Istanbul Part 3: The Princes’ Islands

The Prince’s Islands are a cluster of nine islands, the four largest of which are inhabited, located southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. A former colleague of Phil’s who is married to a Turk and had visited Istanbul several times told him that her favorite thing in Istanbul was Büyükada Island, the largest of the Princes’ Islands. That is how we learned about them.

If one only has a few days in Istanbul, the hour and forty-five minute boat ride to the islands may not land it on the must see list but as we had fifteen days in Istanbul, it was definitely on ours. The boat is part of the Istanbul public transportation system so the rechargeable card that allowed us to ride the public buses and metro also got us on the boat to the islands.

We decided Sunday might be a good day to head to the islands. We were wrong. The huge boat was SO crowded. We were lucky enough to score a two person seat when we boarded. Folks on stops after ours were not so lucky and soon there were people sitting on the floor and stairs. A few smart passengers who had brought along portable beach chairs unfolded them and made their own space on the boat to sit.

We decided to disembark at the first Princes’ Island stop of Kinaliada, the smallest of the islands, and travel on to Büyükada later in the afternoon. It felt nice to get off the crowded boat. The port area was bustling with passengers arriving or waiting to leave, with plenty of bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and souvenir shops to offer them. There were even beach resorts where one could rent a lounge chair on the pebbly beach and swim. We had brought our swimming suits with us but a busy, rock beach right beside the buslting port wasn’t all that appealing so, we decided to walk on and if we found a spot to swim we would and if not, no big deal.

As we began our walk, we passed more cafes, restaurants, and beach bars but as we got further from the port, the less people we saw. The islands are primarily car-less other than emergency vehicles (and from what I read, only electric cars, though we didn’t see any). Residents drive mopeds and what look like suped-up jazzy scooters. The island is quite hilly so I understand why they would be the preferred method for getting around. We just had our feet but getting out in nature and moving, even if it was up and down hills in the hot and humid afternoon, felt really good.

We walked around the whole island and while we did find a couple of beach spots that looked inviting, we opted to stay dry. It was nice, after having been in the super crowded city, to be in a place where we could get away and be by ourselves. We encountered a few people while walking around the island but for the most part, it felt like we were alone.

Before we reached the port area again, we passed by a couple of water-side restaurants and decided to stop for a late lunch. We opted for fish as it was very reasonably priced and we were literally sitting beside the ocean, so bet on it being pretty darn tasty. It was. We dined on small, whole fried fish that I think were anchovies or sardines though I really have no idea. They were small enough that once fried, you could eat them whole (including heads), with the exception of the tip of the tail. We also had the sea bream which was equally delicious. We paired it with a salad of tomato, pepper, parsley, and walnuts with balsamic that was absolutely delicious (our favorite salad during our entire time in Istanbul).

After lunch, we slowly walked toward the port. We purchased tickets to Büyükada Island (we didn’t want to wait for the public run boat so opted for a reasonably priced private one) and sat at one of the many cafes and enjoued a Turkish tea while we waited. We joined other folks on the dock waiting for the boat to Büyükada and boarded slightly earlier than anticipated.

It was a short while later than we realized we had boarded the wrong boat and were headed back to mainland Istanbul. It was too late in the day to take another boat back to Büyükada from the mainland, so we decided to return again the next day when it would hopefully be a bit less crowded with tourists.

Just as we expected, there were much fewer people on the Monday morning boat to the Princes’ Islands than there had been on Sunday. We had our choice of seats and purchased round pretzel-like simit bread from a fellow selling them on the boat and settled in for the nearly two hour boat ride.

Büyükada is the largest of the Princes’ Islands. Many folks visiting rent bicycles or opt to take the small mini-buses that shuttle people around the island. After a quick bite for breakfast at a cute little cafe, we opted to walk.

