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Get a Sweet View of the Big Rock Candy Mountains in Turkey

The fantastical stonescapes resemble nothing so much as Big Rock Candy Mountains. Some are campfire-softened marshmallows, domed and dipped. Others are taffy chews, jerked upwards, lollipops, or peppermint sticks gummed smooth. All have the sugarcoated hues of the sweet shop: pinks, oranges and yellows in comforting childhood pastels.

But Cappadocia (Kapadokya) - Turkey's central region - is not all innocence and sunshine. It's not, as George McClintock sang, truly the land "where the handouts grow on bushes ... and little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks ... Where they hung the jerk that invented work in the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

Maurauding hordes have swept across the steppes there (prompting early inhabitants to scratch secret cities into the earth). Invaders rerouted rivers and sold natives into slavery. Christians cowered among the caves, safeguarding saints' portraits and championing chastity. And now Cappadocians have seen their incomes evaporate, as tourists shy away from Middle Eastern tensions.

But independent travellers are bucking the trend, rediscovering the warm welcome, handy infrastructure and cheap luxury of this ravishing region, where a $10-a-day budget remains feasible ($20-30 should your taste run to five-course meals, Ottoman architecture by deep, turquoise pools and brisk massages in the local hamam).

Cappadocia Wild Landscape

The wild landscape might just look familiar. Remember the haunting homes of the Sand People in the first Star Wars film? George Lucas filmed there in central Anatolia, 180m southeast of the capital Ankara.

The epicentre of sci-fi strangeness lies between Urgup, Avanos and Nevsehir. Three mighty volcanoes created these sinuous valleys and hills. The first spread delicate tufa stone, then sculpted by wind and water into ever-evolving domes, hollows, clefts, cones and dreamscape shapes. Later eruptions scattered harder lava. As the soft underbelly erodes, huge boulders teeter upon tufa towers. Many take on an unmistakably phallic appearance, played up by the saucy postcards - and the sniggering backpackers who purchase them.

Such dry geographical facts displease the locals, who prefer mythology as colourful as their homeland. Angels, they insist, perched the stones atop the stalks. Fairies carry off irksome humans, those who fight Fate, and lock them inside the lunar cliffs.

Cappadocia Soft Rocky Landscape

Other tales insist that humans, horrified by an interspecies romance, drove away the fey folk. Homeless and bereft, they transformed into birds. The contrite citizens then welcomed them back, by hollowing dovecotes into the soft rock.

In reality, farmers hoped to attract pigeons and gather their rich droppings for fertiliser (perhaps the secret of the region's sweet fruit and famed wine). This was Turkey's main export for centuries, until the chemical heyday. The old stories are not so easily dismissed, however. Cappadocians still refer to the strange pillars as "fairy chimneys".

Flights of fancy aside, people have lived there since the late Paleolithic era. A crucial crossroads between East and West, the area saw its share of invaders: Hittites, Thracians, Phrygians, Cimmerians, Scythians and Medes. The names smack of biblical grandeur - and Cappadocia even merits a mention in the New Testament.

As warriors raged across the plains, the meek inhabited the earth. They burrowed dozens of concealed cities, some descending eight stories. Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, south of Nevsehir, are the most impressive constructions. In times of trouble, people dwelled in the upper levels, making wine, grinding flour and praying in the danker areas below. Large boulders sealed the doors.

The impoverished region attracted early Christians, following in the footsteps of Saint Paul, in the second century AD. They fled Roman - and later Moslem - persecution. The twisted valleys, peaks, caves and tunnels provided ample hiding places.

Two hundred years later, monasticism began there. Saint Basil - bishop of the nearby town Kayseri - encouraged hermits to form communities. Clergy ate, prayed and laboured together. They abandoned private property and led chaste, reflective lives: poor in body, rich in spirit. Greek Orthodox monks and nuns still follow these guidelines today.

Cappadocia Church

The saint helped build the area's first churches. These early houses of worship - scraped into tufa caves - were dabbed with geometric patterns and symbols, such as roosters and grapes. The frescoes avoided images of god, favoured by the western Greeks, but abhorrent to the Eastern tradition.

More Christians took refuge there in the eigth century, after the Byzantine Emperor Leo III forbid the worship of icons. Emboldened by the remote location, artists tackled daring themes like the Nativity, Last Supper and Crucifixion.

