The Princes' Islands

Lying practically in Istanbul's backyard, the Princes' Islands welcome their visitors on a different mood in every season. Overrun with people in summer, in winter they turn quiet and peaceful. But it is in early spring that the islands beckon, luring city folk to a convenient and appealing getaway in their unique serenity.

Our first stop is Kınalıada, the island nearest Istanbul and historically the most frequent place of exile. It takes its name ('Hennaed Island') from its red earth rich in minerals such as copper and iron. No sooner do you disembark from the ferry than you are in the marketplace, the heart of Kınalı.

Although it's February, a throwback-to-summer sun is making itself felt. The islands seem to have quietly relinquished all their matchless visual beauty into our hands; there isn't a soul about. We stroll through tree-shaded streets between nostalgic old-fashioned houses each one more lovely and gaily-painted than the last. Apparently no one is up yet because all the windows and balcony doors are shut tight. The yellowed leaves piled up on the pavement remind us that it is February and we should not be deceived by the sun.

A modern mosque
Poorer in historic heritage than the other islands, Kınalı nevertheless boasts the Armenian Surp Krikor Lusavoriç Church and Greek Orthodox Hristos Monastery atop the eponymous hill known as Manastır Tepesi. Frequented mostly by Greeks and Armenians, these places are still used and open to visitors. With its distinctive architecture, the Kınalıada Mosque will catch your eye immediately on your left as you disembark from the ferry. Bric-a-brac and curios are sold in the tiny shop at the entrance to this mosque perched right on the shore.

A colorful phaeton passes at the leisurely tempo of the two white horses pulling it. Shall we take a seat on one of the benches and gaze at the sea, or make a tour of the island by phaeton? Unable to decide, we plunge into the back streets to soak up more of their quiet beauty.

A moment of calm
The island's residents are slowly waking up. Although far less crowded than in summer, noon is still the most bustling time of day. The residents have long since become accustomed to the calm we find so spellbinding. Some have donned sweatsuits and are exercising in view of the sea, while others have picked up their bread and morning paper and are ready for breakfast.  Still others are checking out the tablecloths on the tables just set out in front of the restaurant.

Writer Sait Faik's island
From Kınalı, apparently 'the richest' of the Princes’ Islands with its ornate homes, we jump on the ferry and hop over Burgaz. This island, conspicuous for its houses built of wood rather than concrete, is covered with pine forest from its sole hill, Bayrak Tepesi, almost down to the shore, and the pine fragrance fills our lungs. The white frame house where famous Turkish short story writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık (1906-1954) once lived, and which was later converted into a museum, is undergoing repairs at the moment.

The Hristos Monastery and Ayios Ioannis Church, erected over the dungeon where Metodius, a former patriarchs of the Orthodox church, was incarcerated for seven years, are well worth seeing. And the Burgazada Sanatorium, founded in 1928 and one of the oldest in Turkey, is another witness to the island's history.

As on all the other Princes’ Islands, on Burgaz too the bicycle reigns supreme, even in winter as we learn from personal experience. It's not just us either; even the island's elderly residents, almost all of whom appear to be in perfect health, continue to ride throughout the winter.

The Kamariotissa, the only Byzantine church
At the approach of midday we disembark at the Heybeli landing. First, a group of young cadets catches our eye in the island's streets, and we note the Naval High School immediately to the left of the ferry landing. On our right is the island marketplace with its tea gardens. It's easier to find accommodation here than on Burgaz or Kınalı.  Picknicking under the pines on the famous picnic ground is a popular summer pastime with Istanbul residents who come over from the mainland.

Converted into a museum just this year, the house where the well-known writer Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar  (1864-1944) lived stands on a hill overlooking the sea. Surrounded by trees, this magnificent house was opened to visitors following a restoration. But perhaps one of the most interesting places to see here is the Kamariotissa, the only Byzantine church on the islands, a little known yet important site which is still in use and therefore open to the public.

Prinkipo, or Büyük Ada
Known as Prinkipo ('Prince') in Greek, Büyükada or, as its Turkish name indicates, the 'Big Island', is the largest of the nine and the most built up, as well as being the administrative center of the Adalar township.  Strains of music rise from the fish restaurants that line the shore, and when you approach them you won't be able to resist the tempting aroma. You can consume your fill of fish here to the slap of the waves and the pitter patter of the rain.

A phaeton tour of the island
The square where the phaetons line up to wait is humming with activity. The largest island population-wise, Büyükada is also famous for its highly decorated, horse-drawn phaetons, which await fares all afternoon in the rain. The poor drenched beasts are beginning to shiver and some of the drivers are covering them with blankets to prevent them catching cold. Lifting the blanket, the owner of the phaeton we engage for an island tour takes the reins in hand. Rain or shine, there's nothing like a tour by phaeton. We sway gently through the streets to the clip-clop of the horses' hooves.

At the top of a long slope, a magnificent view of the Aya Yorgi Church is spread beneath our feet. Waiting for its doors to open, other visitors are sipping tea in the tiny shack next door. After jotting down a wish to deposit in the wish box, we descend the hill in a wind that nearly sweeps us off our feet.

The world's largest wood frame building, the Greek Orphanage is awesome in its splendor. And the Ayios Dimitrios church continues to host the important religious services of the island's Orthodox Greeks. There is also a four-minaret mosque, the Hamidiye, which was commissioned by Sultan Abdülhamid II. While Burgaz and Heybeli are known as the homes of writers Sait Faik and Hüseyin Rahmi respectively, Büyükada had its own storyteller in Reşat Nuri Güntekin (1889-1956). His home, which we learn from the islanders is frequently visited, stands in the quarter known as Maden Mahallesi on a street parallel to the shore a few blocks inland.

Uncrowded like the island itself, one of the evening island ferries picks up its passengers and glides across the Sea of Marmara, like a sheet of glass now that the rain has stopped. Cameras in hand, the passengers immortalize this most beautiful moment of the day from the open deck and sides of the vessel. Judging by the pleasant notes in our island diary, we are counting this as the start of further winter visits to the islands.