As I prepared to leave Iraq at the end of a short stint in The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau this year, everybody said the same thing: “Oh, you must go to the beach to decompress.”
But after days of unrelenting sun and temperatures upwards of 110 degrees, I didn’t find the idea of going somewhere to lie on hot sand especially appealing. I had a different plan: a cave hotel in Turkey.
Turkish Airlines is one of the few commercial airlines to fly to Baghdad, so a stop in Turkey on the way home seemed like a natural choice. Also, I had this vague feeling that I wanted to continue exploring the vestiges of the ancient world that had opened up to me in Iraq. Seeing shepherds minding their flocks on a dusty road to Kirkuk, for example, had evoked biblical times. And in Turkey, which had been a refuge for the early Christians, there are still communities that speak the ancient tongue of Aramaic.
Most of all, though, I wanted to go somewhere cool. Literally.
After a bit of Googling, I hit on Cappadocia, the region in central Turkey known for its volcanic rock formations. After a bit more Googling, I found Serinn House, a boutique hotel set into the ashy cliffs of Urgup, with cave rooms outfitted in chic modernist decor.
But as my plane began its descent into the airport in Kayseri after a short flight from Istanbul, I started to panic. From the air, the landscape below had the arid look of the desert I’d just left behind. As a mountain range came into view, I realized that I’d been so busy covering al-Qaeda attacks and troop movements that I had no idea what those mountains even were. Disembarking, I faced lost luggage and a pounding headache from a drop in temperature of about 40 degrees. I wondered about the wisdom of my decision.
All I wanted to do was to sit on a stone terrace somewhere and sip a crisp white wine. I was hot, tired, sweaty and overwhelmed. Had I made a terrible mistake?
My fears were somewhat allayed as the airport shuttle rattled through a Mediterranean landscape of apricot trees and terra cotta houses. After a little more than an hour, the driver took a sharp left turn and climbed a bumpy stone hill, depositing me in front of Serinn House.
Owner Eren Serpen, warm and friendly, opened the carved wood door to greet me, offering me a chilled glass of water and a snack. The hotel — now charming — was a ruin when Serpen bought it in 2004 and hired Istanbul architect Rifat Ergor to design its six rooms.
I declined the snack and went right to my cave. It didn’t disappoint: The raised bed was nestled beneath the arching cave wall, and the room was outfitted with a white Habitat sofa and trendy lamps. I opened the window to let the fresh air in and flopped onto the bed for a nap.
I awoke to dusk and the familiar sound of the muezzin — the Muslim call to prayer from the local mosque — floating through my open window. There was something else, too: divinely cool air. I got out my journal and wrote, “The cool air is like a bomb,” before I realized my mistake, crossed out “bomb” and wrote “balm.”
Indeed, the quiet of my cave retreat was almost unsettling after the noise of the Iraqi capital, with helicopters buzzing, sirens, horns and the nearly constant grind of the generator that provided our electricity.
I soon learned that living in a cave — the way the early Christians who took refuge in Cappadocia in the second century did — has its peculiarities. The closets cut into the cave walls smelled a little musty, so I left my clothes in my suitcase — when it finally arrived — and put it on a wide stone ledge. I could lie in bed and hear small flakes breaking off the roof of the cave and floating gauzily down, covering the floor in sandpapery grit. I would go out for the day and return to find a spray of tiny yellow rocks on my sheets, like confetti after a birthday party.
The next morning, I had breakfast on the hotel terrace overlooking the valley. It was sunny, but there was still a lingering coolness in the air, and Serpen had set out a spread of yogurt, cereal, cheeses, melon, preserved fruit — big in Turkey — and honey pooled around a honeycomb.
Everything on the terrace was cute, from the little metal cherry-shaped weights that Serpen had pinned to the edges of the tablecloths to keep them from blowing away, to Findik, the squatty dog underfoot named after the Turkish word for hazelnut. Serpen’s assistant, Cem, brought me freshly squeezed orange juice, a hot pastry filled with spinach and cheese, and black American-style coffee.
I was glad to see that, because I was still detoxing off the coffee in Baghdad. Iraqis like their coffee strong, almost stewlike, flavored with cardamom and served in tiny gold-rimmed demitasses. Exotic, yes, but let’s face it, an acquired taste.
