Turkey: Visiting Urgup, Mustafapasa and The Doll House

Author Ann Banks with Sibel Gul at the Doll House museum in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Author Ann Banks with Sibel Gul at the Doll House museum in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Mustafapasa: Off the Beaten Track in Cappadocia

By Ann Banks

In the pop psych divide between maximizers and sufficers, I am a maximizer, someone who will go to great lengths to secure the best possible outcome.

That goes double when I’m planning a trip. I’ll comb through GoNomad and other travel sites until I feel like I practically grew up in my destination.

Obsessive Internet research helped me get many things right on our recent journey to the Cappadocia region of Turkey. First I figured out which of the area’s main towns was not overrun by tour buses —Urgup. There I booked us into a beautiful, brilliantly run small cave hotel —the Esbelli Evi that was one of the first ones in the region and truly deserves the description “boutique.”

Then I grappled with the balloons. Riding a hot-air balloon aloft at dawn to view Cappadocia’s phantasmagorical landscape is practically mandatory according to all who visit, and there are dozens of operators from which to choose. I was nervous about this until I identified one — Butterfly Balloons — with more stringent safety standards than most operators.

Cappadocia’s Marvelous Landscape

The cave hotel, Esbelli Evi in Urgup.
The cave hotel, Esbelli Evi in Urgup.

The main draw of Cappadocia is the landscape, a breathtaking outcome of a creative collaboration between geological time and human history.

Over eons rain and wind have carved the region’s hundreds of square miles of volcanic tufa stone into canyons and valleys crowded with towering cones, “fairy chimneys” and other fantastic shapes usually seen only in clouds. Humans through the ages have taken a hand, fashioning the tufa into cliff shrines and frescoed rock churches and entire underground towns.

Like most visitors, we experience these wonders at first from carefully curated perspectives: the basket of our balloon; an outdoor museum of ancient rock churches; a signposted hiking trail departing from a visitor parking area.

The Doll House, also known as the National Museum in Cappadocia.
The Doll House, also known as the National Museum in Cappadocia.

But before long we were ready to depart from the trodden way and explore on our own. We wanted to behold the dream-like shapes without benefit of labels or guides, to experience the power of the surroundings away from flocks of other tourists.

We stumbled upon the village of Mustafapasa the old-fashioned way: by driving to a dot on a map that looked like it might be interesting. Fortunately there were still a few days before we were set to leave Cappadocia.

Also fortunately, Mustafapasa was only six kilometers from where we were staying. In each of our three trips to the sleepy village, we had memorable experiences that are the best kind of travel souvenir.

We wandered into the The Old Greek House Restaurant the first evening, hungry. The Old Greek House is what passes for new construction in Cappadocia, having been built in the 1800s by an Ottoman Greek family. The house changed hands in the 1924 population exchange between Turkey and Greece, and later was converted into a small hotel with a restaurant serving traditional Cappadocian cuisine.

The Old Greek House Restaurant, built 'recently,' in the 1800s.
The Old Greek House Restaurant, built ‘recently,’ in the 1800s.

Seated in a beautiful courtyard, we placed our order and waited… and waited. Eventually I wandered outside, where nine or ten members of the family who owned the restaurant were enjoying the evening light around a picnic table. The matriarch beckoned me to sit next to her and gave me a hug.

She also gave me to understand that she was the chief cook. Just as I was about to pantomime our eagerness to taste some of her cooking, a helper brought our dinners – stuffed eggplant and lamb and yogurt with cucumber.

It turned out to be the best food we’d eaten so far in Turkey. I would have liked to think of the Old Greek House as my own discovery. But I learned from photos that it was hardly unknown. Hanging on a wall was a photo of a beaming Martha Stewart, who had once spent several days in the kitchen, cooking with the owner.

The Doll House
Our second visit to Mustafapasa was in the company of Turkish art professor Nina Yener, a friend of a friend from Istanbul. We drove around and around the village looking for something Nina wanted to show us which she called the doll house.

The official name turned out to be the Cappadocia Art and History Museum, a wonderful personal museum, also housed in a restored Greek mansion. This hidden gem is known for its hundreds of dolls hand-made by owner Sibel Gul over a period of 30 years. There are firemen, soldiers, street peddlers, bakers and assorted ladies in splendid raiment.

A cave room at the Esbeill Evi hotel in Urgup, Turkey.
A cave room at the Esbeill Evi hotel in Urgup, Turkey.

Gul and her son Serkan, who together run the place, gave us a personal tour, and the longer we stayed more was revealed – entire floors upstairs and down. In addition to the dolls there are basement galleries of Cappadocian antiques and objects handed down and lovingly curated in Gul’s family. Each took a month to make and each has its own distinctive face and personality; together they depict famous characters and scenes spanning centuries of Turkish history as well as everyday village scenes.

On our final visit to the Mustafapasa, it was the surroundings that beckoned. We followed a path on the village outskirts leading past a small, abandoned monastery, up a valley of orchards and pastures sheltered amid great outcroppings of bare rock. I felt a connection to all those before who had felt inspired to carve homes from this obliging stone.

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Ann Banks
Ann Banks is a journalist and writer living in New York. She has written for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, The Nation, and USA Today, where she served as a member of the Board of Contributors. She also wrote regular columns in Parents and Parenting magazines. Selections of her essays may be found at right and at annbanks.com Her travel writing has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, Arthur Frommer Budget Travel, The New York Times, Vogue, and Parents and at gonomad.com. She also has published eight books for children. She has taught writing at Boston College, The New School University, and the School of Visual Arts. She is a board member and former president of the Writers Room, a writers' colony in New York City. She also is on the board of City Lore and the Coney Island History Project, and has served on the membership committee of PEN USA and as a judge for the National Book Awards.