In places outside of Istanbul, the culture of the past still reigns supreme or, at least, carried over to become a fusion of a relatable past and a highly technological present.
A unique attraction are the cave hotels found in Goreme, Ürgüp, Ayvali towns in Cappadocia. Some other countries can lay claim that they have their own cave hotels, in fact all touristic countries have their own centuries-old caves “renovated” into comfortable features to make them livable. After all, some of it already have been inhabited by people even during olden times; but no other destination can boast the sheer number and originality of cave hotels that this region in Turkey possesses.
We were fortunate to be hosted at Gamirasu Cave Hotel, consistently voted as one of the top five in the world in its category.
Gamirasu is family owned and ran by members of the clan headed by its patriarch, Mr. Ibrahim Bastutan, situated at the end of a small road in charming Ayvali Köyü village in Urgup. The 36-room hotel is part of the “fairy chimneys” landscape that characterizes the jagged topography of the region. It is this reason that the caves have been used as a monastic retreat and residence in the 11th century Byzantine era for more than 5,000 years. The hidden, hard to access caves that were havens for Christians seeking refuge from persecution from Romans have turned into a panorama of honeycombed air-conditioned dwellings, romantically lit, with each room resplendent with uniquely designed features and interiors.
It is the cave experience with modern comforts that pervade the raving reviews of tourists who have stayed in Gamirasu; but our interview with Bastutan provided more meaning because of his effort in preserving the history of the caves by transforming it into a luxury hotel.
“I started tourism in 1994 when I opened a jewelry store in Goreme. I grew up in this village where I was born, I returned here from Goreme to visit, then I went down here in this valley for hiking then I saw this and exclaimed, wow, this can be a hotel,” he related.
Most of the centuries-old caves have been abandoned and in ruins for forty years as the government made homes in the village for the residents of the caves, and restoration would be an expensive endeavor; but nothing would diminish his worthy cause.
“I sold my shop and I bought the 8 houses here in 1996 and put it together in 2 years. Four years later I opened the hotel. It took much longer than I estimated, and cost me more than I expected. Presently, I have already invested US$8 million; but, in that time, I have already paid my dues as I did not suffer any crisis except from last year,” Bastutan revealed.
The development was more than just a complex exercise of adaptive reuse as Bastutan wanted to preserve as much of the natural contour of the caves, oftentimes in disagreement to his engineers who wanted a more modern look. He admits that modern amenities should be installed but he respects the history of the caves and toiled for months thinking of ways and means that will keep its original ambience.
“I did the interiors, this must be done in more steps than one. First is the excavation, then where to put the bathroom, what can fit in this 2,000 year-old houses where 2nd Century people inhabited it, there is even a cemetery where a Roman Emperor lies. It is full of history here. I wanted it restored, not modernized. The most difficult was the bathroom design. Second is where will the bed be located. It is like a chain. I have to respect the history but at the same time, modern comforts should be there. I thought for two years just for one room alone.”
Indeed, guests cannot help but notice the hard work in piecing together modern amenities and design into what Mother Nature has carved, with little alterations. Each room has a different layout to conform with the natural rock formation of a cave, even air vents which are disguised deftly or not at all. Air conditioning is provided even if the interiors remain at 18°C during summer even when outside temperatures reach 40°C. The nearby village adds to the rustic appeal as it comes alive during summer with activities that is commonplace during fruit and vegetable harvests in Europe.
Apart from the standard luxury hotel amenities, WiFi is complimentary. Guests can also avail of free use of bicycles to go around the locality.
Bastutan also mentioned that, during summer, guests can participate in harvest and cooking activities in his other property.
“We have free shuttle from the hotel to Urgup town. We offer daily culinary tour for free. In winter, we heat the pool up to 40°C. In summer it is at 30°C. Every kind of fruit and vegetable we have here. I have a garden that tourists can see but only a few of them look. In July is apricot harvest. I have 400 trees, 3 kilometres south of here, vegetable garden is just 500 meters away, eat the grapes of our village and you will never forget it. Culinary tour is for a month. We offer a tandoori lunch, organic all year round. August, September or October is the best time when all the fruits are ripe. Culinary tours can be in three days just in this village on half-day tours. We can show you how to make grape jelly, pumpkin seed… I have an orchard that’s 25,000 square metres the biggest one, one at 4,000 the smallest one. I have dried aubergines, black pepper that we cook with olive oil. We preserve these as well as tomatoes and apples.”
Gamirasu was voted best hotel in Turkey by TripAdvisor in 2016, and number 10 in Europe, among other local and international awards; but, in our opinion, the best award is the experience one gets when staying in these fascinating rock shelters. When there may be other cave hotels in the world (and there aren’t plenty), you can narrow down your choices by thinking these: It is in historic Turkey, it is in Cappadoccia where fairy chimneys abound and caves have been places of residence for centuries (not renovated or restructured to be a hotel), it is near a village teeming with local color, and of course, the hands-on hospitality of the owners, the Bastutan family. How can anything go wrong?