A cloud of dust appears on the edge of the horizon, where the flat plains give way to snow-covered peaks. As the cloud comes nearer, low thunder rumbles through the air. The noise increases, the dust rises. Amid the haze appear the heads, the bodies, the flying manes of horses, hundreds of them, black, chestnut, grey, white. They pass by, a mass of animals and dust, of galloping feet and changing colours. Then they disappear, the cloud of dust dissipating on the horizon, a dying rumble of hooves.
"Can they do it again?," I ask the rider with the cowboy hat who follows the herd. He nods.
Travel guides rarely fail to mention that the name of Cappadocia, Turkey's famous geological-cum-historical marvel, means Land of Beautiful Horses. But though horse riding among the trademark fairy chimneys and rock monasteries of the region is a popular activity, to understand how Cappadocia got its name, you need to leave behind its more touristy parts and head towards Kayseri, a city of a million inhabitants at the foot of Mount Erciyes.
There, by the village of Hürmetçi, a herd of Yılkı horses roams free. The breed is typical of Anatolia and served the locals for centuries, until tractors replaced them for farm work. The remaining horses became wild. Now they are a photo opportunity for newlyweds and Japanese tourists who want to stand out from the crowds.
The Museum of Seljuk Civilisation
Wild horses are just one reason to choose Kayseri as a base for exploring the region. An hour's drive from the fairy chimneys and balloons of Göreme, one of Cappadocia's most popular spots, the city is a bustling urban centre with more affordable accommodation, great restaurants, an airport and other merits of its own.
Located in the centre of Anatolia, at the intersection of millennia-old crossroads, Kayseri is the descendant of a sequence of towns built through the ages by the most powerful empires of the region. The Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Seljuks and the Ottomans all controlled it, leaving traces of their presence all over the place. The nearby Kültepe Tell is a millennia-old settlement that has preserved Assyrian cuneiform tablets. The fine exhibition of the Archaeological Museum is housed in the Kayseri fortress, which was built by the Byzantines, the Seljuks, and the Ottomans. A 13th century hospital and religious school is now the Museum of Seljuk Civilisation. Elegant 19th century Greek and Armenian houses line the streets of Talas, Kayseri's best neighbourhood. An elegant 19th century school is an interactive museum dedicated to the 1919-1923 War of Independence.
History is everywhere, but there is much more in Kayseri. The 3,917-metre Mount Erciyes was once a volcano, whose eruptions created Cappadocia's surreal landscape of fairy chimneys and mesas. Long extinguished, it is now covered in snow the year round and in winter is a popular ski destination with over 100 km of pistes of all levels of difficulty.
Kayseri's covered market is the second largest in Turkey, dwarfed only by Istanbul
The salty and sweet lakes of Sultansazligi Nature Reserve are a haven of birds and tranquility. The stunning Kapuzbasi Waterfall in the Aladağlar National Park spills from the rocks of a narrow gorge before falling 75 metres, creating a thick mist of water droplets.
Kayseri's environs also have hidden gems that resemble the most touristy parts of Cappadocia, minus the tourists. Hidden in a narrow gorge, Soğanlı Village is a cluster of charming stone houses and dozens of rock churches. Koramaz Valley also has rock churches and old houses, plus verdant greenery, a number of fine old Ottoman bridges, dozens of the famed Cappadocian rock-cut pigeon-houses, and atmospheric and little explored underground cities. The birthplace of Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman's Empire greatest architect, is also here. The illustrious builder lived initially as did everyone in the region: in an underground home.
Kayseri is also a feast for the palate with delicious local cheeses, the famed pastırma cured meat and signature dishes such as mantı, or dumplings with tomato sauce and yoghurt.
After spending a week there, you can say that Cappadocia might be the land of the beautiful horses, but Kayseri is the location of pleasant surprises.
Mantı dumplings are just one of the many delicacies Kayseri is famous for
Cappadocia's fairy chimneys are the region's defining feature
© Anthony Georgieff