Asli Özbay, an architect for the luxe Argos in Cappadocia Hotel, will tell you exactly why Cappadocia, Turkey is special.
"When you come to a land like this, culture is nature. It's all one endless story."
The iconic image of Turkey's Cappadocia region features an army of air balloons ascending over twisty stone formations that look plucked from a fairytale. Squint, and the stones resemble sandcastles, washed up on a mystical shore.
These strange stones are why you visit Cappadocia.
Let's clear something up: you pronounce it kap-pa-dohk-ee-a. The two unapologetically hard 'c's are more firm than the rock found in the region.
People have lived in Cappadocia for over three thousand years. These early settlers made their home inside the rocks. The rocks are a soft stone that you can easily scratch away at with your hand or a simple tool. Once water hits the freshly carved material, it hardens like a cement or clay—an ideal shelter.
"People don't know how precisely they carved houses," says Asli who still marvels at the structures after years of working in the region. "There are several layers of civilization here, including Byzantines and early Christians. The rock has always attracted human beings."
And as the award-winning Argos in Cappadocia Hotel demonstrates, the region has always attracted visitors as well.
Argos was first conceived in 1997 by Gökşin Ilıcalı. For him, it was a passion project, a mission to keep past spaces and knowledges alive for generations to come. The hotel is spread out in an ancient monastery in Old Uçhisar Village. There are underground tunnels and caves connecting the complex.
Restoring it demanded interacting with thousands of years of history. This requires architects like Asli to learn new techniques to ensure buildings are structurally sound for today, while also respectful to the past.
"When I arrived in 2010, there were three young architects working for the hotel, along with plenty of masons, iron workers and carpenters." Once the hotel opened, the work continued. "It's partly reconstruction but also architecture, interior design and environmental design."
To understand the complexity of this undertaking, take a trip into the valley. Cappadocia isn't the name of a city, but a region encompassing many towns and points of interest. Start your visit at the popular Goreme Open Air museum.
At this UNESCO World Heritage sight, you'll see brilliantly painted churches carved into stone cliffs and encounter kitchens, homes and barns etched into the hillside.
You'll also want to descend into the depths of Derinkuyu, an underground city with over seven levels of twisting caves. Currently, only half of the sprawling complex is open to visitors. The entirety can house up to 20,000 people, leaving plenty for you to explore in the open section.
Derinkuyu was formed during the Byzantine empire when Muslim-Arabs used it as a shelter during the Arab-Byzantine wars (780-1180). Many chapels and Greek inscriptions were added during this period. Later, in the 14th century, Christians retreated to the tunnels for protection from the Mongol invasion. The tunnels were used as a refuge from war on and off until the 1920s, and were forgotten until 20 years later when a man living nearby found a mysterious room behind a wall in his home. Upon inspection, he realized it led to a tunnel, which would turn out to be the Derinkuyu underground city.
"Civil engineers don't understand the structure here," Asli comments. "You have to know about the rock and the caves and the stone cut buildings. You have to know the relation between them—it's another knowledge to modern architecture."
After visiting Derinkuyu and the Goreme Open Air Museum, continue your education with a trek down into one of the lesser known, but no less beautiful valleys. Nestled away from prying eyes you'll find remarkably preserved villages, complete with authentic restaurants to rest your weary feet.
But there will be no rest for the eyes–especially if you follow the herd (and you should) and take a hot air balloon ride. It might seem cliche, but any skepticism will fly away as soon as you're floating over the valley. Since wind determines the hot air balloon's route, your photos will feature a vista no other visitor can replicate.
Horseback riding is another way to experience the region. Cappadocia is famous for its sturdy breed of horses, which are masterful companions to help you understand the region’s topography. Past empires bred horses here, and the tradition has stuck around today.
But while it's easy to fall in love with the idea of visiting Cappadocia, visiting the region is unfortunately a challenge.
"The internet made it a lot easier for people to come and visit," Asli says, "Until 10 years ago Europeans were the primary visitors to Cappadocia. But things have changed in the last two years. Unfortunately we have fewer foreigner guests, but still some Latin Americans, Japanese, Indians and Europeans come to visit."
For Americans, as of late 2017, the visa process for entering Turkey is nearly prohibitive. Buying a visa on arrival is no longer an option, though some have reported successfully obtaining them when flying from countries other than the US (we don't recommend this option). Instead, you’ll need to apply in advance and pay a single entrance fee of $160.
To reach Cappadocia, the best option is to fly into Istanbul, then take another flight to either Kayseri or Nevşehir Cappadocia Airport. Flights operate daily.
"[Cappadocia] is so beautiful and it fills your heart and you become optimistic and enthusiastic to do almost anything," beams Asli, "it's so tranquil here, and that cannot be a coincidence."