image: A visitor explores Büyükada by carriage.
A visitor explores Büyükada by carriage.

Photograph © Francoise de Mulder/CORBIS

Büyükada Island, Turkey Turkish Delight
By Richard Busch

It's just a ferry ride from the heart of Istanbul, but it feels like another world. The bucolic island of Büyükada, where cars are banned and the main form of transportation is by horse-drawn carriage, offers a perfect escape from the city's hustle and bustle. This is a place where time drifts by slowly.

The largest of nine islands in the archipelago known as the Princes' Islands (the name dates to A.D. 569, when Emperor Justinian II built a royal palace here), Büyükada sits in the Sea of Marmara. For hundreds of years, up until the 19th century, the island was populated by monks and nuns—their monasteries and convents dotted the hills—by farmers who grew vegetables and grapes, and by fishermen who reaped rich harvests from the waters.

The Princes' Islands remained sparsely populated until the mid-1800s, when ferry service from Istanbul opened them to regular visitation. Adventuring French and British visitors had already discovered their charm, and soon wealthy Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Turkish merchants, and members of the Ottoman court built summertime retreats here—handsome wooden homes with gardens full of honeysuckle, mimosa, and jasmine, and far-reaching sea vistas. Hotels, restaurants, and cafés followed, creating full-service summer resorts, but through it all the islands held on to their essentially quiet nature.

Visitors stepping off the dock onto Büyükada are met with the soft clip-clopping of horses' hooves and the aromas of grilled fish and roasting meat wafting from nearby restaurants. After a bite, they can hire a carriage (here called a phaeton) for a tour of the island, stopping at several of the summer houses built in the last century, distinctive for their decorative balconies, shutters, and trim. Along Karacabey Bay a cobblestone pathway leads up to the ancient hilltop Ayios Nikolaos monastery, a ramshackle sort of place with heart-stopping views over the water far below.

The island's waterfront, with its lineup of restaurants, bustles in the evenings. Nearby sits the double-domed Splendid Palace Hotel, built in 1911; guests have included Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Back in darker times, Büyükada and the other islands became a place of exile for fallen rulers and noblemen. New emperors often banished their brothers and other family members here—sometimes after having them blinded or maimed—to ensure that there would be no competition for power.

Visitors may be surprised to learn that Büyükada was a place of exile into the 20th century: Leon Trotsky, Russian Communist revolutionary, took up residence here after being expelled from Stalin's Soviet Union in 1929, and wrote much of his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution between dips in the island's clear blue waters.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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