Cappadocia: Exploring Turkey on Horseback

Photographer Olivia Estebanez saddles up and explores the troglodyte villages and astonishing scenery of central Turkey

Cappadocia means “Land of beautiful horses”. These days, you don’t see that many people on horseback in the area, but the name still feels right because there are virtually no roads, so the only way to really explore this incredible part of Turkey is on the back of a horse. 

Our guide was a Frenchman who lives locally, rearing Arabian horses. They are ideal for this kind of trip as they have great endurance and are good on all sorts of terrains, which is important because Cappadocia is an area of constantly shifting topography. Each valley feels like a new world compared with the last one. Some are rocky and arid like Arizona. Others are soft and sandy. In some, the water erosion has polished the stone as smooth as an egg. After just a couple of hours in the saddle you feel like you have moved from one completely different landscape to another. 

Each evening we would arrive at the edge of a new village, tie up the horses, and find that night’s cave.

Back in the day, the area was full of troglodyte villages, with homes carved into the soft stone. Today, these ancient cave houses are used mostly for tourism, and we slept in a different one every night. We were there for a week, travelling on horseback every day. Each evening we would arrive at the edge of a new village, tie up the horses, and find that night’s cave. And then each morning we would strike out again, into the incredible landscape, stopping for lunch at tiny restaurants in the middle of nowhere. The food was simple and delicious: feta cheese and flatbread, gözleme and grilled lamb. They were mostly run by old couples, living very traditional lives – the women in black scarves, the men driving donkeys – and you did wonder where on earth they got their ingredients, being so far from anywhere else. 

Our guide took us to visit the remains of old Byzantine churches carved into the rock, and one day we went up in a hot air balloon. The region’s calm winds have made it one of the world’s most famous places for ballooning. We turned up very early, at 4.30am while it was still dark, and took off just as the sun was coming up. The experience is astonishing. Around you, there are hundreds of beautiful brightly coloured balloons in the sky and beneath you is the stunning landscape. You can see all the different valleys at once – all the different colours and textures.  

The beauty of Cappadocia is that every day is different. There’s a pink valley and a white valley. And the hilarious Valley of Love, which is full of these naturally occurring rock formations that look like giant phalluses. Sometimes you’re galloping on flat land and you feel like you’re on top of the moon, you can’t see anything all around you, and then suddenly you arrive at a new valley and the colours are incredible, very desaturated and soft and lovely; a gorgeous pale green because of a moss that grows up the side, or as lush as mainland Europe with trees everywhere. 

I think I saw two roads the whole week I was there. You could hike, of course, but you would have to be very fit and even then, you wouldn’t see a fraction of what you can on a horse. It really is just a brilliant place to explore in the saddle: once you’re out of the village it feels like you’re in a cowboy film: just you, your horse and a sublime, untamed landscape.

By Olivia Estebanez. Olivia is a photographer, and was born in Bordeaux and is now London-based. oliviaestebanez.com

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