For millennia it has been a staging post for marauding armies between the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Its history makes your average Game of Thrones episode appear quite tame: dozens of empires passed through, from Persians and Romans to Alexander the Great, from the Byzantines and Arabs to Mongolians and Turks. And they all prized one thing, besides its women and its wine: its horses. They are what give the region its name – Cappadocia is derived from the Hittite word katpatuka, said to mean “land of the beautiful horses”. The scenery isn’t bad either, a dramatic and rugged landscape of canyons, pockmarked hills and surprisingly fertile valleys.
Above all, Cappadocia is known for its “fairy chimney” rock formations and a vast network of caves carved in the soft volcanic rock. Some have even been turned into remarkable places to stay, such as boutique hotel Argos in Cappadocia. But there’s only one way to really get to grips with it: saddle up and see for myself by horse.
My Pegasus flight from Stansted might not be the easiest to reach from town, or the most glamorous I’ve ever taken, but it is by far the most convenient. After a quick transfer at Istanbul’s Asian-side airport, Sabiha Gökçen, I’m on the 20.45 to Kayseri. It arrives at 22.10 and my driver is waiting. After another hour I arrive at Argos in Cappadocia, and am led to my suite. I go to bed with that enjoyable feeling of not having a clue where in the world I am.
I am woken early by the call to prayer; Islam arrived here in the 11th century. I draw back the curtains and gape in wonder; the sun bursts over a ridge on the horizon, casting a richly deep golden light across the plains. I look around to find my bearings. I seem to be staying in an ancient citadel built into a mountain.
Go local is my mantra at the breakfast buffet: olives, cheese, tahini and gözleme, a kind of spinach pastry, all washed down with strong black tea, and I’m ready. I’m collected by Omar Ishan, a rancher with 25 Anatolian-Arab crossbreeds. On the 15-minute drive, he tells me how he rustles them from where they roam wild in the mountains, and gently breaks them in. “It takes time,” he says, “but they make special horses.”
His prize mare is Hürrem. “She is my champion endurance horse; 90km in six hours,” he says proudly, before passing me the reins. It’s with trepidation that I mount; it’s been a few years and I’m not sure how much the body is going to enjoy this. But Hürrem, a beautiful chestnut, has the build of a polo pony, which suits my kind of one-handed riding style.
I understand why it was that when the 18th-century French traveller Paul Lucas first brought this area to western attention, describing it as “the graveyard of a vanished city”, he was accused of making it up; at times it is like something out of a fantasy novel. From arid plains we abruptly enter the verdant Red Valley, a canyon filled with the magical colours of autumnal apricot trees, boarded in by walls of pink-white rock. “Hazirmisin!” cries Omar. Before I’m able to figure out that it means “Are you ready?” we’ve launched into a fast canter and bolt along narrow twisting trails. He then shouts something else, which I take to mean “Duck!” – just in time, as a low branch comes into view.
After two hours we come to the village of Çavusin. We swagger through like outlaws and climb a steep hillside trail that’s home to the ruins of a fifth-century church built into the rock. I dismount to explore. It is a little like the wonder of Petra (another civilisation built into rock), made more of an adventure by the absence of safety ropes and handrails. In places, the floor literally gives way to an unnervingly steep drop.
Before starting this journey I’d told Omar that I was after a proper all-day adventure. “Don’t worry,” he’d said drily. The next few hours bear it out. After a brief stop to water the horses we take it up a gear, breaking again into a brisk canter. But these are horses, and horses like to run; when the trail steepens, suddenly we’re off, galloping at full charge. The adrenaline surges – nothing is quite as exhilarating as being on a horse at full pelt on a slope, particularly on a narrow trail with any turns ahead invisible. At the crest of a hill we finally come to a halt and survey the terrain. In the distance is the ancient citadel of Uçhisar, our next destination.
The trail soon becomes too narrow to ride and we’re forced to dismount and lead the horses on foot. It’s like following the crest of ascending sand dunes along a path that’s barely wide enough for two feet, let alone four hooves. After a final, searingly steep climb we eventually top out. I’m bent double to catch my breath.
As we canter towards Uçhisar, silhouetted against the sun, I wonder how it would have appeared to the ancient pilgrims and warriors, seeking refuge and conquest down the centuries. Refuge is more on my mind: camouflaged in the hillside somewhere is my hotel – but there’s still another 8km to go. As if to taunt us, just as we’re riding through town the heavens open and drench us.
Without gloves my hands are cold; without long boots, the chafing is starting to bite; and without waterproofs, my humour is sorely tested. But there is a silver lining – and it’s worth the pain. On the last leg of our epic 35km tour we enter a lush wooded valley bursting with apple, plum and apricot trees; we grab low-hanging fruit, a sweet balm for morale. And then, as we clear the trees and enter the plains, the most stunning rainbow appears across the horizon. We ride towards its pot of gold until, after seven hours in the saddle, we finally make goal. An hour later I’m in the hotel’s hammam, where aching muscles are massaged and the dust is washed from my pores.
It’s quite possible that man first tasted wine in this area. Fitting, then, to submit to a little local wine tasting back at the hotel, which boasts over 22,000 bottles in its cellar. It’s then upstairs for a traditional beef kebab.
Cappadocia is to hot-air ballooning what Cowes is to sailing, and from spring onwards the sky comes alive with hundreds of balloons. I’d arranged a hands-on dawn flying lesson; unfortunately, it’s decided that I’m just out of season and the winds are too strong. So, hiking boots on, I start the strenuous route to the next best vantage point – the summit of Uçhisar’s citadel, to watch the sun rise.
After breakfast, a guide takes me to the underground city of Kaymakli for some subterranean exploration. This is where, over centuries, local inhabitants built a network of caves and tunnels to hole up, sometimes for months on end. They were ingenious; also small, as I discover while contorting myself to enter a narrow passageway. It’s very Indiana Jones – huge circular doors like millstones stand ready to roll into place, blocking off and trapping unwanted visitors. I shuffle along tunnels, down steps worn over centuries and into chambers where five minutes seems a suffocatingly long time to wait, let alone five months. After an hour my back and I are ready for daylight. On the way back, we stop so I can test my climbing skills at Monks Valley, home to hollowed out fairy chimneys where hermit monks once lived. I carefully ascend the original, very worn vertical steps of one of them and clamber inside to explore. Scratched into the rock I see the outlines of a board game. Life must have been pretty dull.
It’s possible to fly back to London the same day if one forgoes the morning’s activities; but taking advantage of the stopover in Istanbul allows a night at Sumahan on the Water, which enjoys some of the best views of the Bosphorus – and puts me in place to catch the first flight in the morning.
Thanks to a handy three-hour time difference, I’m back into Stansted at 09.50 and in the city an hour later, sore, exhausted – and elated.