- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

ABOVE CAPPADOCIA, Turkey — “Look, look,” shouted my wife, Uzay, pointing to an eagle as we slowly drifted in a hot-air balloon above the mushroom-shaped rock formations of Cappadocia, an area so eerie and otherworldly that it was the site of some of the filming for “Star Wars.”

Formed by gas bubbling through volcanic ash, Cappadocia has become a favorite site for tourists in hot-air balloons who can slowly drift above the fairy chimneys of stone that are so soft that the Byzantines carved subterranean cities out of them. A fairy chimney is a boulder of basalt balancing precariously atop a thin shaft of volcanic rock or, as Cappadocians explain it, rocks carried to the tops of hills by fairies.

For Uzay and me, the question was whether we would get to go. Rainstorms had threatened to close the balloon launchpad the night before, but when we awoke, the sun was rising and crews were inflating our balloon.

As the balloon began to rise, we climbed into the wicker basket and slowly ascended into the sky.

Our balloon, which looked like a huge, blue raindrop, rose until a breeze pushed us forward and sent us gliding across the sky and the moonscape below.

Dangling beneath the canopy in the basket, we listened to birds, already chirping at 5:30 a.m., shaken only by the occasional blasts of propane that kept us aloft.

When the burners were off, it was tranquil and quiet as we floated over the countryside, high enough to look down at flying birds but low enough to make out details.

Details such as paths, tracks and vineyards. At one moment, we were flying as high as 3,500 feet, then we were gliding just inches off the ground in remote valleys or winding among the fairy chimneys. It is a surreal environment.

We were flying across the dry, undulating hills and valleys of pastel tones of tan, pink and gray in the morning light.

Below us was a broad landscape of pointed hills carved out of the soft volcanic rock, eroded over millions of years by the winds to form cones, domes and fairy chimneys .

In some scenes of the original “Star Wars” movie, Cappadocia — an Anglicized spelling of the local Turkish name, Kapadokya — stood in for Tatooine, a desert planet.

During the Middle Ages, the area was home to thousands of Byzantine Christians who fled the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, carving homes and churches inside the rock cones and, in several cases, building underground cities in the rock. Visitors can tour the cities today.

The balloon flight was magical and serene. I felt as though I was back to my childhood, imagining what it would be like to fly in a balloon like Jules Verne’s characters in “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Cappadocia has been a favorite site for hot-air ballooners for more than a decade.

The morning breezes now send nearly a dozen balloons gliding across the sky in different directions as chase trucks follow below to pick up the passengers, who part with $170 for the pleasure.

“It does not really matter where the breeze will take you; the area is so big, and wherever you go, you come across something that will entice you,” said pilot Murat Coban, who is with the Turkish Aeronautical Association. “I have been flying over Cappadocia for a decade, but some days, I fly over places for the first time ever.”

The pilot has limited control over the balloon. He can send the balloon up with a blast of the flames from the propane or let the air inside the balloon cool so that it settles. The basket holding the passengers rotates when the pilot opens or close flaps in the balloon. The wind steers the balloon, which is why every trip is different.

When a nearby balloon bumped ours, Mr. Coban immediately turned the lever on the propane tank, sending flames into the balloon and us soaring with a loud swoosh.

For an hour and a half, we soared over a small triangle between the ancient sites, all of which are within five miles of one another.

Although the pilot flies alone, he is in constant radio contact with the jeep below.

We landed just on the back of a truck at the edge of a vineyard below.

“Hold on,” Mr. Coban told his seven passengers.

The ground crew caught the wicker basket and pulled it onto the truck.

As with all flights, this one ended with a champagne toast. It’s a ballooning tradition.

Balloon tours over Cappadocia: The Turkish Aeronautical Association offers one-hour balloon tours in cooperation with Kaya Ballooning; visit www.thk.org.tr (click on the English version) and www.kayaballooning.com, or call 90/532-287-0960. Cost: $170 per person. Discounts available for groups of more than 15. Participants are picked up from their hotels at dawn. Other balloon tours are available from Goreme Balloons, www.goremeballoons.com; Kapadokya Balloons, www.cappadociaballoons.com; and Ez Air Balloons, www.ezairballoons.com.

The nearest airport, Kayseri, is 43 miles away, an hour’s drive from the towns of Urgup and Goreme, where several balloon companies and tourist hotels are. Turkish Airlines — www.thy.com — flies three times daily from Istanbul for about $100. You can also drive or take the bus from the Turkish capital, Ankara, about 180 miles or 3 hours away.

Several hotels can be found within a few miles of local balloon-launching sites and can help arrange balloon tours. Nightly rates at the four-star Mustafa Otel are about $50 a person; www.otelmustafa.com.tr or 90/384-3413970.

You can also tour the ancient underground cities and chapels that were dug directly out of the stony underground, where residents lived like sophisticated gophers; www.hitit.co.uk/tosee/cappy/goremeoam.html.

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