Büyükada smells of horses, kebab, grilled fish, and sea. I found this quiet island a stark contrast to crowded, noisy and polluted Istanbul. The only sounds were the mournful cries of the seagulls, the distant blast of the ferries, and the soft clip-clop of horses’ feet shod in rubber horseshoes. Büyükada is an island without cars. True, there is the odd police car, the Coca Cola delivery truck and the garbage disposal vehicle, but there are no passenger cars. That’s the most wonderful thing about this island.
Büyükada means big island. It is the largest of the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, some 20 km southeast of Istanbul. Across the sea lie Istanbul’s densely populated and built-up suburbs. Tall apartment blocks in Bostanci, Maltepe, and Pendik stand out against the deep blue sky. Airplanes land at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Istanbul’s new airport in the outer suburb of Kartal.
On summer Sundays, day-trippers come in droves and compete for restaurant tables. I was here in late April with my partner. The day was a clear and sunny, but the air still chilly. Spring comes late to Istanbul.
I boarded the ferry at Sirkeci pier no. 5, opposite Istanbul’s main train station on the mainland for the one and a half hours boat trip to Büyükada. My fellow passengers made a beeline for the horse and carriage stand next to the clock tower. I didn’t and found out that the scramble was unnecessary. Plenty of horses and carriages stood waiting, four tourists fit comfortably and six with a bit of a squeeze.
Although the carriage looked comfortable, I decided to walk the thirteen kilometres around the island. First, I admired the beautifully restored clapboard Victorian summer houses which still line the road leading out of town. In the early 20th century, the island was a popular summer resorts for wealthy Ottoman families who wanted to escape hot, broiling Istanbul. Given their charm and grace, I imagine they are still summer houses of rich Istanbul people.
My walk led along a surfaced road following the seashore. The muffled clip clop of horses’ hooves mixed with cooing seagulls and surf crashing on shingles. Neighing horses attracted my attention. A farrier smith waved at me and invited me for tea. While I sipped strong black tea from a tulip-shaped glass, he told me that the jumble of cottages along the road was the place where the keepers of the horses live.
Saffron, ivory and vermilion spring flowers speckled the grass along the road. Back at the harbour, I sat down in one of the many cafés-cum-restaurants near the clock tower, and ordered mantı. This is Turkish-style ravioli served in a yoghurt/garlic sauce and sprinkled with dry mint. What better way than to end the meal with a genuine Kahramanmaras ice cream (mastic is one of the main ingredients which gives it elasticity) followed by strong Turkish coffee.
HOW TO GET THERE:
•Fast ferries and sea buses from Istanbul centre.
WHERE TO STAY:
Most visitors come as day-trippers. An overnight stay in one of the renovated mansions is rewarding and the best way to experience the island’s solitude and peace after the tourists have left.
•Hotel Splendid, Nisan Caddesi 23 – Renovated mansion speckled with cupolas and balconies, lush garden with pool.
•Izzet Paşa Köşkŭ / Turing Evi Hotel, Cankaya Caddesi 55 – Clapboard mansion where Leon Trotsky lived in exile from. A listed building with an authentic interior meaning most rooms don’t have ensuite bathrooms.
WHERE TO EAT:
A string of restaurants festoons the street from the pier to the clock tower.
•Milto Restaurant, Gülistan Caddesi 104 – Famous for calamari and octopus, but also köfte (meat balls) and döner kebab (lamb roasted on a spit at a vertical grill)
•Konak Et Lokantasi, Recep Kocak Caddesi 87 – Try lentil soup, stewed vegetables or chunky bits of meat swimming in broth or sauce served with rice decorated with chick peas.
WHAT TO DO:
•Tour the island on a rented bike (bike shops everywhere) or in a horse drawn carriage (50m from the ferry terminal in the centre of the town at Isa Celebi Sokak)
•Admire Izzet Paşa Köşkŭ and Con Paşa Köşkŭ two of the many fin de siecle wooden mansions at Cankaya Caddesi (street)
•Ride a donkey or climb on foot the 202m high Yüce Tepe Hill for the best view and Hagia Yorgi Church and Monastry.
•Walk from Hagia Yorgi Church through the pine wood to the now vacant Greek orphanage, said to be the largest wooden building in the world.
•End you day by walking Aşiklar Yolu or lovers’ walk. This together with the scent of pine, myrtle, rock roses and lilac will be one of the most memorable aspects of your trip.