For my birthday, I was surprised me with a very special birthday treat: a weekend trip to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes Islands. The islands are accessible by ferry from central Istanbul and are the perfect retreat from the everyday chaos of city life. The large ferries have the capacity to take around 1500 people each trip, and in the summertime, these ferries are beyond capacity. Stairs become seats, and any floor space is open for the taking. The ferry ride alone is a unique and joyous experience. A man walks around the ferry with a tray of tea and sugar, selling it at the bargain price of 50 kurus. A salesman walks through the cabin with special lemon squeezers, stopping in each section for a special presentation that always captivates the entire room. We stopped at one of the fabulous meatball sandwich stands near the Kabatas waterfront to buy our special lunch in preparation for the 80 minute journey. The sandwiches cost 5 lira, and worth every penny for the fresh tomatoes and richly seasoned meatballs cooked when you order.
Once we reached the island, we walked through the small town. Unlike its bustling summer persona, we found the seaside village quiet and calm. While people normally fill the streets, the small groups that did venture to the islands were now hidden inside the warm cafes and restaurants. Cats and dogs outnumbered the people on the streets. We walked towards our hotel and checked-in. We were impressed by the terrace view of the city, and our spotless room. Next, we walked to the line of horse-drawn carriages (bicycles and carriages rule the streets here. There are no cars allowed), and quickly arranged to go to Lunapark, the closest destination to the small monastery located at one of the highest points of the island. We passed the old and glamorous summer homes of Istanbul’s elite, joking about which one we would buy and make our own. When we reached the bottom of the monastery’s steep hill we thanked our carriage driver and began to walk. We stopped occasionally to take in the view, and 20 minutes later we reached the top.
On a normal summer day, the monastery would be open to visitors and tourists would be wandering up and down the steep hill. However, on this day, the area was empty and ours to explore. We wandered around the beautiful site, and eventually ended up in the small cafe located at the top. Looking over the entire island, and the city’s distant shore, this cafe has one of the most extraordinary locations in Turkey. There was a lively group of Greek people joyously engaged in a night of dancing and drinking inside. We speculated on their lives and background, and assumed they were island fisherman who called Buyukada home. We watched as they danced around with the Raki glasses increasingly more recklessly, and laughed and talked as if we were worlds away from our everyday lives. We sat in this small cafe and watched the sunset as two cats jumped in and out of our laps, and the small stove in the center of the room warmed up the entire space.
We eventually left the cafe and walked down the hill, hoping that there would still be carriages down below. We were lucky: there were two. We travelled back to town humbled by the peace and calm of the cold March evening. We returned to our hotel and prepared to go to dinner. We sat and talked, surrounded by other couples in the terrace restaurant. We retired for the evening and spent the night indulging in American television shows that we never watch at home. We woke-up to a large breakfast, Caglayan tried his luck fishing and in the early afternoon we caught the ferry back to Istanbul…
It was a wonderful getaway and the perfect birthday present. Buyukada is one of my favorite places in Turkey. It is the perfect refuge, and a must-see for any summer visitor to Istanbul.