It was freezing cold while we stood in the dark in what seemed like was the middle of nowhere, and it was hard to be still in the freezing temperatures while waiting for the hot air balloon to be set up. The guy who drove us there took out a foldable table and set up a small snacking center with hot drinks, and the steam coming out of the cups was like a little piece of heavenly relief - it was -1 degrees at 6.30 am, and this was Cappadocia, Turkey.
In the summer this place would be swarming with tourists. I’ve never witnessed it, but the number of shops and restaurants crammed in the little village of Goreme where I was staying at definitely indicated an anticipation of a massive pilgrimage – they have more Asian restaurants than Istanbul did, for example. But in winter, it becomes the complete opposite. I walked down the street for a few blocks and only bumped into 3 other people. There were hardly anyone at the restaurants. There were no queues at the museum. The hot air balloon was 65 euros less than the usual price. The Whirling Dervish tickets for 25 euros? I got it for free.
Cappadocia is an amazing place to be at any time of the year, but in winter, it gives off a different kind of charm. It’s relatively arid, with volcanic tuffs forming strange-looking peaks and formations that look like fairytale chimneys, but these are amplified when you’ve got snowfall. The entire place begins to look like a scene right out of Disney, and if there is ever a time when you get a sudden urge to sing out a little musical, this is the time and place to do so. The small houses and buildings are covered in white, the rocky brown peaks are sprinkled with white dust, the snow on the ground are tinted purple from the falling berries off the trees, and the horse ranches were just something else – picture these beautiful creatures prancing around with the playful dogs in snowy fields as far as your eyes can see. It’s the postcard-picture ideal of serenity. During low seasons the horseback rides are only 30 euros for 2 hours, whereas in the summer, it only gets you an hour.
The only downside to being here in winter is that the weather is more unpredictable. Sometimes, the hot air balloons are cancelled due to the strong winds or heavy snowfall. I was lucky that my scheduled ride went on as planned. There was no snow that day, and as we escalated above the hills I saw the horizon light up with the emergence of the sun as the day began – to say it was heavenly is an understatement. There is a specific effect, perhaps only found in this part of the world where the sunshine bathes the arid landscape with an orange tint, and you’re high up enough to see everything, but low enough to spot a dog yapping happily at your large balloon, its tail wagging.
But of course natural beauty isn’t the only thing that’s magical around here in the winter. It’s also the people. The absence of touristy crowds also means that the locals are more in their natural element. The elderly walks to and from the mosques, having laughing conversations on the benches by the roadside, the kids walk to school in groups, and the weekly market only has local attendees, where everyone finds you as interesting as the new oranges that are in season. Local cheeses are sold in large barrels cheaply, and you can try olives and fresh fruits and no one would harass you buy anything. Honey and nuts are a local specialty here if you’re thinking of getting some home. Otherwise, sit at the quiet cafes and enjoy some hot chocolate while watching the snow fall quietly on the pavements – a meal or two wouldn’t be totally inappropriate. In which case, I’d suggest the Old Cappadocia Restaurant for its stone oven bread and pide (a type of Turkish pizza). Or maybe some roasted eggplants topped with stewed tomatoes, with some testi kebabi cooked in small clay potteries. And why not some homemade baklavas for dessert?
Winter in Cappadocia is a definitely a dreamy affair. I’d do it all over again.
Note: You can get to Cappodocia via bus or an airplane. The latter is more time-efficient, and internal flights are pretty cheap (around rm200 return). The flights land in either Keyseri or Nevsehir, and from there you can take a shuttle bus that will cost 7 euros each way to your hotel in the town center of Gerome.