This might become the best memory you’ll bring home from Istanbul. Not the missile-looking minarets of the Blue mosque, not the old rocks of Topkapi Palace, not the crazy nights till dawn along the drunk-packed alleyways of Istiklal street, not even that 100th kebab or mussel consumed there at 5am to fight the munchies.
The ferry to Princes islands (in Turkish known as ‘Adalar’, just ‘islands’) is packed, and the seagulls know their business. They chase after you faster than the stuff-selling touts on Asian markets, and you are expected to be a generous human and feed them. What do they eat? Better ask what they don’t. Since you’re asking, they don’t eat human flesh, so holding your hand out is ok.
I always wanted to live on an island. A perfect small patch of land surrounded by water where you can never possibly get lost. If you do, just follow the coastline – and eventually you will end up exactly where you started. Büyükada is an honest and free of pretension name meaning ‘Big Island’. Curiously, in 2009 I lived on another island called ‘Big island’ (Inis Mór), just off the coast of Conamara in Western Ireland. Büyükada is so big you can hike around it in about 5 hours. The tricky paved roads bring you all around the circumference of the island as well as into the depths of its forests and hills, maybe into several beaches and gorgeous buildings.
You might try cycling but mind that the island terrain resembles a sinusoid curve.
You may even take a horse carriage and feel yourself a prominent lady or gentleman from 19th century. (Look at those carriages carefully: some of the horses look malnourished and beaten and their masters seem to deserve a big slap in the face and criminal charges for animal mistreatment).
Yes, I forgot to mention that the Islands do not have cars and thus represent the most eco-friendly getaway for Istanbulites and city guests who got tired of the traffic and fast-paced movement. On Büyükada, the time will move as quickly as your legs can handle it.
Büyükada gets most populous during hot summer months, when the bougainvillea blossoms climb up the fences and houses and paint the streets purple, but the whole island becomes serene and deserted in winter, and the only creatures that never leave are gangs of stray cats lurking around, and flocks of wild horses retired from their carriage-pulling career. If you are a fully-functioning cat lady or horse fan, this place might be just what you are looking for. During summer nights the woods are full of mysterious sounds and flapping wings of some creepy birds, possibly owls, that are, of course, not what they seem.
If you are into creepy stuff, be sure to take a picture of The Orphanage (this will be title of horror movie that I will shoot there). Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage, initially built as a luxury hotel, housed over 5000 children for more than 50 years and then was closed by government bureaucrats. The fascinating fact is not just that it is the second largest wooden building in the world. Three questions remain unanswered: 1-How cool was it to pack so many orphans on a small island in the middle of the forest? 2-Where did all those orphans go after the shut down? 3-The building has served no particular purpose since the 60s, almost burned down in the 80s and then became a cause for ownership dispute between the Turkish government and Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate, which the latter has won. The building is still in decay and looks creepy, and obviously no one is living there or working on its restoration. Why the hell there are guards and massive iron gate at the entrance? Is it haunted? Did the ghost orphans start that fire in the 80s? What happens if I try camping there overnight?
I once tried camping in the woods with some friends, and around 9am we were woken up by a guy in uniform on a bike. He probably wanted us to leave, so we left. In a few days, I returned to the same spot with another friend and still at 9am the next day we were woken up by the same guy on the bike who asked us to leave. I assume, it means that camping is not encouraged on the island, or simply that the guy on the bike believes he is an alarm clock. The guy might have been a ghost, too.
On the very top of the island is an old 6th-century church, Agia Yorgi, attended by many pilgrims every year.
It takes about an hour and a half to get there from the port (by foot), and be sure you are at the top before sunset – you can see the interior of the small church and then spend the rest of the time watching the sun sink in the fog over the neighbouring island of Heybeliada.
While you are enjoying your sunset views, creepy old buildings and forests hikes, do not forget about time. It’s ticking, and the ferries do not run 24/7. Here’s the schedules for summer/winter season on weekdays and weekends.