Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2007
Issue No. 861
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Brave new island

How to escape tourists while in Istanbul: Youssef Rakha composes an idyll of the Marmara

Click to view caption
The ferry journey; amazing prospects on the shores of Bigisland; and the sight of Istanbul in the distance

Summer in Istanbul -- for many centuries the most cosmopolitan city in the world -- and it is hard to go anywhere without bumping into tourists. It is a grave disappointment, not to say downright anti-climactic, to find them waiting for you at Arrivals, in the hotel lobby, even the restaurant foyer. With packaged tours on chartered flights making Constantinople as cheap as ever, alas, the tourist overtake of the Ottomans' most treasured possession is in full swing. Spread out like the plague on either side of the Golden Horn, they guzzle donner and choke on baklava, some ogling the secularised descendants of their historical masters' harems, revelling in a far less warped version of their own dying urbanity. Fortunately, as I was to discover, there is a way to avoid them more or less completely. Now let it be made clear at the outset that the destination I'm recommending is included as a day tour on most packaged situations, so (a) you are likely to run into travellers on some days, an affliction significantly ameliorated by knowing that they will be gone, completely gone, before sundown, (b) this is more about eating fish by the seashore and climbing idyllic hills than the sights and sounds of a great metropolis, so you should be looking for relative seclusion if you set out there, and (c) you must be willing to spare $80- 120 per night for what the tourist hordes, with typically barbarian taste, will tend to regard as unnecessary indulgence in quietude.

I speak, in a word, of the Princes Isles, a term derived from the Greek name Prinkiponisos, which they acquired after the Emperor Justinian II built himself a palace and a monastery on the biggest of them, thereby establishing a monastic tradition in the Sea of Marmara and associating the archipelago with royalty and nobility. Many a Byzantine, Ottoman and eventually Kurdish leader would later be exiled in these monasteries or elsewhere on the isles. But they are more simply and sensibly referred to as Adalar, the Islands in Turkish. (This recalls the biggest Nile island in Aswan, which foreigners call Elephantine but Egyptians refer to simply as Jazirah, the Island). Adalar are for Istanbul what Alexandria used to be for Cairo, except that they are far more accessible to Istanbullus than Alexandria ever was to Cairenes, and being more or less tiny, give a much greater sense of being at a remove from the city. Like Alexandria, Adalar were -- and still are, to some extent -- home to Christian minorities in a predominantly Muslim country: Armenians, Catholics and, of course, Greeks. That's partly why they retain a distinct Mediterranean feel and, visually speaking, at least, seem more like Greece than Turkey, with many churches marking the sites of the monasteries. There are nine of them but, with the exception of Sedefadasi in the summer, the ferry routes recognise only the principal four; in order of closeness to Istanbul's Asian shore, whence they are normally approached: Kinaliada, Burghazada, Heybeliada and, the subject of this article, Buyukada: Ada, you may have guessed, is the singular of Adalar; and the name of the latter is perhaps best transl(iter)ated as Bigisland. While largely pointless since the destination will be made up mostly of private property, visits to the other five can be privately arranged from the Kabatash, Kadikoy, Boshtanchi or Kartal docks, all in the vicinity of the Haidarpasha train station, gateway to Anatolia. (The summer-only ferry service to the four main islands from the more accessible, European quarter of Eminonu, opposite the Suleymania Mosque, proved too elusive and irregular for luggage bearers.) The teeny island of Sirviada is worth mentioning for being home to a Turkish fisherman who chose to live there all by himself; last year, apparently, he was joined by a wife. I don't know how friendly he is. Bigisland remains the most populous and the most interesting, however, with the greatest options for accommodation.