I had limited time, so I hired a guide through one of the two big local tour companies, Argeus Tourism and Travel.
Halil Uysal was an enthusiastic 24-year-old, a native Cappadocian who lived in an apartment in Urgup decorated with a kilim rug that his great-grandmother had woven by hand.
His enthusiasm for his home territory was infectious, and he soon had me hiking through the moonscape of sandy-pink rock formations, which wind and centuries of erosion had formed into fantastical shapes such as kissing lovers or camels.
Later, Halil marched me through the crowded Goreme Open Air Museum, an early monastery complex with a series of rock-cut churches from the 10th and 11th centuries decorated with Byzantine frescoes.
“I feel so mystical in here!” he said, stopping inside one of the most impressive churches, the Dark Church, where blue-tinged frescoes depicted the life of Christ. “I could pray in here, and I’m a Muslim!”
We also visited the giant rock formations at Pasabag — great earth pillars with basalt caps that looked like giant mushrooms; the locals call them fairy chimneys. As we wandered among the rocks and untamed grapevines, I spotted an old pergola twined with leaves, left behind by some farmer who had worked the land long before it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Halil explained how the locals take the grape leaves and saute them in lemon juice for dinner. Another local tradition has it that one measure of a woman’s homemaking skills is how tightly she rolls her stuffed grape leaves. His father had first been charmed by his mother because of the tininess of her grape leaves, he said.
“God wanted this to happen, I guess,” Halil said, his voice echoing among the stones. “That’s the only way to explain Cappadocia.”
In the evening, I climbed down the hill from my cave hotel and walked a few short blocks to Ziggy Cafe and Restaurant, which Halil said was the best place to eat in Urgup.
The owner, Nuray Yuksel, a friendly woman who looked like a long-haired version of Yoko Ono, met me out front. She led me up three narrow flights of stairs to a rooftop terrace lighted by lanterns. I would later notice that the lanterns were emblazoned with a cut-out image of a dog’s face, a tribute to the restaurant’s namesake, Nuray’s late dog, Ziggy.
“We have blankets if you get cold,” she said, gesturing to a wrap laid across the chair. Cold? After the triple digits of Baghdad, I say, “Love it!” But later the temperature did drop, and I snuggled up in the wrap.
I ordered a few local dishes, including two traditional Turkish meze, or small plates: spicy stuffed peppers and eggplant grilled in embers, the traditional way. For the main course, I ordered phyllo stuffed with cheese and pastirma, which is sun-dried beef coated with a paste made of garlic, fenugreek seeds, paprika and salt.
Then my wine arrived, a crisp white made from a Cappadocian emir grape at the local Kocabag winery. That’s when I realized that I had achieved my one-and-only goal upon leaving Baghdad: to sit on a stone terrace somewhere, drink white wine and chill out. On the cobblestone road below, I could see the street dogs that Nuray had adopted snoozing on the sidewalk, and in the distance loomed the dark shapes of the ancient stone cliffs dotted with dovecotes, pigeon houses that farmers once used.
I got a little teary, thinking how lucky I was to be sitting someplace where I didn’t have to worry — at that precise moment — about anything exploding. And I missed the friends I’d made in Baghdad, dear Iraqis who didn’t have that luxury.
I liked Ziggy Cafe so much that I went back the next night. Nuray welcomed me like a member of the family. I had a quick plate of fresh tomatoes and pasta, and afterwards her husband, Selim, drove me back to my hotel in his sporty red Fiat Fiorino. He and Nuray live in a cave house next door to the Serinn. They moved in in 1993, long before the boutique hotels arrived. In the early years, Nuray was one of the only women in this rural area of Turkey who drove a car. They were pioneers of a sort, among the first to add plumbing and remodel the old cave dwellings into modern homes.
A cave is the perfect place to reside in Cappadocia, Selim said, warm in the summer and cool in the winter. “It’s the only way to live.”
The next morning, before I left, I had breakfast on the hotel terrace again. Just on the edge of the horizon, I could see the shapes of colorful hot-air balloons that floated through the air. Many visitors end their trip to Cappadocia by getting up early and taking a balloon ride to see the landscape from above, I was told. It’s supposed to be fabulous.
I could have gone on a ride, too, but I decided against it. After having lived in a war zone, I was ready to stay anchored on the ground for a while.