Where do you think this comment that appeared in a book published in 1973 might have been referring to? Somewhere obscure way out in the Southeast perhaps, or maybe even one of the remoter corners of a Black Sea valley?
Well, no, as it happens this was actually how the Ihlara Gorge in Cappadocia appeared to Craig Mair, a young man who had arrived to spend a year in Ortahisar and who quickly found himself caught up in trying to develop the embryo tourism industry. I first walked through Ihlara Gorge in 1992, 20 years after Mair, yet even then I could have written more or less the same words. Ihlara was a little piece of paradise, a steep-sided gorge with a river trundling along its bottom and with frescoed churches carved out of the rock on either side. At the same time it was a little piece of paradise that one could have to one’s self and the locals, which is hardly the case nowadays when every day the tour buses descend on the valley, bringing people to admire the churches, take a short walk through the gorge, tuck into a fish lunch near the village of Belisirma and then be on their way again.
In some ways Ihlara has been unlucky when it comes to tourism. Although there are a few places to stay at both ends of the valley, the overwhelming majority of visitors bus in from the honeypot Cappadocian settlements of Göreme, Ürgüp, Üçhisar and Avanos, where there’s a much better choice of places to stay, eat and be entertained. That means that the really big bucks to be made from visitors are never rung up in the cash registers of Ihlara.
Ortahisar is interesting though. In Mair’s day Ortahisar actually seems to have been ahead of nearby Göreme when it came to attracting tourists. At the very least it was on level pegging. Then something happened which meant that Göreme streaked ahead, leaving Ortahisar limping in the rear. Ten years ago Göreme was still predominantly a backpacker hangout, but already it was starting to get ideas, and soon the boutique hotels were beginning to take shape. Meanwhile, over in Ortahisar the tide was ebbing rather than flowing. In the main street old men in the teahouses eyed tourists as if they were aliens landed from Mars. Occupancy levels in the hotels were falling rather than rising.
Now, though, Ortahisar has got its second wind. Now suddenly boutique hotels are all the rage here, too. There’s a small museum just off the main square, the antique shops are raking in the dollars, and the town gives off the self-satisfied air of a place that feels itself on the brink of a long-delayed breakthrough. Mair himself eventually decided that it was time to return to Scotland, but he left an account of his stay, called “A Time in Turkey,” that quietly points up the changing fate of the different Cappadocian settlements.
And where might the modern equivalent of 1970s’ Ihlara be? Perhaps the village of Çat, where a solid wall of painted pigeon-houses gaze down on a deserted valley.
Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.