Büyükada, Princes Islands, Turkey
A Small Island of Europe by Seymour Fortescue
40°51 N 29°07 E | Population: 7000 | Size: 3 kms x 2 kms
Best time to visit: Spring and autumn | Best place to stay: Splendid Palas Hotel
The journey from Istanbul to the Princes Islands starts with a wonderful bonus. Taking the ferry from the Golden Horn’s Galata Bridge, the skyline of Istanbul, best seen from the sea, opens up. The dome of Hagia Sophia; the Blue Mosque with its six sentinel-like minarets; the dark outline of Topkapi, epicentre of the Ottoman empire for six hundred years; the Dolmabahçe Palace, opulent home of the last Sultans.
The ferry chugs from the busy waters of the city into the more tranquil Sea of Marmara, midway between Asia and Europe. Summer tourists, both Turkish and foreign, use the ferries to escape the heat and bustle of Istanbul for the nine mainly rural Princes Islands with their sandy beaches. When I visited Büyükada, the largest of the islands, in December, my fellow passengers were islanders, wrapped up against the winter cold, returning from their shopping trips.
The ferry arrives at the elegant terminal, with a dome and Moorish arches. After a few steps into the small town, it is clear that one has arrived in a time capsule. ‘An hour by sea and a hundred years from the bustling Bosporus’ as one writer has described it. After the traffic jams and pollution of Istanbul, there are no cars to be seen. They are banned in all the Princes Islands. Bicycles and horse drawn buggies, known as phaetons, are the only form of transport. The whinnying of horses and the clatter of hooves are the dominant sounds. Their drivers offer tours through the leafy lanes and green hillsides of the island.
Büyükada’s history goes back to Roman times. Later, in the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, the prince who gave the Princes Islands their name, built a palace and a monastery. Those who fell from favour in Byzantine times – emperors, aristocrats and clerics – were banished to monasteries in Büyükada, then a six hour sea journey from Constantinople. For several centuries, the only inhabitants were a few poor monks, gardeners and fishermen.
Under the Ottomans, pleasure replaced austerity. Wealthy Turkish and Greek families built elegant mansions and comfortable villas, mostly made of wood. Caiques propelled by three pairs of sweating rowers were replaced by steam ships that made the journey shorter, safer and more comfortable. As Istanbul expanded into its rural surroundings, people were attracted to the unspoilt Princes Islands. High society joined the Büyükada yacht club. There were picnics with lambs roasted on spits, walks by moonlight and musical evenings.
Several notorious visitors came to Büyükada. In 1909, after Sultan Abdul Hamid II was deposed, his harem settled here. Two decades later, Leon Trotsky spent four years of exile in a villa on the island. He wrote his History of the Russian Revolution and, as a keen naturalist, discovered a species of fish that he named Sebastes Leninii. The Splendid Palas hotel, still in business and displaying faded Bel Époque grandeur, played host to King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson.
The Windsors are not the only link to Britain. Atop the island, commanding spectacular views, sits the church of Aya Yorgi or St George, England’s patron saint. Every year on April 23, pilgrims from Greece, Turkey and the Balkans travel to Büyükada and, as part of an ancient fertility rite, unwind spools of coloured thread from the base of the hill up to the door of the church.
Churches outnumber mosques on the Princes Islands: there is even a small cathedral on Büyükada. Religious tolerance, in short supply elsewhere in Turkey, perhaps reflects respect for the past. It shows too in the restoration of the wonderful Ottoman era wooden houses, with elegant shutters, balconies and mouldings that are now prized by the writers, artists and academics who are drawn to the island.
More Small Islands of Europe by Seymour Fortescue
About the Author
Seymour spent much of his career as a
banker. In retirement, he has worked
as a consultant for the World Bank on
remittances, the small amounts of money sent back by migrant workers to their families at home.
He has been to around 120 countries, including 26 in Africa. He lives in Herefordshire and Provence and is planning to write a book on the most
interesting small islands of Europe.