The author visits a Turkish island with no cars but plenty of shaggy dogs.
It’s a gorgeous morning. A brisk wind rifles the surface of the Sea of Marmara. I’m on the deck of the Baris Mancu wondering if I’ve done the right thing. I mean, Istanbul has more things to see and do than a few days’ activity can possibly warrant. I have yet to see the Dolmabahce Palace, yet to stroll along the Galata bridge, yet to visit the Museum of Innocence.
So what am I doing on this boat, having taken an impulsive decision to head out to one of the Prince Islands for a day trip? Is it going to be one precious day wasted, a day I cannot afford on my tight Turkey timeline?
And then my attention is caught in the most startling way. A seagull flies low, literally beside me, and he (or is she?) seems to be looking straight into my eyes. I blink, in bemused fashion, then the gull moves in closer. Omigawd, I think, shrinking, only to discover the bird has deftly taken the piece of bread from the hand proffering it, next to me. And then, as if to say thank you, it performs a graceful one-wing fly-past. This, I decide, is NOT going to be a day wasted.
The cruise takes a little over an hour to reach Heybeliada Island. The dock has an array of seafood cafes and bistros. I pick one with the most cheerful awning (blue and white) and proceed to feast on what is possibly the best repast of my Turkey trip: freshly fried fish, a lahmacun or Turkish pizza, a glass of ayran and a poncik, a delicious pastry smeared with jam and dusted with icing sugar. Replete, I am ready to take on Heybeliada now.
If Istanbul has cats coming out of the stone work, Heybeliada seems overrun with shaggy dogs.
There are two striking buildings on the island. On the grounds of the Naval Cadet School stands the Kamariotissa, the last Byzantine church to be built before the conquest of Constantinople. The other — the 11th century Ayia Triada (Hagia Triada, the Holy Trinity) Greek Orthodox monastery — sits atop a high hill.
There are no cars on Heybeliada. I decline to take a phaeton ride and decide to explore the island on foot. Upon reflection, this really is the best way to see the place. I pass pine copses at regular intervals, sloping meadows with daisies nodding their bright heads in the breeze, and every few hundred yards, I come upon smiling men and women who could so easily be Greek/Armenian, both from their attire and weather-beaten features. These people are friendly and ready to chat but for the insurmountable language barrier.
And a little felicity with words would have gone a long way here. Because I come across a row of clapperboard houses, stately but strange residences, some of them at least. Quite a few of these Ottoman style houses have half of their structure in spick- and -span condition and the other half is flaking, worn, with shutters hanging loose. Some of them had the nazar embedded in the door or hanging from a piece of ribbon on a window. These schizophrenic abodes are intriguing as hell but there isn’t a soul around who can satisfy my curiosity in any language I can understand. Ah well, I think, there`s always Google.
So, on I walk, rubber-necking like mad. The sun sends dappled columns down from the treetops. Mimosa trees shed their blossom softly and I walk on a yellow-petal carpet. The air is not quiet; there is the noise of the wind in the trees, much birdsong and the occasional clip-clop of the buggy horses as they trot past, the swish of cycle tyres as bikers bike past. Every few yards, I glimpse the blue ocean, and stand transfixed. Parts of the isle are a riot of flowers: blue and pink hydrangeas, giant orange gerberas, violet, blue and yellow wildflowers.
Heybeliada is a saddle between hills, the second largest of the nine Prince Islands that lie in the Sea of Marmara, to the southeast of Istanbul. The largest isle is Büyükada, the others are Burgazada, Kınalıada, Sedef Adası, Yassıada, Sivriada, Kaºık Adası and Tavºan Adası. Today only Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada are open to visitors.
These are islands with a fascinating history. Princes and lesser royals were exiled on one island or the other during the Byzantine period. Over the centuries, these enclaves have served as prison, convent, seminary, retreat, school; now of course, they are where the seriously wealthy come for some R&R.
Heybeliada has a summer and winter population. During the colder months, only about 3,000 people live here; in summer, that number swells to 10,000, when owners come back to their holiday homes.
All too soon, it is time for me to head back to the pier to catch the boat back to the mainland. Since I have time, I settle down to a cup of Turkish coffee in the piazza, and watch a well-dressed madman talking long and earnestly to a bust of Kemal Ataturk. And I reflect on the fact that Edward Barton, the second English Ambassador to be sent to Constantinople by Elizabeth I of England, chose to reside on this island to escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.
On the boat back to Istanbul, I am treated to a show by the seagulls. A phalanx of them soar, swoop, dive in for the bread from many hands, fly in formation, generally keeping us entertained.
Watching the gulls do their thing, I have an epiphany. Sometimes, a day spent walking on an island is just what the madly-dashing hither-and-thither tourist needs.