Thirty spectacular painted churches stand in Goreme Valley, now an Open-Air Musuem (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The tufa retains colour well, so the scenes are startlingly vivid at times. But rumours of ham-fisted restoration - read "repainting" - circulate through the crowd. Then an American woman does the unthinkable: loudly questions the horrific graffiti.

Some marks are clear-cut vandalism, the likes of "Yusef loves Elmas". Others smack of iconoclasm, however, especially the violent scrapes across the saints' faces. On high ceilings, overlapping pockmarks - perhaps from repeatedly hurled rocks - blend their accusing almond eyes back into creamy stone.

An earnest Turkish student, clad in a traditional headscarf and trendy denim jacket, tries to explain. "The painting is very old, it decays,"

"Just around the eyes?" pursues the dogged New Yorker. "I should be so lucky."

"We did not do this. The Turkish people, we make the painting better again." She is so clearly unhappy, the subject drops and the tourists, eastern and western alike, shuffle off awkwardly.

Cappadocia's other big draw - the Caravansaries of the Silk Road - is less controversial. The Selcuk Empire renewed the area's trade ties, shuttling spices, ivory and fine cloth from the Far East. In return, they gathered slaves there, trained them as soldiers and sold them to the south.

Travelling merchants could stay at each caravansary free for three days, under the protection of the sultan. These vast complexes included baths, mosques, stables, sleeping quarters and marketplaces. Many, like the splendid Agzikarahan outside of Aksaray, now display carpets.

Expect an unusual degree of hustle and desperation among the rug and bauble merchants of Cappadocia. Hotel proprietors lurked on dirt roads, during this last desolate "high season". They chased after cars, bellowing the merits of their €12 double room, pleading for their children's bread.

It's a far cry from McClintock's vision where "a lake of stew and of whiskey too" provide easy livin'. But these Big Rock Candy Mountains hold pleasures aplenty for visitors open-minded enough to talk Turkey.


Transport :
Fly into Kayseri Erkilet Airport on Turkish Airways ( Impulsive travellers can grab a €149 ticket from Istanbul just one hour before the flight. The airport is 97km from Goreme. Take a €10 taxi or reserve a seat on the Argeus Tours minibus (13 Istiklal Caddesi, Urgup; +90 0384.341.4688;

The Turkish bus network is outstanding - and surprisingly affordable. The ten-hour trip from Istanbul to Nevsehir, the region's transport hub, costs €18-25. Service taxis - known as dolmuses - run through Cappadocia, but scheduling can be erratic.

Many prefer to take a sleek express train from Istanbul to Ankara, then hire a car for the five- or six-hour drive southeast. Rent a mountain bike, moped or vehicle from Urgup Tour (22 Istiklal Caddesi, Urgup; +90 384.341.8811).

Where to stay ;
The Arif Hotel rents €20 cliff rooms in lower-rent Goreme (+90 384.271.2361).

The Ayse Hanim Konagi Motel-Pansion strikes a perfect note. The long, deep swimming pool has sweeping views of Urgup's golden cave-houses. Join the family for dinner in the floodlight courtyard, where puppies tumble in the foliage. A double room and superb five-course meal for two cost around €40 (Dereler Mah, Nevsehir Caddesi, Urgup; +90 384.341.3354;

Uchisar, famed for its sunset splendour, is home to the Les Maisons de Cappadoce. Spend the night in a swanky cave dwelling from €100 (Belediye Meydani;
+90 384.219.2782;

Where to eat ;
Push past Goreme's tourist traps to the elegant Orient restaurant. This flowery bower is filled with mellow stone, trickling fountains, wrought iron and lace-trimmed tablecloths. Savour hummous, tabouleh, samosas and other meze (just past the otogar, bus station; +90 384.271.2346;

Note ;
The Open Air Museum (Nevsehir Müze) is a fifteen-minute stroll from Goreme (entrance fee: £10m). Drivers should fork over the exorbitant parking lot fees or risk hassle from the site's heavily armed guards.

Alternatif Outdoor offers treks, white-water rafting and horse-riding excursions
(+90 252.417.2720; Kapadokya Balloons lifts visitors high above the haunted landscape (+90 0384.271.2442;

Cappadocia, as part of central Turkey, has a conservative edge. Dress modestly to avoid offending locals. Avoid shorts, revealing skirts, tank tops and slinky clothing. Women may wish to carry a shawl to veil their hair and shoulders in mosques.