Review: Buyukada (Prinkipo)
Princes Islands, Istanbul, Turkey
The gem of Princes Islands
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Istanbul is not known for its seaside resorts, but a short scenic ferry-ride away, are the Princes Islands. Known in Turkish as Adalar, (Greek: Prinkiponisa) these nine small islands – four of them inhabited – are about 8-11 miles distance from the harbour of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara.
In the order of distance they are Proti (Kinaliada), Antigoni (Burgazada), Halki (Heybeliada) and Prinkipo (Buyukada). The five much smaller ones are Antirovithos (Sedef Adasi), Plati (Yassiada), Oxeia (Sivriada), Pita (Kasik Adasi) and Neandros (Tavsan Adasi).
During the Byzantine period, princes and other royalty were exiled on the islands, and later members of the Ottoman sultan’s family were exiled there too, giving the islands their present name.
By the 17th century, the population of the islands were mostly Greek, Jews and Armenians. Starting from the westernisation period from the 19th century onwards, French, British and Ottoman elites used the islands as resorts.
The islands are an interesting anomaly because they allow for a very rare, albeit incomplete, insight into a multicultural society in modern Turkey, possibly alike to the multicultural society that once existed during the Ottoman Empire in places such as nearby Istanbul (Constantinople).
During the summer months the Princes Islands are popular destinations for day trips from Istanbul. As there is no traffic on the Islands, the only transport being horse and cart, they are incredibly peaceful compared with the city of Istanbul. They are just a short ferry ride from both the Asian (at Bostanci and also Kartal) and European sides (from Sirkeci/Eminonu, Kabatas and Yenikapi) of Istanbul. Most ferries call in turn at the four largest of the nine islands: Kinaliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and finally Buyukada (Prinkipo). Ferry services are provided by Istanbul Seabuses (IDO), a firm operated by the municipality of Istanbul.
M/S Pasabahce: Turkey’s oldest ferry still sailing
MS Pasabahce is a remarkable all steel ferry which was built in 1952 in Taranto, Italy. This is the oldest ferry still in operation in Istanbul. It has capacity for 2100 passengers and service speed is 12-18 knots. MS Pasabahce sails to the islands from Kabatas Pier in Istanbul at 9:10am and 6:30pm in the summer. This ferry was always my favourite since I was a child because of its speed and wonderful engine room.
Buyukada (meaning ‘Big Island’ in Turkish and ‘Prince’ in Greek) is the largest of the nine so-called Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. It covers an area of 5.4 sq km.
As on the other islands, motorised vehicles – except service vehicles – are forbidden, so visitors explore the island by foot, bicycle, or in horse-drawn carriages (phaeton). There are over 200 phaetons on Prinkipo. Phaetons can be likened to taxis. There is a fixed price for every location. The grand tour (Buyuk Tur) of the island by phaeton is popular with visitors which covers a distance of about 15 km.
There are several historical buildings on Prinkipo (Buyukada), such as the Ayia Yorgi (St George) Church and Monastery dating back to the 6th century, the Ayios Dimitrios (St Dimitrius) Church, and the Hamidiye Mosque built by Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
Prinkipo (Buyukada) is divided into two districts: the Nizam (West) district and the Maden (East) district. Both the eastern and western side of the island is full of large wooden mansions which still remain from the 19th century when wealthy Greek and Armenian bankers & merchants built them as holiday residences. The ones on the western side seem more splendid.
The island comprises of two hills, 164 meters high Isa Tepesi (Hristos) in the north and 202 meters high Yuce Tepe (Aya Yorgi) in the south. If you decide to walk up to the top of Hristos Hill (Isa Tepesi) in order to visit the monastery of Ag. Sotiros Hristos, it will be impossible to miss on your way, a huge empty wooden structure, falling into ruins. It is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings (23,000 sq meters). Built in 1898 originally by a French company to run as a grand hotel with a gambling casino, it failed to receive the permission by the Sultan Abdulhamid II. It was eventually bought by Eleni Zarifi of the prominent Greek banking family of Istanbul, who donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to be used as an orphanage. The sultan himself helped the cause of housing by a generous gift of 146 gold pieces. The orphanage has a fully equipped theatre, a dining hall, a large library, a games room, museum, sick bay and fire tower with marble steps. The Orphanage of Prinkipo was housing Greek orphans from 1903 until 1964 when it closed as Turkey’s Greek population experienced a precipitous decline. In 1997, the property was seized by the Turkish state. Five years ago, the church took its battle to recover the building to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In July 2008, the court delivered a unanimous verdict condemning the seizure. And on June 15 2010, another court ruling ordered Turkey to return it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate within three months and to pay 26,000 euros in compensation. There are plans to re-open the building as an institution of some kind.
There were 3,000 people living on the island in the 19th century. However, with the start of boat services in the second half of the 19th century, the population of the island has gradually increased over the course of time. This is especially the case for Ottoman intellectuals, authors, and for the Greek community, who made up the majority of the population on the island. Today the local population of the island is just over 7,000 but this number increases 10 to 15-fold during summer months. Most of the buildings are only used as holiday homes during summer.
The best time to visit the island is during spring (Apr-May) and during autumn (Sep-Oct). During these seasons the air is not extremely hot, the island is not very crowded and during spring the mimosa trees which are symbol of the island, are in full bloom.
Samuel S Cox described with these words the town of Prinkipo (extract from his book (‘The Isles of the Princes Or: the Pleasures of Prinkipo 1887’):
Upon the north-western side of Prinkipo there is a little city whose villas are rare in elegance and architecture, whose gardens have a hesperidean fruitage and bloom, and whose red-tiled roofs over the white or yellow buildings add a refinement to the town and isle which the bath houses at the water’s edge, upon the jutting crags, themselves ornamental, in vain try to dispel. The rich Greek merchants and bankers, together with the English, German, French, American, Armenian and Swiss families, who summer here, have not only spent their money freely to decorate their own homes and grounds, but they have made winding roads, up hill and down, which cross and encircle the island.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.