Ihlara

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The Ihlara Valley, tucked away between rolling green hills, is one of Central Anatolia’s most famous hiking sites. As one approaches Ihlara, a massive gorge (100m deep, 200m wide, and 14km long) suddenly heaves into view, cleaving the surrounding sea of green. Peace-loving Christians found this valley an ideal hideout from nomadic raiders, and now 105 churches and countless dwellings remain carved into the canyon walls. The serene village of Ihlara rests at the southern end of the canyon and makes for the best point of entry into this hidden world.

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TRANSPORTATION AND PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Package tours from Göreme and Ürgüp run to the valley, and may be the best option for solo travelers. Dedicated pioneers can catch the Ankara bus to Aksaray in Nevşehir (1hr., every hr. on the hr., $3), and then take a bus to Ihlara (1hr.; 11am, 2, 6pm; $.75). Get off near the turnoff for the valley entrance, by the pensions, to avoid walking to the center of town at. the bottom of a steep 1km hill. For emergencies, call the police (451 20 08). The 24-hour Eczane pharmacy (453 75 41) is in the town square, on the right side of the road to Derinkuyu. The hospital (453 70 06) serves standard medical needs. The tiny PTT is on the ground floor of the belediye building at the turnoff for the valley. It offers standard phone cards, stamps, and telegraph services, but no money exchange. (453 71 00. Open 8:30am- 12:30pm and l:30-5:30pm.)

Postal code: 68570.

ACCOMMODATIONS AND FOOD

lhlara’s pensions line the road that forks left at the valley entrance. Many pensions will take you to the valley entrance or to Selime in the morning. The only food served outside the pensions is at the excellent Ihlara Restaurant (lunch $2-4; ), near the official entrance to the gorge, and at a cluster of second-rate eateries around the square (pide and kebap $1.50-3).

  • Akar Motel (453 70 18; fax 453 75 11) offers 10 motel rooms and 8 smaller, homier pension rooms with bath and balcony. Both are clean and comfortable. Breakfast included. Dinner $2-4. $6 per person.
  • Bişginler Ihlara Pansiyon (fax 453 70 77), has spacious rooms with balconies, hot water, and toilet. Free car or tractor excursions to Hasan Dağ with a saç tava picnic and Turkish music (arrange in advance). Cozy restaurant-lounge serves saç tava at dinner for $2. 12 rooms. Breakfast included. $8 per person; tents $2.50; campers $6.  Pansiyon Anatolia (453 74 40; fax 453 74 39), has a campsite and 15 small rooms, some with showers and balconies. A pleasant, if mysterious, floral smell lingers in the halls. Closed in winter. Breakfast $2.50; dinner $2-4. Tent $3, bed $5. MC/V.
  • Aslan Camping, Restaurant, and Pension (457 30 33), marks Ihlara Valley’s 3km point, in the town of Belisirma. Picking your own campsite out in the valley is illegal, so would-be campers should bed down here. Restaurant patrons camp for free, otherwise $2 per tent (rentals available). The nearby pension (457 30 37) with 22 rooms charges $8 per person, breakfast included.

HIKING THE VALLEY

Most travelers visit the valley on a guided tour from Göreme or Ürgüp. These tours usually hike 3km of the valleys 14km, starting at the Ihlara entrance and ending in Belisirma, where a restaurant and campsite mark the official exit point. Continuing north, another official entrance/ exit point is halfway into the valley, in Yaprakhisar (the Aksaray bus also passes through here). The full 14km hike ends in the town of Selime, through which the last Aksaray bus passes at 5:30pm. To reach the valleys official entrance from the town square, head 1km uphill toward Aksaray (a sign marks Ihlara Valley 2km”) and take the first main intersection to your right. A paid parking lot and Ihlara Restaurant mark the entrance, where 400 stone stairs bring you down the gorge to the frescoed rock churches. You’re best off hiking to Belisirma with the river on your right, as most of the stone churches will be on your left. To hike the opposite way (south, from Selime to Ihlara), take the Aksaray bus and get off at Selime. Ask the locals to point you to the valley entrance (“vadi girişi”). Depending on your pace and eagerness to explore, the 14km hike takes about 6hr. The flat and well-worn path involves a few scrambles among the boulders north of Belisirma. (Valley open 8am-7pm. $2, students $1.)

The Ihlara Valley consists of 14km along the north-south Melendi River, which runs from Selime to Ihlara village. Sixteen of the valley’s 105 churches are open to visitors, and most of these are within 1km of the official valley entrance in Ihlara. The first one you are likely to see is Ağaçaltı Kilise (Church Under the Trees), at the base of the stairs leading into the valley. Spectacular blue and white angels encircle the Christ figure on the well-preserved dome. Another 30m south past the Ağaçaltı (to the right after descending the entrance stairs, away from Belisirma) lies the Ptirenllseki Church, whose faded walls enclose the many martyrs of Sivas. The Kokar Kilise (Odorous Church), 70m farther along, celebrates biblical stories with colorful frescoes and ornate geometrical ceiling crosses.

