After a few days in Istanbul, I started researching in earnest where to go next. With only two weeks in Turkey, this late in the season, I hadn’t planned on a grand country tour, but I also wanted to experience a smaller town. I had thought about Ephesus, but the weather was turning rainy there. Cappadocia had very cold nights, was quite far (10-12 hours by bus) and, more importantly, I didn’t have hiking boots. Even the pedestrian island of Bozcaada, which I had considered at first, was 6 hours away by bus (“only” 6 hours someone told me). Five weeks into my seven-week European trip I felt rather broke and my suitcase was getting heavier, discouraging long-distance travel.

And that’s when I heard of the Princes’ Islands located about 20 kilometres to the southeast of the city, in the Sea of Marmara, and easily reachable by ferry for a few dollars. “Ha!” I thought. “I’ve never heard of these islands; they’re obviously not on the tourist’s radar.” Not only would I visit a smaller destination, but also a less touristy one, which would be perfect to complete my “research”. (I was on a mission to determine how comfortable it is to travel in Turkey as a solo woman.)

The mermaid of Büyükada

The mermaid of Büyükada

Turkish hospitality

And so on a sunny Saturday morning, I embarked on a slow ferry to Büyükada, the largest and furthest of the four “visitable” islands. With my Istanbulkart, it only cost me 3.85 TL (less than $2).

The ferry was quite large, which was re-assuring for someone like me who suffers from acute motion sickness. To avoid dragging my suitcase around, I settled into the main passenger cabin on the first floor. The room had seats along the windows (already occupied) and large tables with facing banquettes in the centre. I sat down at one of those, and was soon joined by a group of three young women who started unwrapping their snacks.

Young Turkish women who bought me tea (Büyükada)

Young Turkish women on the ferry

A few minutes later one of them came back with not three, but four cups of tea, and very unexpectedly offered me one! That was a nice surprise. I naturally assumed that they wanted to practice their English, but as it turns out, none of them really spoke it beyond a couple of phrases. Our conversation was rather limited, but plenty of smiles went around (including a few giggles from the girls). “This must be the famous Turkish hospitality” I thought to myself, glad to discover that it did not always involve carpets!

The city that just won’t go away

The ferry ride took about 90 minutes, and the whole time I could see the coast of Asian Istanbul. By the time we arrived in Büyükada, there was Istanbul, still visible across the water! My god, how big IS this city? (Over 14 million people as it turns out, the third largest in the world by population!)

Istanbul still visible (Büyükada)

Istanbul still visible in the distance

My hotel, the Marine House, was a short walk from the docks. The reception was friendly, but when I saw my room (which was costing me more than the one in Sultanahmet), my jaw dropped: it was the size of a closet! Even after they removed one of the two beds (two beds in a single room?) there was barely any space to move. But I had booked it online for four nights and couldn’t back out without losing some money.

My tiny room (Büyükada)

My tiny room

The reality of Büyükada

Reading about Büyükada made it sound like a bucolic car-free retreat where the only modes of transportation were bicycle, horse carriages, and your own two feet. One post I read talked about “the sound of silence” and “an oasis of peace and quiet”. Another got enthusiastic about the old wooden Victorian cottages that grace the island. Well, the reality wasn’t exactly what I had imagined.

It’s true that Büyükada has no cars (except service vehicles). Residents of Istanbul come in droves on week-ends to escape the frantic traffic of the city. After a late all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at their hotel, they line up to hire a carriage, or rent a bicycle. Every third building seems to rent bicycles for more or less the same price: 4-5 TL an hour, or 10-15 TL for the whole day.

Bicycle rental (Büyükada)

Bicycle rental

By early afternoon, everybody is out and about, and if you’re still on foot, you have to watch out for the fast-moving horses rounding corners or whizzing bicycles ridden by teenagers who don’t look where they’re going (the next generation of Turkish drivers?).

Horse-drawn carriage (Büyükada)

Horse-drawn carriage

The sound of silence is broken by giant sea gulls howling at all hours of day or night, galloping horses, and voices on loud-speakers. I understand that there is a call to prayer five times a day, but there was something else going on here. Advertisements? Island news? Sport match play-by-play? I have no idea.

I hope you like seagulls

The seagulls are a feature of Büyükada. They’re everywhere. They’re the size of cats. And they’re very bold. In fact, they are often seen competing for food with cats, who are also everywhere. I personally rooted for the cats. I even tried to slip them little pieces of meat when the seagulls weren’t looking.

Waiting for food scraps (Büyükada)

Waiting for food scraps

When I walked up to the breakfast room of the hotel on my first morning, I expected a rooftop terrace like the ones I had in Istanbul. I was a little surprised when I saw that the room was entirely glassed-in. The reason for this soon became apparent, when I spotted a couple of seagulls circling around the ledge like sharks, peering at our breakfasts with their little beady eyes and seeming to say “hey, we want some of that too!”. Every morning they were back, as soon as the first guest sat down to breakfast.

Uninvited guest at breakast (Büyükada)

Uninvited guest at breakfast

What to do

I spent the first day and a half walking around and sitting down at cafés to do some people watching. Ice cream seemed to be a popular snack. Every few hours a new ferry arrived, disgorging a few hundred domestic (and two or three foreign) tourists on the island, most coming for a day-trip. The island was far from quiet, but it provided a fascinating glimpse into Istanbulites at play. By sunset, the streets became much more sedate, and I was often the only person eating dinner in a restaurant at 7:30 pm.

Another ferry has arrived! (Büyükada)

Another ferry has arrived!

On the Monday, I decided to rent a bicycle, reasoning that there would be less bicycle traffic on the road. I did the “mini tour” of about 8 kilometres, instead of the “grand tour” (13 kilometres) since the island turned out to be more hilly then expected. The back roads were rather quiet, except for the horse-drawn carriages that kept coming every minute or so.

A quiet street (Büyükada)

A quiet street

There were indeed several beautiful wooden cottages to look at, big white lacy affairs. There were also a few that looked abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. The map showed some beaches on the western side of the island, but by the second week of november, they were likely not in use.

Victorian wooden cottage (Büyükada)

Victorian wooden cottage

Heybeliada

By Tuesday I was getting bored and decided to check out the next island over: Heybeliada. The cost for the ferry was the same as if going back to Istanbul, even though it was only a 15-minute trip. This time I sat on the open-air upper deck to enjoy the sunshine.

Arriving in Heybeyliada

Arriving in Heybeliada

I had planned to spend the rest of the day there, but honestly, after a few hours I didn’t know what to do with myself. On a week-day this island is even more sedate than Büyükada. I walked around, took photos, read, talked to cats, tried to avoid dogs, had a lunch of Turkish pizza (pide) on a terrace, and then took the boat back!

Heybeyliada's main street

Heybeliada’s main street

What not to do

Four nights on Büyükada turned out to be a little too long. There is a reason Istanbulites come here for a day trip or an overnight. This is what these islands are designed for. Besides, the food was nothing to write home about. One restaurant kept charging a 10% “tax” which I’m not even sure is legal. Another one gave me food poisoning. (Don’t order the shrimp casserole). And a third one charged me 20 TL ($10) for four small fishes (with more bones and skin than flesh) and a meagre plate of fries that arrived while I was two-thirds into the fish.

Can't go wrong with pide (Heybeyliada)

You can’t go wrong with pide

My advice: if you want to come to Büyükada, do it on a week day, rent a bike, have a small lunch and maybe an ice cream, and take the ferry back. It will make a nice day trip for little expense. Four days is way too long. Unless you really like seagulls.

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