Güzelyurt: Cappadocia Without Tourists

Eroded "fairy chimneys" dot the countryside of Cappadocia.
By Rick Steves

Cappadocia is rightly famous as the most bizarre and fascinating bit of central Turkey that accepts credit cards. And one of my favorite discoveries there is a town on the edge of Cappadocia called Güzelyurt.

Güzelyurt means "beautiful land." It's best known in Turkey as the town where historic enemies — Greeks, Turks, Kurds, and Bulgarians — live in peace. The town is a harmony of cultures, history, architecture, and religions. Walk down streets that residents from 3,000 years ago might recognize, past homes carved into the rocks, enjoying friendly greetings of merhaba (hello). Scowling sheepdogs, caged behind 10-foot-high troglodyte rockeries, give the scene just enough tension.

Walk to a viewpoint at the far side of town (above the Sivisli church), toward the snowy slopes of the Fuji-like volcano that rules the horizon. Before you is a lush and living gorge. The cliff rising from the gorge is stacked with building styles: Upon the 1,600-year-old church sit troglodyte caves, Selcuk arches, and Ottoman facades. And on the horizon gleams the tin dome of the 20th-century mosque, with its twin minarets giving you a constant visual call to prayer. The honey that holds this architectural baklava together is the people.

Put your camera away, close your mouth, and sit silently in the sounds of 1000 B.C. Children play, birds chirp, roosters crow, shepherds chase goats, and mothers cackle. (Ignore that distant motorbike.)

Below you, sleeping in the greens and wet browns of this tidepool of simple living, is the church of St. Gregorius. Built in 385, it's thought by Gregorian fans to be the birthplace of church music, specifically the Gregorian chant. Its single minaret indicates that it's preserved as a mosque today in a valley where people call god Allah.

Who needs three-star sights and tourist information offices? In Güzelyurt, we dropped by the city hall. The mayor scampered across town to arrange a lunch for us in his home. He welcomed us Christians, explaining, "We believe in the four books" — the local way of saying, "It doesn't matter what you call Him, as long as you call Him." He showed us the names of his Greek Christian friends, kept as safe and sacred as good friends could be in his most precious and holy possession, the family Koran bag.

The lady of the house made tea. Overlapping carpets gave the place a cozy bug-in-a-rug feeling. As the lady cranked up the music, we all began to dance like charmed snakes until our fingers could snap no more. A small girl showed me a handful of almonds and said, "Buy dem." Badam is Turkish for almond, and this was her gift to me. Enjoying her munchies, I reciprocated with a handful of Pop Rocks. As the tiny candies exploded in her mouth, her surprised eyes became even more beautiful.

The town's name is spelled proudly across its volcanic backdrop. The black bust of Ataturk seems to loom just as high over the small modern market square. The streets are alive with the relaxed click of victorious tavla (backgammon) pieces. The men of the town, who seem to be enjoying one eternal cigarette break, proudly make a point not to stare at the stare-worthy American visitors searching for postcards in a town with no tourism.

Güzelyurt, in central Turkey, is 35 miles from Nevsehir and a short bus ride from Aksaray. It's near the Peristrema Valley, famous for its seven-mile hike through a lush valley of poplar groves, eagles, vultures, and early Christian churches.

Belisirma, a village near Güzelyurt, is even more remote. With a population of "100 homes," Belisirma zigzags down to its river, which rushes through a poplar forest past the tiny Belisirma Walley Wellkome Camping (one bungalow). A group of bangled women in lush purple wash their laundry in the river under the watchful eyes of men who seem to have only a ceremonial function. Children on donkeys offer to show off the troglodyte church carved into the hill just past the long, narrow farm plots. A lady, face framed in the dangling jewelry of her shawl, her net worth hanging in gold around her neck, points to my postcard, a picture of a little girl holding a baby sheep. The girl is her niece. They call the card "Two Lambs."