See, the idea would be to defy your packaging, since you will likely be on a packaged tour yourself, and take a few extra days to stay on Buyukada (or Heybeliada, or Burghaza), where you may look on fellow tourists who visit for the day as intruders, to be regarded with just the right degree of disdain; actually, it is to Buyukada that they generally go, so to avoid seeing them altogether choose Heybeliada or any of the smaller islands (a rather more complicated and likely more expensive business, the latter option, since in all probability it will involve renting). Still, there is much besides looking on tourists with disdain to be gained from such an apparently idiosyncratic and relatively expensive course of action as spending a few days, perhaps even a few weeks, on the islands. Nor that it is about Buyukada that I will henceforth be speaking. Of course, the assumption is that, by the time you take the ferry, you've seen all that you want to see in Istanbul. You've eaten at Haci Baba off Istiklal Caddesi, where the most gorgeous Middle Eastern cuisine imaginable is to be had. You've paid your respects at the tomb of Eyup, the Prophet Mohamed's Companion who gave Kostantiniyya religious sanction following its takeover by Mehmet the Conqueror. You've shopped at the Grand Bazaar and marvelled, I repeat marvelled, at the Aya Sophia and the Sultanahmet (otherwise known as Blue) Mosque. You've loafed in the parks, sampled the lokma, walked along the Bosphorous, and watched the doves underneath Galata Bridge. Maybe you've even had a barbecue on the mountain top in Bursa, whence you were conveyed by telephrique... I should repeat that Adalar have little tourist interest per se, although I'm rather inclined to agree with Edwin Grosvenor in his 1895 Constantinople : "Nothing more ideal can be pictured than the loveliness of these islands in May and June. The hills are covered with pine forests, and the meandering shores are indented with shaded and sequestered bays. Wherever the gaze is turned, beauty confronts the eye." You may even be slightly sick of Istanbul -- unlikely, unless your compatriots have cornered you once too often -- and, seeking out your options in Turkey, a big and geographically confusing country, you decide on a change of scenery that is both incredibly easy to get to and very radically different from Istanbul.

Bigisland is where you do nothing. Not quite, of course -- though it is this, rather than the fervent seeing of sights, that defines a true holiday for me. Immediately on disembarking you will notice one of Adalar's most impressive aspects: the complete absence of cars, an absolute automobile void to which the only exception is the occasional police or municipality vehicle, one or two in total. The station building, with an octagonal passenger hall, is a modern, hence European-influenced Ottoman marvel designed by Mihran Azaryan of Izmit in 1899; and its upper floor, restored in 2000, was used successively as a café, the Republican Party Adalar office and the island's earliest movie theatre; it now houses the famous Chelik Gulersoy café. From there to the hotel, your luggage will likely be conveyed in a man-, not horse-pulled cart, although the latter variety, the ubiquitous fayton, is with the exception of bikes the only means of conveyance available for longer journeys. The prospect is instantly engaging: almost every building -- mansions, villas, converted palaces -- is a work of art with a history all its own. Along the northern coast, where the ferries dock, is a string of seating areas practically in the water, serving what the establishments lined across from them have to offer: ice cream breweries, some of them reportedly age-old, offer impossibly sophisticated varieties of baklava; fish restaurants grill, fry and occasionally do more interesting things with a typically Mediterranean range of very fresh seafood -- try the raw shrimp salad for starters; at the eastern end of the promenade, where the walkway turns into a narrow strip occupied by fishermen at night, with boats on either side of it, the seating areas thin out around a concrete tongue, giving way to umbrellas placed at the very edge of the stone bulwark: birds galore, and the cool wind threatening everything. To the south of this strip is a less frequently trodden part of the island with boatman's shanties and the only mosque I was able to locate. Saat Meydani, where a clock tower was erected to mark the independence of Turkey in 1923, is the centre of everything. Highlights include: Fayton Meydani, the largest concentration of horse-pulled carts I've seen in my life; Isa Tepesi, the hilltop named after Jesus Christ, where a Greek Orthodox chapel is dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God -- visiting involves a climb up a pine-flanked path, and the view from the top affords stunning prospects of the sea and Sedefadasi -- with a small open-air café- restaurant; and, most important of all -- my residence of choice -- the Hotel Splendid Palace, another vaguely colonial building whose old, multilingual Turkish patrons testify to Constantinople being the very centre of the world.

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