Buyukada, a Turkish idyll

I walked along the curving street edged along the walls dripped with Ivy. The silence was meditative, existing in such a contrast to the hubbub, and the salmagundi of cultures, and styles Istanbul is. Behind the walls, pines loomed above Ottoman mansions. With no sound but for my footsteps, I walked further in, till the point where I saw horse carriages in a row waiting for tourists. The carriages were lined up under the tall, undulate turning. They looked such a poetic display in that serene island. The prince island, Buyukada, was living up to its name, and treating me like a prince.   

The pristine beauty of Bayukada as clicked from the sea. A short, scenic ferry ride takes one from Istanbul to Bayukada.
The largest of all Princess Islands, Bayukada is an idle excursion from Istanbul.

You might get a little confused with Istanbul and islands being talked in one breath. Istanbul is not known for seaside resorts, but floating in the sea of Marmara, are these nine islands, with only four of them inhabited, and Buyukada is the largest of those. A short, scenic ferry ride away from Istanbul, are the nine Princes islands which are a treasure trove of sandy coves and calm waters for beach goers, and holidayers alike. Many holiday brochures give them a miss, typical Istanbul plans remain confined to the Sultanmmet, and the islands are missed, and some holiday tours consider the islands a one-day excursion, only if one has an extra day.

Ferries to the islands board from Kabatas, for a 90-minute ride connecting al the four islands. Buyukada (meaning Big Island), is the last stop, and every four hours’ ferries spill passengers who head to the island for a leisurely day, a cozy walk along the serene beach, sip in some tranquillity, or head onto some fish restaurant strung along the harbor, or the ice-cream parlors on the street. There are no cars on the island, which makes this an ideal place to be when looking for a long walk in solitude, cobbling together a picnic, or cycling your way on the metaled roads cutting through the forests. This sort of prosaic detox is only possible in these Princes island.

For years Buyukada has been luring travelers with its lush hillsides, undisturbed beaches, dramatic cliffs and romantic coves. And the other three islands too present the similar picture, of leisurely silence, and romantic conversations. The islands, all stretched in a line, look like a convoy of basking turtles, rising from the Sea of Marmara. The islands, though just 90 minutes from Istanbul seem such a far-flung place from the hubbub of the eternal city, seem such a contrast and far from the cafes, the galleries, and the theaters of Istanbul that court the world. It’s the peaceful part of the inviting and charming Istanbul, with all its love and congeniality.

The main market road is the only place of hubbub. The rest of the island is for people looking for tranquility.

I decided to take a walk along the curved paths, forested on both sides, with gingerbread villas on the slope of the hills. And out in some distance, the bulbous cupolas of the Splendid Palas Hotel serve as an unmistakable reminder of the serene beauty of the island. There’s actually enough to keep oneself occupied in the island, there is a museum showcasing every aspect of island life, and a spectacularly located Greek Orthodox monastery, but my heart was completely overtaken by the free spirit of the place, and the thought that I could walk for hours heavily wooded pine forests with walking tracks, and then to the curved metallic streets dotted with handsome centuries old timber villas with an exquisite touch of craftsmanship.

So the idea was simple: go for a walk, play with the cats in the island, breath in the tranquillity, capture the luxury of simplicity of life in the island, and then walk up to the fine restaurants overlooking the sea to fill your desire for sea-food, and then repeat the process. Life, needs to be made simple and beautiful sometimes. And the princes island teaches you just that.

Up for some long walks in this idyllic place
in Bayakuda i
Or a horse carriage ride across the island like a regal

Buyukada wasn’t on my mind when I made my plan to Istanbul. A random conversation introduced me to Princes Island, and next day the plan to this offshore Shangri-La was made. And then began hunting down some information about the island. Their name intrigued me, and the first reading informed me that Byzantine Emperor Justin II had built a palace and monastery on Buyukada in A.D. 569, and named the islands Prince Islands. More monasteries were built, but with time, the Princes Islands became the prisons for emperors, empresses and patriarchs who fell out of favor of the ruler.

During the Ottoman era, the islands got transformed into leisurely abodes, with wealthy nobles building their mansions and comfortable villas (much akin to today’s holiday homes). The islands retained their reputation among the wealthy families till the mid twentieth century, popular as holiday place among the prosperous families of Istanbul, before the anti-minority clashes made the Greeks, Jews, and Armenians fled the city, leaving their wooden homes on the islands unheeded. The islands soon fell out of vogue. Now being more democratized, the islands are a day trip destination for locals and travelers looking for affordable pleasure trip.

The last decade has been rather interesting for the islands. The interest for the islands, especially Buyukada has revived. Investors have flocked in to revive old properties, academicians, artists, and writers are looking at it as their creative retreat, the expats are throwing in money for comfortable weekends, and travelers flocking in to retreat from modernity and the usual hectic drill the Turkish holidays are.

And some magnificent dining places in Bayakuda Island

And Buyukada has enough to offer. It comes out as a time capsule, frozen but still full of life, just one hour away from the eternal madness and politics of Istanbul, yet years apart. It has slowed down, with life bubbling out. The whole of island seems clustered around the northern tip called Recep Koc, the colorful market street, lined with flower markets, dining places, ice cream parlors, and almost all the shops, and hotels. All the life, the drama and the commotion, is fixed to this small area. And the rest of the island is just undiluted paradise, meant for long walks, and unhindered thoughts.

On way back to Istanbul

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