The Islands

Left to their own devices in winter, the Islands come to life in summer when those who long to enjoy the sea, to hike or bike through the greenery, or just to go on a simple picnic crowd the island ferries.

It was a skinny little vine, planted by my downstairs neighbor in a small patch of dirt near the pavement and encircled with wire so no one would do it harm. It grew slowly, patiently, until finally it reached my kitchen balcony. This spring, without a word, it made it all the way to the window. The sight of its tiny, tender green, almost transparent leaves filled me with joy: the time had come to board a ferry and head for the islands. Not because I have a house or a summer place there, but to inhale the scent of the sea, watch the gulls, go for walks, gather fennel, marshmallow and dandelion greens, and ride my bike. The island cats, neglected all winter, also perked up at this news. A mere crust of fresh bread was enough to win their hearts.
This scattering of green hills poking up out of the water some distance from the mainland in the southern Sea of Marmara offer a welcome escape for Istanbul residents. The islands nowadays are regarded as either a picnic ground open to the public, or a location for an exclusive summer place, far from the hullaballoo of Istanbul yet within the city limits. Consequently only a handful of people remain once summer is over and the schools reopen in fall. But the old inhabitants stay on winter and summer, never leaving the island. And, with their own unique customs, traditions and forms of entertainment, they have over time created a vibrant island culture.

BLUE EXILE

The islands’ dry climate and Calabrian pine forests have long been known to be beneficial for human health, as is best exemplified by the sanatorium at Çam Limanı (Pine Harbor) on Heybeli. My grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis, claims she recovered her health following the treatment she received there. Going back even farther, it is known that people fled to the islands for refuge during the plague and cholera epidemics that struck in Istanbul in the 16th century when the crossing, by caïque in those days, took no less than four hours. Their historic isolation, which safeguarded them against diverse perils, diseases and other forms of pestilence originating on the mainland, meant that the islands in this period were used for any number of highly inauspicious purposes. Palace officials, princes, emperors and empresses who fell out of favor, for example, were exiled here, which explains why they are known as the Princes’ Islands. Burgaz meanwhile, apparently a very old settlement judging by the Roman grave found on its Hristos Hill, owes its fame to the ordeal that the Patriarch Methodius underwent here in a dungeon—no bigger than a grave—in the Church of Aya Yani. And the Empress Irene, who, as a woman, failed to find recognition as sovereign and ultimately fell from grace, was exiled to the Women’s Monastery on Büyükada, aka Principos, the largest of the islands. In the Byzantine period, monks seeking retreat into seclusion chose the Islands as well owing to their situation ‘overseas’ as it were, and their hills, crowned with churches and monasteries, explain why they were also known as the ‘Priest Islands’. Rarely visited today, the Hagia Spiridon (Abandonment of the World) Monastery on Heybeliada has a place in history as a refuge for people seeking to withdraw from this world.

ONLY A FERRY RIDE AWAY

The isolation of the Marmara islands came to an abrupt end with the invention of the steam-powered ferry and the introduction of ferry service between Istanbul, the Islands and Kadıköy in 1846. Only about half an hour from the mainland by ferry today, the Islands are as near as any Istanbul suburb. What’s more, they are free of traffic, pollution and haphazard urbanization and of any noise other than the chirping of sparrows. At the same time they boast a Mediterranean climate, fertile soil, umbrella pines, almond and plum trees, acacias, a plant cover that blooms in every color of the rainbow in spring, and elegant mansions with mimosa branches, purple wistaria and oleander that burst out from railings and garden gates delicately fashioned of wrought iron as intricate as lace. Although the eclectic style of these stately mansions, most of which were built by people who settled here starting in the second half of the 19th century, may be a trifle ostentatious by today’s standards, that doesn’t prevent us from envying the carefree existence enjoyed here, and the refreshing coffees drunk, in short, from daydreaming of another life.

PURE AIR STIMULATES THE APPETITE!

It’s a known fact that air laden with natural iodine and the fragrance of flowers and pines stimulates the appetite, the upshot being that eating and drinking on the island have always been a special treat. There are few of us who have not enjoyed a picnic under the pines at Dilburnu in spring, or rented a boat and gone swimming en famille at the famous Yörük Ali Beach or in one of the quiet coves. A cloth would be spread and a small feast of ‘dry’ meatballs, stuffed vine leaves and savory pastries carefully unpacked from bundles of food prepared back home. Today too, when you go to Büyükada in particular, stopping at one of the fish restaurants or mussel vendors adjacent to the landing, or ordering a sandwich at one of the many charcuteries before making the climb up to Aya Yorgi, the island’s highest point, is all part of the ritual. If you shun the phaeton ride in favor of walking up this very pleasant slope, your second stop is the Lunapark Kır Gazinosu just beyond Dilburnu, a rustic teahouse under the pines, whose needles provide a natural screen against the summer sun. A brief rest here is just sufficient for a refreshing glass of tea. Difficult as it is to leave these tranquil surroundings, however, our final destination is the Aya Yorgi Church and monastery at the top of the steep hill. According to an old belief, if you walk up to Aya Yorgi on 23 April or 24 September any wish you make will come true, and the church and monastery at the summit are subject to an invasion of visitors on those two days of the year. Although the climb may be a bit arduous, the spectacular view that spreads below your feet when you reach the top is its own reward. And you can enjoy an excellent meal in the Aya Yorgi’s country garden to boot.

THE HOME OF SAIT FAIK
Another pleasant walk is to be had on Burgazada. After touring the modest home, now a museum, of Turkish short story writer Sait Faik (1906-1954), you can take a dip at the natural beach here and then head straight for the Kalpazankaya Kır Gazinosu, another outdoor restaurant, for a seafood lunch. Pine trees, bright yellow broom, strawberry trees and phaetons carrying passengers will accompany you along the way. When you reach the restaurant, one possible choice is ‘çiroz’, a dried fish specialty made from the tastiest and highest quality mackerel, dried in the sun and then soaked in vinegar prior to being served with olive oil and lemon juice and finely chopped fresh dill, a standard among old Istanbul’s many ‘meze’ appetizers.

“I’m tossing my shoes overboard,” said the poet, referring to the islands, “because I’d like to swim out to you...” Even though they lie right in our own backyard, going to the Islands has always been a special treat for Istanbul residents. Just gazing from afar on these green hills in the water, which keep the Marmara from being a completely uninhabited sea, is a pleasure all its own, even if we do neglect them miserably all winter along...