As an independent traveler, it happens every so often: You find yourself walking beside a road in the middle of the desert, cars whizzing by you with little regard, no more than a bottle of water and a book in your bag. It was that way one afternoon in middle of Turkey as I made the 15-minute trek from the village of Goreme to the nearby museum that brings hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. So, at least I wasn’t alone in this thing.
The Goreme Open-Air Museum is the easy first choice of places to visit for those who make the journey out to deserts of Cappadocia. Once — like in the 10th through 12th centuries — a great religious center, the churches of Goreme are amongst the first of the other-worldly things I saw from the bus window driving in. What makes them so special is that they are not made of brick and mortar, stacked stones, or clay and wood. The structures that make up the open-air museum are carved into the rock faces and formations of one of the oddest landscapes on earth.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The Goreme Open-Air Museum is chock-full of 1000 year-old frescoes, has well-preserved caved dwellings of ancient monks and nuns, and overlooks whimsical rock formations that stretch endlessly into the horizon.
- Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the churches of Goreme were an important place for early Christians seeking refuge from Roman soldiers and have survived centuries with very little change.
- Great for religious pilgrims, history aficionados, desert dwellers, and the culturally curious alike—Goreme’s centerpiece museum and the peculiarities surrounding it offer natural beauty (especially of the geological variety), canyon oases, and unusual glimpses into humanity’s past.
The Museum Inside and Out
The Goreme Open-Air Museum was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, around 1000 years after the space first started functioning as a religious center. Nowadays, visitors pay a few bucks to enter and visit its myriad churches, which appear almost as mirages in the rock face: You are looking at an endless desert of dust-colored stone formations when suddenly doorways, windows, and balconies appear. The monastery crawls up the mountain side and deep into it.
As this was our first visit to one of many of Cappadocia’s unique dwellings, and the only one readily available without a tour guide, we — my mother-in-law, wife, and I — explored every nook and cranny we came across. We crawled through low passageways, deeper into the monastery’s sanctuaries, churches, and former homes. Throughout, we discovered fresco paintings, from simple clay orange geometric designs to elaborate murals depicting saints in front of bright, crafted backdrops. Due to the environment, many hadn’t faded over the centuries. Cave paintings have never been so fine.
Goreme in Context
Just as important as the exploring the inside of The Open-Air Museum is appreciating what’s around it. Cappadocia is one of those places on this planet that seems to be from another one completely. Fairy chimneys, the desert’s signature rock formations, rise up from landscape in all directions and a myriad of shapes, from classic teepee to thick pedestals with a single boulder balanced atop them. Others are outright phallic. Within craggy collection of rocks, wild rushes of greenery appear, and above them both, the sky is vivid blue.
Then, there was our hotel. Throughout the deserts of Cappadocia, there are underground cities to visit, homes and shops bundled into the bases of fairy chimneys, and the dark mouths of caves as far as the eye can see, and in the village of Goreme, several hotels offer cave rooms. I imagine they are more comfortable than a few centuries back, perhaps a bit contrived, but for us, the prospect was just irresistible. Seriously, look at the picture. Who doesn’t want to spend the night in a fancy cave?
- We took the public bus system to get there, an overnight journey; however, planes and trains go to Kayseri, about an hour away from Goreme.
- Remember to carry water. This is the desert, so the heat and aridity can sneak up on you.
- This region is one of the world’s premier sites for hot-air balloon rides. Tour companies will pick you up before dawn so that you can be airborne for the sunrise.
- Cappadocia is hot and dry in the summer, but should you be a winter visitor, prepare yourself for cold and possibly snow. Also, regardless, remember the desert gets chilly at night.
- It takes a few days to explore the sites around Goreme and they are pretty unique from one another, so it’s worth booking three or four nights.