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New Europe

Day Forty-five: Göreme

Ballooning over Cappadocia 
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A cold clear morning in Cappadocia. Perfect conditions for ballooning and a perfect way to see this uniquely weird landscape, highlighted by a blanket of freshly fallen snow.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThis morning's phone call brings good news. The wind has dropped, the skies are clear and conditions look ideal for our balloon flight. The only trouble is it's not yet six o'clock and it's pitch dark and bitterly cold. Not much talk as we're driven just outside the town to a clearing amongst the cones of rock, where two huge balloons are being prepared.

The pilot of my balloon is a Swede called Lars and his co-pilot is his English wife Kali. They have flown all over the world but are almost as excited about today's flight as we are. The air will be both clear and cool. Visibility should be near-perfect.

We're up in the sky about the same time as the sun, and for a while it is uncomfortably cold. The ride, though, is magnificent. The strange and unique landscape all begins to make sense as we rise above it. The eastern horizon is broken by the 12,848-foot peak of Erciyes Dagi, its summit partly ripped away by the eruption that helped shape everything we can see. Long, flat tables of rock mark the height of the plateau created by the vast lake of lava, most of it now cracked, fissured and fashioned into the bluffs, cones and tall pillars that cover the ground like sentinels of some petrified army.

With the hard, bright sun at a low angle and a fresh-fallen blanket of snow on the ground, it's not only the rocks that stand out. We can see the fine detail of fields and orchards and vineyards. Though the volcanic rock makes for fertile soil, the climate has changed over the last few years and, according to Kali, the combination of warmer winters and late frosts has ruined harvests. Vines and apricot trees have been worst affected and certainly the apricot orchards look especially vulnerable under the snow. Many farmers are turning to tourism instead, or leaving the area altogether.

'What used to be farms have now been abandoned,' she says, with the regret of someone who first fell in love with the area sixteen years ago. 'When everybody had a horse and cart and everybody worked the fields. Give it another ten years and I don't think we're going to recognise much.'

Lars seems less interested in what's happening on the ground than what's happening in the air. He reads the air currents with obsessive delight, alert to all the subtle shifts and patterns, such as the emptying of the cold air from the valleys as the land warms up. His greatest wish, he says, would be to be able to colour the air to show us the streams and eddies and waterfalls and rapids all around us, which only he seems to be able to see. He takes us up to 8,000 feet. From here the detail is less distinct. The rock forests of Cappadocia have given way to a wider view. From the Taurus Mountains in the south and to the rising Anatolian plateau to the east.

Here the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, around which the earliest civilisations in the world were born, rise and run south to Iraq.

They sound very distant and very remote from our world, but if Turkey ever does join the European Union, and most of those I've talked to here want that to happen, then Europe will share its south-eastern border with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Now that would concentrate the mind.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty-five: Göreme
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Göreme
  • Book page no: 113

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