The Soğanlı Valleys of southern Cappadocia are great if you want to do some Cappadocian cave-church exploring off the beaten path.
Yes, the Göreme Valley has the best-preserved painted churches, but it's also always busy with large groups. The Zelve Valley has wonderful weird volcanic topography, but it's also crowded most of the time.
The Upper and Lower Soğanlı valleys of southern Cappadocia, about 36 km (22 miles) south of Mustafapaşa, are much less visited.
In the Soğanlı (soh-AHN-luh) valleys you may have the hiking trails, churches and weird dovecotes to yourself. You can have fun exploring on your own throughout several valleys, and really get off the beaten path.
Not only that, but there is a real traditional Turkish village at Soğanlı, with people living (mostly) as they have for centuries.
Tourism has intrueded to the point where there are several serviceable restaurants, and local women hand-make "Soğanlı dolls" for the tourist trade, but Soğanlı is still a real Turkish place.
The Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church) is up a steep, slippery, much-eroded satiwarway cut into the rock, on the right as you approach the village, before you reach the admission ticket booth. Clamber up at your own risk. The churches are badly ruined, but the climb is memorable.
The Gök Kilise (Sky-Blue Church) is to the left on the other side of the stream, indicated by a sign.
After paying your small admission fee, you come to the village plaza with its parking places, restaurants, a few small shops, and hiking trails to the northern/ upper (yukarı)/ (right-hand) valley, which has most of the churches; and the southern/ lower (aşağı)/ straight-ahead valley, which has many dovecotes.
In the northern valley, see the Karabaş Kilisesi (Black Head Church), next to the monks' refectory, and the Yılanlı Kilise (Church with a Serpent) at the head of the valley.
Cross the valley near the Yilanli Kilise to reach the Kubbeli Kilise (Church with a Dome) and Saklı Kilise(Hidden Church). You'll have recognized the cylindrical dome of the Kubbeli as you walked up the other side of the valley. The Hidden Church is indeed hidden: not in evidence until you approach it.
In the other valley, look for the Geyikli Kilise (Church with Deer), with another refectory (the Byzantine monks here lived alone, but shared meals together). The Tahtalı Kilise (Church with Doves), also called the Church of St Barbara, has some of the best-preserved decoration.
The dovecotes you see in and around Soğanlı were built by the monks to accommodate the pigeons valued for their guano (poop).
Caves were hollowed behind rock faces, then small holes carved through the wall to admit the doves. The borders of the holes are painted white to attract the birds, but the facing around each hole is smooth so there is no place to alight.
The birds enter the holes to find a lattice of sticks on which to perch. They sleep there, and defecate, and the monks collected their guano for use in fertilizing their grapevines, which produced sweet grapes for making wine.
Plan to spend at least 90 minutes (bare minimum) at Soganli, preferably three hours or half a day. The walking is enjoyable. This is not a place to run through and check off churches from a list, but rather a place to enjoy hiking and exploring on your own.
Bring water and snacks. Drinks and food are available in the restaurants as well.
—by Tom Brosnahan
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