Just a stone throw away from Istanbul, there are nine islands scattered around the Sea of Marmara, collectively known as Prince’s Islands.
The plural ‘princes’ indicated in the name refers to various princes and noblemen who were exiled to these islands during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods of Istanbul; my timeless, magnificent city.
Even Leon Trotsky, the famous Ukranian-Russian revolutionary spent a part of his exile at Büyükada, and wrote ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ there.
Now, they offer a popular and easy escape from the busy life of the metropolitan.
Recently my husband & I celebrated our wedding anniversary at Büyükada, the largest of the islands. It was the perfect time to escape; the weather was crisp but sunny, the fish were super fresh and the tourists, thankfully, were absent.
We spent our time wandering around, marvel at the 19th century houses of the wealthy -‘köşk‘ in Turkish- and taking in the vistas of the surrounding islands and İstanbul.
The night was spent at one of the local taverns, feasting on their yummy mezes and fish. And to wash them away, glasses and glasses of ice-cold rakı. Heaven !
If you also plan a visit, below will come handy. First practicalities :
- You can go there by ferries, from Bostancı, Beşiktaş or Kabataş. There are also large motors carrying passengers but I always prefer the ferries of ‘Şehir Hatları‘ ; more comfortable, less crowded and very nostalgic.
- Büyükada is quite large and hilly, so it’s not easy to see everything on foot. Once there were horse drawn carriages, but after many protests, they are now recently replaced by electric cars working as taxis. You can also rent a bicycle or bring your own on the ferry.
- There are many beaches and restaurants all around the island, so make your research before going there.
- On of my favorites is the Prinkipo Tavern owned by Fıstık Ahmet. There’s also the Giatres Brasserie that I want to try next time I’m there. The Calanthe, on the east side is famous for its views.
- An ‘İstanbul Card’ will come handy, both for the ferry and the electric taxis.
Büyükada became the resort island of Istanbul’s elite from 18th cc onwards. The finest köşks are on the Çankaya and Nizam Streets. Their owners were mostly the rich and affluent Levanten, the non-Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire. They were pashas, nazırs (ministers to the Sultan), bankers and tradesmen and ‘Ada’ became their summer escape from the city life.
There are many köşks with incredible charm and history. Some of my favorites are :
Hacopoulos Köşkü was built around 150 years ago for a wealthy banker, Kiryako Hacopoulos. During the occupation of İstanbul after WW1, the British army used the building as a hotel for high level officials and renamed it ‘The Grand Empire’. After the independence, it served as the local municipality. Nowadays, it’s undergoing a major restoration.
Con Pasha Köşkü is another magnificent building that was recently underwent a major restoration. It is still a private köşk, owned by a prominent industrialist from İzmir.
Mizzi Köşkü is easily recognizable with its tall red brick turret. It once housed an observatory and telescope which the owner, Giovanni Mizzi looked at the stars. Today, the observatory is closed and the building is used as an apart hotel.
Agasi Efendi Köşkü was built by Ejederhanyan, one of the famous jewelers of Kapalı Çarşı / the Grand Bazaar. It was later sold to a Turkish Pasha who was also a great music lover and used the köşk and its gardens to host cozy concerts and parties. Later it was rented by Adnan Menderes, an infamous local politician and PM of the 1950s, who was later hanged for treason in another one of the Princes’ Islands. This köşk surely has stories to tell, if only its walls could talk.
Abdülkadir Efendi Köşkü was originally built for Şehzade Mehmet Abdülkadir, one of the Ottoman crown princes. He was born at a time when the empire was rapidly loosing blood so he had an eventful life, although he never served in any capacity. He was considered to be a handsome prince who married seven times!!!.
Now privately owned, his former house is still one of the most beautiful and well kept buildings at Büyükada.
The Anatolian Club : Once the British Yacht Club, it was renamed as Anatolian Club after the Independence, serving as a hotel and yacht club for its members. The ‘Club’ was (and still is) one of the cornerstones of the social life on the Princes’ Islands.
If you want to go to the Club, turn right from the ferry port and slowly climb the Muhterem Kolay Stairs. He was a resident of the Ada, and his daughter had these stairs built in his memory. They connect the port to the streets where the most beautiful of the köşks were built.
Mazlum Bey Köşkü : This beautiful köşk with its large gardens and private dock was one of my inspirations while I was writing Aquila. Asil and Leyla, my imaginary heros, spent a large part of their youth there.
Apart from the köşks of the famous of the wealthy, There are two must see buildings :
The Aya Yorgi Church is located on one the highest hills of Büyükada. Both the route and the last climb are quite challenging but the beauty of the little church and its vistas make the efforts worthwhile.
Built as a monastery in 17th century, it was rebuilt and consecrated as a Greek Orthodox church in early 20th century. It is one of the two major Christian pilgrimage sites in Turkey (the other is the House of Mother Mary near Efes) and a very popular destination especially during 23-24th April of every year, when many people from different religions go there to make wishes and pray to Saint George, the patron saint of the church.
There are many legends and stories about this little church, from the dragons to early raids in the Byzantine period; the WW1, occupation and beyond.
The second building is the Rum Orphanage, once the largest wooden building in all of Europe. Built by the French architect Alexandre Vallaury in 1898, it was originally designed as a hotel/casino 6 stories tall and very wide. At the last minute, Sultan Abdülhamid had changed its mind and given it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be used as an orphanage and school. There was a terrible fire then, and even it was put out, several kids had died. According to the urban legend, their ghosts still haunt the building, although it was mended and used many years afterwards.
During the occupation, the British administration decided to use the building as a place for all the non-Muslim settlers and Russians who escaped from the Russian Revolution. At that period, the building suffered a lot and some of its ornaments were used as wood for heating and cooking by the settlers. After the war the building changed hands more than a few times; its ownership constantly contested between the Turkish authorities and the Patriarchate. As a result, the building was left to its fate and was effected by the wear & tear of the years, various fires and general neglect. Although the ownership was resolved in favor of the Patriarchate more than a decade ago, it remains a derelict, albeit a very impressive one, waiting its fate.
Büyükada provides a constant glimpse of the history, while adopting to the modern day with all its glories and problems. It is full of last century charm and a great many stories; some of them even true. True or not, they are a constant source of joy and inspiration.
The flower of the Princes’ Islands is the mimosa, a symbol of sun and victory. Go there in the spring where the mimosas are in full bloom and the air full of their delicate perfume. Maybe they will be your inspiration as well.