Sümbüllü Kilise, 100m down river from Ağaçaltı Kilise, is noteworthy for its rock facade and five deep, arched bays separated by pillars. Cross the bridge opposite the Sümbüilü Kilise, and walk up the stairs 70m downriver to find the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church), named for a display of Satan’s serpents. Having seen Yılanlı Kilise, you’re better off back-tracking, crossing the bridge, and making your way to Belisirma with the river on your right. The walk is on the whole more pleasant, and you’re liable to find a few more churches. From Belisirma to Selime, walk downstream, keeping the river on your left for the clearest path.

GÜZELYURT      

About 13km east of Ihlara, pristine hikes, unparalleled hospitality, and fresh sights await travelers in the small town of Güzelyurt, situated on the edge of a rolling, green valley. Its friendly family-run pensions and unspoiled charm welcome visitors to life in a true, traditional Turkish “köy.” Don’t be fooled by the serene sur¬roundings; mysterious underground cities, horseback riding programs, and nearby hikes are sure to keep you busy.

ORIENTATION AND PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Buses to Güzelyurt leave Aksaray (5 per day llam-6:30pm, return 7:30am-5:30pm; $1.10). Dolmuş don’t run between Ihlara and Güzelyurt and taxis cost about $6. In the direction opposite Nigde, follow the gaze of Atatürk’s left eyeball, and 50m from the town square, you should see Sibel Eczane, the town’s pharmacy (451 26 76). It is run by the out-going and pleasant Sibel, one of the town’s only English-speakers. The PTT, a beige building on top of a hill, is situated at the outskirts of town, lOmin. from the square. Follow the road toward Nigde and take a right just before the sign for Güzelyurt. (Open M-F 8:30am-12:30pm and l:30-5:30pm.) Postal code: 68500.

ACCOMMODATIONS

There are few places to stay in Güzelyurt. Otel Karballa , behind the bust of Atatürk, is housed in a beautiful 19th-century monastery built by the local Greek population, who were evicted in the 1923 population exchange. Linked with the French sporting club UCPA, Karballa offers fantastic equestrian programs, hikes to Ihlara and other valleys, mountain biking excursions, and a swimming pool. Meals are served in the refectory once used by the monks. (451 21 03 or 451 21 04; fax 451 21 07; Activities $16 per person. Dinner $10. Breakfast included. Singles $22; doubles $34.) Cozy Günalp Pansiyon O, past the road to the monasteries, offers 5 rooms, breakfast, and genuine Turkish hospitality. (451 20 76. $8 per person.) Nalbantoğlu Pansiyon , which you can find through the town’s grocer of the same name, overlooks Güzelyurt’s ranch, lake and enchanting sunset. (45121 69.3 rooms. $8 per person.) Halil Pension  (451 27 07) is a small family pension that offers bed, breakfast, and dinner for $12. To get to Halil, walk 300m down the road to the pharmacy and take a left on Kayabaşı Sok. The pension is behind a white gate 200m down the road on your left.

SIGHTS

Exploring Güzelyurt’s unspoiled sights makes for a regular Tom-and-luck adventure. Walking down the town square with the Atatürk bust on your left, a shaip right downhill points toward the monasteries. Off this road, signs mark two underground cities that don’t charge admission and are much smaller than the great cities of Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu. A series of light bulbs lines the narrow tunnels and chambers, where exploration is very do-it-yourself, so bring a flash light. A third underground city in the center of town is kept locked for safety reasons, ask a blue uniformed police officer for assistance. Monastery Valley and a courtyard with the Camii and Sivişli Churches are down the hill from the underground cities. The paradoxically named Camii Kilise (Mosque Church) was originally built in 385 as the Church of St. Gregory of Nationtus. It sported many beautiful frescoes, all of which were whitewashed or stolen when the church was converted into a mosque in 1923. The mosque is seldom used for worship, but villagers are still resistant to the proposal of restoring the frescoes and converting the mosque into a museum. Call out if the door is locked, and someone will arrive to open it. (Open daily 10:15am-8:30pm. $2.) Across from the Camii Kilise and up a very steep set of stone steps is the Sivişli Kilise (St. Anargiros Church), formerly a pilgrimage site, with a dome and four columns all carved out of rock. For a fantastic view of the village and valley, climb the stairs to the left of the church.

Monastery Valley itself is a splendid little hike that runs about 41/2km and features over 50 churches and monasteries carved out of stone. Follow the steep path to enter the valley; if you hike to the end (about 1hr.), you’ll emerge next to the old Greek village of Surhisar, at which point you’re best off hiking back in order to avoid a ludicrous cab fare. (Valley open daily 8am-7pm.)

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