With 14 million inhabitants, the second most populated city in the world within city limits, Istanbul, can easily overwhelm as much as it invigorates. After two weeks of avoiding touting restaurateurs, wondering warily about the ubiquitous, heavily armed police officers, and dodging speeding taxis, we headed to the islands. A sunny November Wednesday on the Princes’ Islands, 90 minutes by slow ferry or 75-minute by fast ferry from Istanbul, offered a calm respite from the constant clamor of the big city.
The Princes’ Islands, home to exiled princes and sultans during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, are a popular summer destination for Istanbullus. We headed to Büyükada and Heybeliada, the largest of the nine-island chain, which offer an array of travel comforts but virtually no motorized traffic, except service vehicles. We arrived at Büyükada like babes into the world: we’d done zero research and therefore had no idea where to go or what to do. Thankfully, the numerous bike shops offering bikes for rent gave us a clue.
We negotiated two bikes for 20TL ($10) for three hours and headed off to circle the island. I felt released from Istanbul’s gridlock as I glided down the cyprus-lined coastal road while a horse-drawn cart passed by.
Curious about the enormous, decrepit structure on top of a hill in the center of the island, we took a detour to see the former Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage, Europe’s largest and the world’s second largest (and creepiest) wooden building. The property is closed to visitors, but, hoping to catch a glimpse of an orphan ghost or two, we climbed the hill a bit for a better view. The orphanage operated from 1903 to 1964 until political tensions forced its closure. The Greeks and the Turks fought over over the property until 2004, when it was granted back to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, who plan to turn it into an environmental center in the near future. Perhaps a fitting symbol for Greek and Turkish relations.
After our 15 km ride, back at the main town we weaved past several restaurant touts (there are some things you can’t escape) and landed at Köfte & Piyaz, a hole-in-the-wall shack on Balikcil Caddesi street serving three things: köfte (grilled meatballs), piyaz (a white bean salad typically served with köfte), and french fries. Most importantly, they didn’t tout at us and, before making our meatballs, the owner had his cat perform a roll-over trick for us. After the delicious meatballs, performing cats, and no taxis trying to run us over, did we really have to return to Istanbul proper?
Next we headed to Heybeliada, a sleepier version of Büyükada. So sleepy, in fact, we only spent an hour there, wandering the streets while we waited for the fast ferry that would take us back to the frenetic city. Painted on an abandoned building we spotted the word “Chalki,” the same name of a village on Naxos, Greece (also spelled Halki), we had visited weeks before. Heybeliada’s Greek name is Chalki, and the large monastery at the top of the hill served as a Greek Orthodox monastery until 1971. Sipping Turkish tea at the ferry port, I overheard a man greet a group of elder women with “Yasas,” the Greek greeting we had become accustomed to, instead of the Turkish “Merhaba.” Was Greece whispering to us to abandon the city and return to the islands? We’ll stick it out in crazy Istanbul, but now we know where to find islands when we need them.