Istanbul – a global city spanning two continents; settled in both Europe and Asia. It is the economic and cultural heart of Turkey and dates back more than three millennia, having been the capital of the Roman, Latin and Ottoman Empires. The city has seen the rise and fall of Phoenicia, Ancient Greece, Ancient Persia, and Ancient Rome, and served as a crucial access point between Europe and the Middle East along the historic Silk Road rail networks, offering rest and homestead to countless travellers from all over the world. With nearly 15 million permanent residents, not counting the suburbs, moving among its channels, streets and allies, it is (according to Wikipedia – which we all know is the most trustworthy site in the world) the fifth largest city proper in the world.
Istanbul is crazy. Which is why we decided to escape it for a day or two.
It is not easy to escape this city. With only three bridges spanning the Golden Horn (a channel branching off from the Bosphorus) and bottleneck build-ups at the only two bridges connecting the European and Asian sides, it might take a couple of hours to even get out. UNLESS you make your way down to the Kabataş port and catch a ferry to one of the Princes’ Islands, which is what we did.
Princes’ Islands (Kızıl Adalar) is a group of nine small islands just off Istanbul’s coast. Of these nine, four of them can be visited, of which Big Island (Büyükada) is the most popular. That’s where we planned on going until some local friends told us to forget it and rather go to the smaller, less popular Heybaliada. All the Princes’ Islands are famous for their solitude and stillness – there aren’t any cars allowed on any of them, only bicycles and horse carriages. But where Big Island is full of bustling tourists and locals, Heybeliada is a quiet oasis, stirred only by the occasional sounds of a cyclist cruising by, the clomping of horses’ hooves in the distance, and the slight ruffling of leaves in the breeze. It is also home to a beautiful 11th century Greek monastery from which you have a spectacular 360 view of the Marmara Sea, the other Islands, and, in the far foggy distance, Istanbul.
It is a sleepy town, with a winter population of 3,000 people, but I’m sure nearly twice as many cats and dogs. After we found our cozy little room with a far-off view of the water, we took a leisurely stroll back down to the harbour, admiring the old yalıs (wooden Summer houses) as we went. Heybeliada is a magical place where you don’t have to constantly jump out of the way of cars or defend your personal space – free from noise, tourists, the five-times-a-day-ness of thousands of mosques and the insistent smell of cigarette smoke that I now affectionately affiliate with Istanbul.
We putted around the harbour before we had some delicious seafood at a harbour-side restaurant, armed with a spray bottle, by kind courtesy of the restaurant owner, to fend cats off our laps and table. It seems that we made a habit of eating dessert in Turkey after nearly every meal, so we walked around some more and sat down at a dessert shop to drink some tea and try some new things, which is where we first tasted a trileçe cake, a Turkish cake made from a mixture of goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milk, and promptly fell in love.
We didn’t have enough time the next morning to rent bikes and visit the monastery and do all those things we thought we would, but we strolled around some more and made our way to the harbour where we had menemen, a DELICIOUS Turkish one-pan scrambled egg breakfast, while we waited for our ferry back.
It was a wonderfully quiet and slow day-and-a-half, and it was just what we needed. After living in the craziness of Istanbul for about two months, all we needed was a quiet stroll down the middle of a street with no people, a fresh plate of grilled fish out in the open and a spray bottle to keep some cats away. On the way home we tossed some simit to the ferry-accompanying seagulls on the leisurely ride across the sea, and we were ready to immerse ourselves in all of Istanbul again.