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Bunker down in a hillside cavern
June 8, 2002

Bunker down in a hillside cavern
Esbelli Evi hotel: Luxury Turkish caves a steal at US$80 a night

Alexander Wooley
National Post
FAIRY-TALE ROMANCE: Rooms are in caves from the 5th-century.

One thing is certain: When your hotel room is a cave, you can never complain the walls are too thin.

For centuries, inhabitants of the Cappadocia region of central Turkey carved their homes out of the volcanic rock that forms the landscape, in some places building entire beehive towns out of hillsides.

Since 1990, visitors to this remote area have been able to sample a luxurious version of the cave life, thanks to the internationally acclaimed Esbelli Evi hotel.

Located above the town of Urgup, Esbelli Evi is the vision of Suha Ersoz, a confirmed bachelor and former lawyer. Fourteen years ago he paid US$10,000 for two 18th-century Ottoman houses that front an Urgup hillside. Together with the abandoned 5th- and 6th-century caves behind them, he transformed the property into a one-of-a kind hotel.

The result is a timeless experience, pure fairy-tale romance. There are only 10 sandstone-coloured tufa rooms, each one in a cave. Each room is different -- some have fireplaces or a naturally formed chimney, while others have naturally formed staircases.

Guests need not worry about building their own fires to stay warm, or sleeping on rocks. Mr. Ersoz employed talented local tradespeople to modernize each cave. Each room has hardwood floors, a modern bathroom with marble showers and a king-sized brass bed covered in Egyptian cotton sheets and Italian wool blankets. Closets were carved out of the walls, Barney Rubble-style, by local stonemasons. The furniture is Ottoman, the kilim carpets come from Ersoz's grandmother's house, and his mother made the traditional lace curtains. Rooms are heated year-round, otherwise the temperature would fall to the steady 14C found in caves throughout Cappadocia.

Yet, one does not forget he or she is staying in a cave. Rooms connect to the rest of the hotel through carved-out passageways and courtyards.

The small, friendly staff serves breakfast on the rooftop terrace, which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. The menu is freshly squeezed orange juice, cheese, olives, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled eggs, freshly-baked breads, coffee and homemade preserves.

There is no television, but you will not miss it: The nightly showing of sky-bound stars beats anything offered during sweeps week. The main drawing room features CDs from the owner's collection of opera -- Stan Getz, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, current periodicals from around the world and several coffee-table books describing the world's great hotels. Mr. Ersoz's creation can be found in each.

Besides being a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Mr. Ersoz's hotel differs from more famous inns in New York or London in another way: Price. At US$80 a night, about the same as a Motel 6 in Syracuse, N.Y., Esbelli Evi is a wonderful bargain.


- The Esbelli Evi does not serve dinner, but the main square of Urgup and the Somine restaurant are a short walk away. Order ahead for the Testi Kebap, which bakes for six hours in a clay pot, the top sealed with bread. The waiter brings the pot to your table, takes a machete and hacks off the top to reveal a bubbling, delicious lamb stew.

- Other sites in the Cappadocia region, where history and geology collide, include a landscape of "fairy chimneys" and moon-like canyons, with tufa formations of varying colours. It is esti-mated humans first carved caves here as many as 4,000 years ago. A highlight is the Christian caves in Goreme (Christians established colonies in the area, following St. Paul), where the government is trying to preserve and restore what was a thriving community of troglodyte devotees who built frescoed chapels, monasteries and living quarters amongst the inverted cone-shapes. Other cave sites worth visiting are at Uchisar, Zelve and underground cities at Kaymakli and Derinkyu.

- Contact the Esbelli Evi by e-mail at suha@esbelli. com.tr or phone 011 90 384 341 3395; on the Web: www.esbelli.com.tr

- To visit the region, contact Argeus Tourism and Travel, one of the best agencies in Turkey, which will arrange all flights, airport pickups, accommodation and tours. Day-long tours with guides cost US$70 a person, and include lunch. E-mail: inform@argeus.com.tr; or call, 011 90 384 341 4688.

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