24 Hours in The Princes’ Islands
The Princes’ Islands of Istanbul are car-free and carefree
Young Japanese girls with flower headbands ride bicycles through a forest. A group of Khaleeji tourists pass by in horse-drawn carriages, taking photos with their selfie sticks. A restaurant serves only two dishes: kofte and bean salad. There are no cars, only boats.
A first visit to the Princes’ Islands can feel a tad surreal. Simply referred to as Adalar (‘The Islands’) in Turkish, the string of nine islands is only an hour-or-so journey from Istanbul’s mainland by ferry. But its sunny streets, beaches and woodlands can seem light years away. The only way to travel is by horse or bicycle, and some of the islands are inaccessible to the public. There are no chain stores, or many other signs of life of the 21st century. An ‘Ottoman timewarp’.
All this make the islands a popular daytrip, particularly during the summer months. As Istanbul’s population of 19 million sweats it out in the city’s traffic and tourist-packed neighbourhoods, its residents flock to the Princes’ Islands every weekend to escape the heat. Handsome navy blue ferries offer views of the Sultanahmet skyline as they depart from the Bosphorus and head across the Sea of Marmara, chased by troops of seagulls trying to catch pieces of simit thrown overboard by passengers.
There’s something wonderfully pragmatic about the four lira (roughly a dollar and a half) ferry ride. Originally used as a prison for the Turkish aristocracy during the Ottoman era – the Sultan’s own Alcatraz – the islands prospered in the 19th century, as Greeks, Armenians and Turks built opulent villas and gardens to summer in. While Turkey’s upper echelons are now more likely to be found staycation-ing on Bodrum yachts instead, the ferries have made the Princes’ Islands a jolly seaside destination for all.
Büyükada, literally translated to ‘big island’, is the largest of the islands and the most popular with weekend daytrippers, who rush from its original 19th century iskele (pier) to hire a bicycle or decorated phaeton (horse and carriage) for transportation around the island. Beyond Büyükada’s fish restaurants and tourist tat (the flower headband trend is another thing that has stood the test of time here), there is plenty to explore in its hilly green woodlands and small, busy beach clubs.
Çankaya Caddesi is a road of villas that range from American Gothic to OTT Ottoman. The former home of Leon Trotsky lies on one of its sidestreets, too. Recently put up for sale, Trotsky’s house is in complete disrepair, as is Prinkipo Palace – an abandoned Greek orphanage and the largest wooden building in Europe, first built as a luxury hotel, which sits spookily among the pine trees of Büyükada’s hills.
Most will advise against visiting the Princes’ Islands on summer weekends. But it’s doable. Local Istanbullus often head to the smaller yet just as charming Burgazada (Fortress Island), Kınalıada (Henna Island) or Heybeliada (Saddlebag Island) instead where small tea shops, shingle beaches and the odd piece of modernist architecture provide a meaningful break from the city.
10:00am – Four Letter Word
‘Only crazy people open coffee roasteries on an island,’ laughs Eylem Özkaya, the co-founder of Four Letter Word, a coffee atelier and café located on the sleepy island of Burgazada. Serving carefully-roasted blends, the atelier is an unexpected sight on an island not commonly associated with a Kenyan cold brew. ‘There are not a lot of options here – tea at a sweet store, or maybe Nescafé,’ Özkaya says.
Turkey’s relationship with coffee is tumultuous, and the Princes’ Islands are no different. Coffee houses have been banned three times since the Ottoman era, yet traditional Turkish coffee remains a national staple, albeit one that is slowly being replaced. Four Letter Word’s mission is a simple one: to bring quality, contemporary coffee to Istanbul. Coffee beans are roasted on-site and then delivered by boat to the mainland.
Previously based in Chicago, for Özkaya, the decision to open on the island was a question of roots. Her family history on the island dates back to her great grandfather, who moved to Burgazada from Anatolia to run a newsstand (‘at a time when only one newsstand on the island was allowed’) and distribute cigarettes. It was during a trip to the Princes’ Islands with her business partner that the idea to start a coffee roastery became a reality.
‘I love it all – the tranquility, the familiarity, the slowness. Everyone knows each other,’ Özkaya says about island life. ‘We pay a lot of attention to being a part of the island. Four Letter Word is a social project too – Burgazada was once the cream of the crop, but its social standing has slid lately, so we thought we’d up the scale a bit.’
The atelier’s design, while modern, was purposely designed to blend into the island’s quiet village-like streets. ‘We’d like to see other small business owners open here too – as long as they have a good design, and don’t make the island ugly!’
12:00pm – Kınalıada Mosque
Kınalıada is laidback, even by Princes’ Islands standards. Literally translated as ‘Henna Island’, the moment you step off the ferry onto Kınalıada’s quiet pier an unusual sense of calm takes hold. Tea gardens, pastry shops, fishmongers and holiday apartments line the seafront, where tourists lie on plastic deckchairs and the locals smile and nod.
Life on Kınalıada is easy. The pace is slow. It’s also home to Kınalıada Mosque, which sticks out from the rest of the island’s architecture thanks to its modernist aesthetic, most prominently seen in its white triangular minaret that elegantly juts out from the shoreline.
