could accept kindness from the family, a place where I could prove to myself that I was a good human being and that I was worthy of love and kindness from others. I wrestled with these thoughts the entire trip, and even in the end, felt this sense of guilt, like I would leave and they would think I was ungrateful, unworthy, that they had wasted their kindness on me. I still have these awful thoughts and I can only try to balance them now by expressing my gratitude in my words, the way I best express myself.
To the whole family, and Butch and Brenda in particular. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to be not just a part of your vacation, but of your family for those two weeks in Turkey. Thank you for treating me like one of your own and giving me the best experience someone could ever ask for while exploring the fantastic country that is Turkey. Thank you for you immeasurable generosity, for arranging all of the tours so that we had the best of the best. Thank you for introducing me to your friends in Turkey, for allowing me to get a more local experience than I would have on my own. Thank you for your knowledge about all things Turkey – the language, the food (oh the FOOD!) and the customs. Thank you for all of your organization and planning you put into the epic trip. Thank you for the conversations, the laughs, the amazing meals, and the unforgettable experiences. Having been on the road alone for 10 months, you can’t imagine how beautiful and grounding it was for me to become a part of a family again for two weeks, to be taken under wing and treated like your own. I will find a way some day to repay your generosity, but until then, I can only offer my infinite thanks. I feel so close to each of you and know I have made life long friends. As with the breakfast we shared with Josef and Fatma, we started this journey as strangers and ended it in tearful hugs as dear friends. Until our paths meet again, no matter what side of the world that may be on, I thank you, and wish you the happiest of trails!