While Istanbul’s energy can often be invigorating, the hustle and bustle of the city can also become a bit much at times. We’ve all been faced with that moment when you are dying for a break from the traffic, noise, and chaos of the city. Luckily, you can take a city-break in Istanbul without actually having to leave the city. Just a short ferry ride from hectic, manic Istanbul you’ll find the Princes’ Islands, where you feel like you’ve entered not just another town, but another world.
An archipelago of nine islands on the Marmara Sea just 20km from Istanbul, the Princes’ Islands, known simply as Adalar in Turkish, have long been a popular vacation destination. However, the islands are also known for somewhat more sinister reasons. Dating back to Byzantine times, unruly princes, deposed monarchs, and others who had become vexing for the royal family were exiled to the islands, a tradition that was continued under the Ottoman Empire. This is how the islands got their name. Over time, the islands lost this unsavory reputation and in the 19th century became a popular summer resort for the city’s large Greek, Jewish, and Armenian communities, many of whom continue to summer here today. It was during this period that many of the islands’ lavish villas and mansions were built.
The largest of the Princes’ Islands is Büyükada, which means “the big island” in Turkish. Büyükada has been home to a great many famous residences over the centuries. A number of Byzantine empresses were exiled to the island’s convent, including Irene, (mother of Constantine), Theophano, and Zoe. Following his deportation from the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky spent years in exile on the island. One of the leaders of the Russian 1917 October Revolution, Trotsky was removed from power following his split with Lenin. From 1922 to 1933, Trotsky lived on Büyükada and wrote the History of the Russian Revolution here, which is somewhat amazing when you consider the 34,000 White Russians who were also living in exile in Istanbul at the same time.
Other famous residents include the Şakir family, whose many escapades are discussed in the novel A Turkish Tapestry by Shirin Devrim. A family rich with viziers, generals, poets, and playboys, the most famous of this wild bunch is Cevat Şakir, known as the ‘Fisherman of Halicarnassus’. A writer, traveller, and ethnographer, Cevat Şakir is famous for putting the resort town of Bodrum on the map. After being exiled to what was then just a fishing and sponge-diving village, Cevat fell under Bodrum’s spell and is credited with bringing the town to the attention of the Turkish intelligentsia, which eventually led to it becoming a major tourist destination.
Today, Büyükada remains a popular destination, both with day trippers and those who are lucky enough to summer here. A trip out to the islands involves a ferry or sea bus ride, which can be a joy in itself. As you sail through the azure waters, you can enjoy a cup of tea as you watch the city’s dramatic skyline fade into the distance. Docking at Büyükada, you will immediately notice the beautiful Iskele (pier), with its octagonal passenger hall ornately decorated with Kütahya tiles. Built in 1914, the pier was used as the island’s first movie hall in the early 1950s.
Past the pier, the town’s main waterfront is lined with cafés and fish restaurants, all vying for your attention. Just past this strip towards the island’s center, you will see the Splendid Palace Hotel. A three-story building with red shutters and topped with twin metallic domes, this building was originally a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Crimean War and retains a faded elegance of a bygone era.
Soon you will reach the clock tower in the center of the town square, which will lead you to fayton square, essentially the city’s main taxi station. One of the most peaceful things about Büyükada is the fact that there are no cars on the island. Instead of cars, the main form of transportation on the islands is with bicycles and the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages, known as fayton in Turkish. From here you can arrange for a fayton tour of the island, which is very enjoyable, particularly with children. However, if you feel up for it, we recommend a walking tour, or even cycling (bicycles are available for rent).
Exploring by foot is an excellent way to take in the architectural richness and diversity of the island. There are a great many summer homes here, and while some are new and simply functional, there are also many beautiful old wooden houses with such elaborate decorations, they look like sumptuous wedding cakes. Some of these gingerbread-like houses are very well preserved, while others have sadly been neglected and are crumbling at the edges. Büyükada is also home to some 14 holy buildings, including several churches, mosques and one synagogue. The most famous of these is the Greek Orthodox Aya Yorgi (Saint George) Church and Monastery dating back to the sixth century. The trip up to Aya Yorgi is one of the most popular and enjoyable activities on the island, whether by food, bike or fayton.
Walking through the wooded path through the windy pine trees, the island’s otherworldly charm quickly engulfs you. You will even see many stray horses roaming through the woods, idly grazing on wild grass. Part way up the very steep climb, you can spot a large abandoned building up on the opposite summit. The island has two peaks, one of which is called Hristo, and on this sits a massive wooden structure, supposedly the largest in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. Originally designed to be a hotel and casino, the Sultan denied permission for this usage, and the building eventually came to be a Greek orphanage. As Istanbul’s Greek residents dwindled, it was decided that there was no longer any need for an orphanage. The building was closed down in 1964, and is now in a state of decay. Rumor has it that the building will soon undergo a major renovation and be transformed into a boutique hotel.
Further up the path towards the monastery, you will notice that there are many ribbons tied to the branches of trees and shrubs, representing wishes made by passersby, often women hoping for a child as the monastery is strongly associated with fertility. In fact, on April 23 and September 23, thousands of worshippers makes the trip barefoot up to Aya Yorgi, and while this is a primarily Christian tradition, many Turks and visitors of all faiths make this pilgrimage. Inside the church, there is a glass box where you can write and deposit your prayers to Saint George, as many people of all religions believe that Saint George performed miracles.
Once you’ve visited the church and made a wish with either a candle or in the prayer box, you can enjoy a break at the café next door. There is a small but very tasty menu that includes grilled meats and basic Turkish meze, as well as wine made by the monks themselves. This is the perfect place to reward yourself with a well-deserved rest after making the trek up the hill and also to take in the stunning views of the water and Sedef island below. In the distance, you can also see the urban sprawl of Istanbul, which comes as a bit of a jolt to the system, given how far you feel from the world of crowds of people and honking cars.
Walking back down, it is nice to take one of the routes taken by the faytons. The shorter route (küçük tur) passes the most elegant houses and monasteries, while the longer route (büyük tur) will take you to the far end of the island through a coastal road that winds through the forest and overlooks the many bays and beautiful coastline. Once you have made it back into the town you can take a wander through the various small shops. The best way to end the day is with a meal at one of the seafood restaurants that line the waterfront, as Büyükada is an excellent place to enjoy seafood. We recommend Ali Baba, where you can enjoy a range of classic Turkish mezes and perfectly grilled catch of the day,
As the sun starts to set and you make your way back to the ferries, it can feel hard to believe that so much history and beauty can fit onto one tiny island. While its heyday may be behind it, Büyükada still makes for a magical break away from the city.
Best of Istanbul: Picked by our Followers on Twitter; by Pelin Kılıç