It’s so close to the water, in fact, that the best view of the mosque is by sea. Forming a zigzagging seven-sided polygon, the varying heights of the double-leveled roof of the futurist structure are connected by unusual stained glass windows that feature floral motifs.
The history of the building dates back to 1958, when the mosque of Karaköy, known locally as Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Paşa Cami, was dismantled on account of city planning. In 1962, the materials of the mosque were transported to the island by ferry. A plaque in the centre of the the mosque’s small courtyard pinpoints the aim ‘of its architecture as innovation and association’. Designed by Başar Acarlı in collaboration with Turhan Uyaroğlu, the tiny seaside place of worship serves as an attractive metaphor for the island’s sense of tolerance – where many cultures have peacefully cohabited.
‘The mosque’s importance and its modern aesthetic are appreciated more and more today. Island inhabitants are sea people, they indulge tolerance – it’s more like a historical monument rather than being only a mosque,’ says Arda Baklacı, a resident of Kınalıada.
2:00pm – Büyükada Garden Tour
For Gürsan Ergil, the Princes’ Islands are not just islands, but one large, vast garden. ‘Istanbul gardens are famous and have always been described by old time travellers. The last examples of these gardens are still alive on the Bosphorus, but mainly on the islands.’
A successful furniture designer, landscape architect and expert on Ottoman gardens, Ergil knows what he’s talking about. Born and raised on Büyükada himself, he is a proud islander. It was during a garden tour while studying landscape design in the US that he decided to set up a similar concept for his hometown.
For his first garden tour in 2007, guests were taken on a nine-day guided journey throughout the former Ottoman capitals. The tour was a great success – and Ergil realised that Turkey had an appetite for ‘garden tourism’.
The designer now operates the tour every spring. It’s a rare opportunity to see gardens that are usually unavailable to the public, and Ergil is a fountain of knowledge. ‘Every garden used to have its own vegetable patch. The most common features are ornamental ponds located under bay trees, and this composition is completed with wrought iron pergolas,’ he says.
A favourite pitstop on the Büyükada tour is Rıza Derviş Villa. Designed in 1958 by famed Turkish modernist Sedad Hakkı Eldem, the two-storey villa is a modern interpretation of the traditional Turkish villa, and its garden is no different. Turning its back to the main road, it was the first villa on the island to be built with a swimming pool and its garden directly overlooks the glittering Sea of Marmara below.
Ergil describes Turkey as ‘a botanic treasure’ and his tour emphasises the importance of endemic variety. His ongoing mission to raise awareness for the natural environment, both locally and globally, goes hand in hand with his love for every garden’s small details. He has sound advice for further protecting Büyükada’s gardens.
‘In a city that’s been subject to a rapid concretion process, the islands have been protected due to the floor limitation policy and these kinds of restrictions should be tightened.’
4:00pm – Museum of the Princes’ Islands
Regarded as Istanbul’s first contemporary city museum, the Museum of the Princes’ Islands houses cultural and historical exhibitions that educate visitors on the rich history of life on the islands.
Located on the largest of the nine islands, Büyükada, at two different sites (Çınar Museum Grounds and St. Nicholas Hangar Museum Site), the museum was built in 2010. With an L-shaped layout, the site consists of a large covered area, permanent exhibition galleries, a temporary exhibition hall and an open-air activities lounge.
There’s a five lira fee for entrance, after which visitors are welcome to explore a detailed curation of the islands’ past and present. Its archives reach far back into the world of the Ottoman Empire, and the museum’s ongoing exhibitions gradually portray the district’s social and cultural development via digital photographs and documentary films.
Of the many exhibitions on display, ‘Immigration and Population’ is perhaps the most moving, as it documents the social, political and economic changes that have occurred on the islands, such as the capital tax incidents of 1942. Other noteworthy exhibitions are the love story of Madame Agapi and Niko Cavuri, and the works of local writers and poets, which provide a wistful glimpse into how islanders have found inspiration there, despite their relative isolation.
6:00pm – Büyükada Pier
Memorable images of a trip to the islands come alive during a visit to Büyükada’s recently renovated pier – often the first, or last, point of interest during a trip to the Princes’ Islands. Vignettes of islanders fighting rush hour alongside hungry customers lining up outside of seafood restaurants, cart sellers vying for attention and crows eyeing the shoreline make for a lasting diorama of weekend visits to Büyükada.
Ferry rides are like a self-imposed form of meditation – a sweet escape from the endless chaos of the city
Built between 1914 and 1918, the historic pier still maintains many of its original features, and is a solid reminder of Turkey’s traditional architecture from the period. The tiled floors of the arcade still hold small shops and ticket counters, while its sign is written in the elaborate swirls of Ottoman Arabic – a language outlawed by Ataturk in 1923 as part of the former leader’s ‘alphabet revolution.’
Designed and built by architect Mihran Azaryan, and an exemplary example of his work, the pier’s octagonal passenger hall is decorated with blue and white Kütahya tiles. Originally used as the island’s first commuter hall in the early 1950s, the former pier continues to provide access to regular and fast passenger ferries to four of the islands from different piers of the city – including Sirkeci, Kabatas and Kadıköy.
The ferry and its piers are built into the psychology of life on the islands. As Büyükada resident Mehmet Pilavcı explains, ‘Ferry rides are like a self-imposed form of meditation – a sweet escape from the endless chaos of the city.’
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