In the predawn hours, an employee from Voyager Balloons meets me at my hotel and drives to a large facility where dozens of other would-be flyers wait. Each of us is assigned a number, and we are soon directed to corresponding vans.
Our driver weaves along a bumpy dirt road lined with hot-air balloons in various stages of inflation. Colorful and chubby, they tower above us.
It's organized chaos.
On any given day, weather permitting, between 100 and 150 balloons take flight over Cappadocia, a region in Turkey comprising several small communities about 500 miles southeast of Istanbul.
"This is the ballooning capital of the world," our pilot tells us, shouting over the roar of fire and hot air being forced into our balloon.
While our balloon filled with hot air, we climbed into the basket and were shown what to do when faced with a "hard landing." Finally, the ropes were released, and we began to rise.
All around is a landscape of fairy chimneys, honeycombed hills used as homes and churches, underground cities, and cave hotels welcoming visitors from around the world.
It is a geological oddity and base of fascinating human history. People have long used the soft stone to create shelter, leaving the countryside scattered with intriguing pockmarked architecture.
Some visitors hike its craggy landscape; others explore specific sites and spend time in tiny villages fashioned from stone. But only from a hot-air balloon can we see and understand the vastness.
As the sun rises, the sky begins to turn orange, silhouetting several balloons. Below me are pale tangerine- and cream-striped spires stretching to the horizon. Cave-hotel guests wave from patios as we float past. Light changes the landscape constantly.
When we land — softly, thank goodness — I am amazed that we were in the air for an hour and 20 minutes. Time had stood still.
After seeing the big picture, I'm eager for a closer look. I have only two days to fit in as much as I can. My tour guide, Bunyamin Ozmen, from Travel Atelier, scheduled the most popular attractions.
Goreme Open-Air Museum is a vast Byzantine monastic settlement that housed monks from the 10th century to the 12th century. It's composed of churches, refectories, tombs, wine cellars, dining halls, and living quarters, and each carved-out space holds secrets of the past and brilliant frescos depicting religious scenes, including the Last Supper, the birth of Jesus Christ, as well as angels and saints.
The colors, untouched by sunlight, are bright and beautiful except where vandalized before the area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1984. There are pillars, vaulted ceilings, and altars carved from the soft stone.
Small peaks are dotted with dark doorways and windows against the sand-color formations. Religious symbols are carved on the outside of many chapels near archway entries.
The underground city of Kaymakli is even more dramatic. Built and used by Christians persecuted first by Romans and then by Muslims, the cities served as hiding places. In Cappadocia, there are at least 35 underground cities carved from the volcanic rock.
Kaymakli has eight floors, with four open to visitors. The tunnels go as deep as 130 feet, a winding labyrinth of narrow passageways, rooms, and airshafts. At ground level, the ventilation shafts were disguised as wells; rolling stone doors served as last lines of defense.
Anyone who has claustrophobia, beware. There is only one way in and one way out. Crowds, especially large tour groups, fill the small spaces. Tunnels are steep, narrow, and low.
Upon entering, I am in the stable with a large archway to the outside where the animals entered. A passage to the left of the stable contains a millstone door and leads into a church. Rooms off the corridor were used for living areas. To go farther, I will have to bend at the waist, and the room ahead has become overwhelmingly packed. I decide to leave this underground maze, which continues on to wineries, a kitchen, another church, and additional living and storage areas.
We make a quick stop at a large group of fairy chimneys, mushroom-shape formations as tall as 130 feet.
Our guide, Bunyamin, explains that the chimneys are a result of several volcanic eruptions when ash rained down on the area and lava flowed. The ash hardened into tuff, a porous rock, that was covered by a layer of basalt, a much harder volcanic material. Finally, the long work of erosion began; the softer tuff wore down, and the basalt eroded more slowly, forming the mushroom cap over each chimney.
I learned at a stop in Pigeon Valley that the tiny carved openings on the rock face all over the area are pigeon houses. They were created so local farmers could collect pigeon droppings for use as fertilizer. The need for fertilizer has evaporated as agriculture has given way to tourism, but the scores of pigeons remain, greeting visitors in hopes of a handout.
The trip began with a balloon ride at sunrise, and I ended it with a sunset in the peach-color rock of Rose Valley, waiting with hundreds of others in a festive atmosphere for the sun to descend over the vast landscape.