Our path took us straight up the middle of the island to its highest point at the Aya Yorgi (Saint George) Greek Orthodox Church. On the way we passed the The Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, a 20,000-square-meter wooden building that served as an orphanage from 1903-1964 and is considered the largest wooden building in Europe (the second largest in the world). The orphanage is fenced off and closed to visitors but is huge, and creepy. There is a house within the same fence as the orphanage and we saw [presumably] the owner walking around inside as we snapped a few photos. It was especially creepy as the [presumably] owners two small little girls were playing near the orphanage which gave it a super scary ghost vibe. They were ghosts, weren’t they?

We walked on and continued up the hill to the church (and former monastery) of Saint George. The church while small was very beautifully decorated inside (photos were prohibited). Phil and I had never visited an Eastern Orthodox church before. While there are similarities between it and the Catholic churches we’ve visited, it was distinctly unique (stay tuned for my post about Athens that includes photos of an Eastern Orthodox church).

The church was nice but the view was the main attraction. It made the long climb up the hill totally worth it. A nice young woman was kind enough to offer to take a photo of Phil and I. We have a ton of selfies from our travels but photos of the two of us together are in short supply. After our photo op, we found a spot overlooking the sea and sat there together for at least an hour, enjoying the scenery and each other’s company.

Something I had noticed on the walk up that became even more notable at the top of the hill were trees with what looked to me to be trash (and in one paticular case a candy bar wrapper) tied around the branches, specifically strips of plastic, like plastic grocery sacks. Near our lovely vista of the sea, we saw even more trees with plastic tied around the branches. I consulted google to try to find out exactly why folks were leaving behind these non-biodegradable souvenirs. Most of what I discovered talked about Muslim Turks and Eastern Orthodox folks alike making a pilgrimage to the church on April 23rd, Saint Geroge’s Day. On this day, they leave bells and candles symbolizing prayers. I found only one article that mentioned tree branches that said mostly women will tie cloth (most I saw were plastic) threads around the trees as prayers for children.

We walked back towards the port down the opposite side of the hill that we climbed up. We were glad we did as this route took us past some of the famous old mansions of Büyükada that we had read about; huge, old, colonial-looking homes, some in better condition than others. We stopped for an ice cream before making our way back to the boat (we took the right one this time!).

We pulled into the port at the Kabataş stop an hour and a half or so later and disembarked. We decided we were a bit peckish and opted to find a dinner spot in the area. After a quick google search, Phil found a spot less than ten minutes away and off we went. We didn’t know the entire ten minutes would be spent walking uphill but it was totally worth it for the delicious meal we had at Ali Ocaskbasi Gumussuyu. We dined on stuffed zuccini blossoms, babaganoush, tzastiki, liver kebabs, and lamb ribs. Lamb ribs! I had never had lamb ribs before. They were amazing and tasted like the fatty/meaty part of a deliciously grilled steak where the meat meets the bone. We finished the meal with Künefe, a sweet cheese pastry made with shredded filo dough, honey, butter, and pistachio.

After dinner, we discovered we were very close to the famous Taksim Square that we had yet to visit, so decided to make our way there. It was bright and bustling and full of young people hanging out, talking, and smoking cigarettes*. After snapping a few pics in the square, we headed back to our tiny hotel, grateful for another fantastic day.

*Side note: Turkey is the smokinest country we have ever visited. Europe in general loves their cigarettes and I thought Italy was number one in cig love but they’ve got nothing on Turkey. Cigerettes also happen to be super cheap in Turkey. At around $1.50 a pack, Turks can afford to pick up smoking as a hobby and not just a habit. It was gross and stinky and only made me want to pick smoking back up a few times.

After initially having apprehensions about going to Turkey, I am so glad we did! It was an amazing cultural experience. The history, art, architecture, food, and people were wonderful. I left wanting to know more about the country and its history; from the Byzantines, Ottomans, to the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. It was truly a life changing experience.

Next stop on our adventure: Athens!

Published by yogibarrington

American expat living in Gijon, Asturias, Spain

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