From the deck of the ferry, Istanbul gradually recedes into the distance, leaving the noise and the rat race far behind as we steam ahead leaving streaks of foam on the sea's vast blue. The island takes over the minute you set foot on the quay. The colors, the seasons, the sounds -everything is more itself here. The cries of the gulls, the color of the mimosas, the scent of the sea restore your spirit with every breath. This is precisely why Büyükada is so essential to Istanbul. With its secluded havens, splendid mansions, sacred monasteries, rustic coffeehouses, its fish restaurants in the lap of the sea, its legendary sunsets and its mimosa groves, Büyükada is one of the best places to greet spring in Istanbul.
SUNSET ON THE WINDOWS OF THE FERRY STATION
As one of the rare examples of its kind that still preserves its original appearance, the elegant Büyükada ferry station is your first welcome to the island. The renowned Prinkipo Casino, a nightclub in the 1920's and the island's first outdoor cinema in the '50s, the station building is rather imposing with its domed roof, tile decorations and terrace with stained glass windows. Adorned with rudders, compasses, ship's bells, maps, documents of the original Ottoman ferry line (Şirket-i Hayriye) and ship's models, its upper floor is also used as an exhibition space where old photographs and panoramas are displayed from time to time.
A Büyükada lover and author of many books about the island, Turkish writer Buket Uzuner says this ferry station is the most beautiful in the whole world. Why? Because its windows reflect the rays of the setting sun.
AN ISLAND OF TWO QUARTERS
On emerging from the ferry station, which was restored by Istanbul entrepreneur Çelik Gülersoy in the 1980's, the road immediately in front of you takes you to the market square where the clock tower rises. Surrounded by phaetons, bicycles, ice cream vendors and tiny shops, this square extends to Nizam on the right and Maden on the left, the island's only two quarters. Your best bet may be to tour the island by bicycle, which you can rent at any of several shops around the square. When you proceed to the right along the quay from 23 Nisan Caddesi to 'Dil Burnu' you will see first the island's biggest and oldest hotel, the Hotel with its handsome pair of domes. As splendid as the name indicates with its elaborate wooden facade and position overlooking the sea, the building preserves the air of the old Istanbul hotels. Another elegant building situated diagonally opposite in a large garden is the Anatolia Club. Exhibiting the features of classical English architecture, this mansion, whose dark wooden roof distinguishes it from the buildings around it, was commissioned by the British in 1907 as a yacht club. Ataturk himself was a frequent visitor at this mansion, which was a meeting place for Turkey's men of state, members of parliament and party dignitaries for years.
THE ADMINISTRATIVE CENTER OF THE ISLANDS
The administrative and financial center of the Istanbul Islands throughout history, Büyükada has always attracted more interest than its neighbors. And perhaps for this reason, whether for its market, its natural beauty or the richness of its architecture, it continues to occupy a far more special place than the other islands off Istanbul. Even today it exhibits an alluring array of architectural variety you'll find nowhere else in the city. A place of residence since the mid-19th century for the city's and Ottoman bureaucracy and high society as well as small communities of artists and intellectuals, it soon became one of Istanbul's elite summer resorts and centers of western-style living.
The owners of this dazzling lifestyle had mansions built, each more elaborate than the last, and exotic vegetation cultivated in their gardens. The houses of Büyükada, which today preserve an elegance otherwise seen only in paintings, also offer important clues to the different ways of life on the island.
The great majority of island houses concentrated in the parts of Nizam and Maden near the sea date to the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century. And a broad architectural spectrum, ranging from Greek, Italian and French mansions bearing traces of the classical Ottoman, Baltic, Mediterranean, Hellenistic and Art Nouveau styles to Maltese, Russian and Ottoman buildings, virtually transforms the island's streets into an open-air museum.
ISLAND HISTORY IN THE MANSIONS
There are on the island extraordinary mansions whose likes you will see only in world-class touristic cities like Nice, Monte Carlo and Paris. The finest examples among these close to fifty mansions, each more elegant than the last, can be seen along Çankaya Caddesi. The four-story, 22-room Agopyan Mansion right at the beginning of the avenue is none other than the once renowned Hotel Çankaya. The Fabiato Mansion, exhibiting Tuscan lines and used today as a rustic nightclub called the Kültür Evi or House of Culture, is a gift to the island from Çelik Gülersoy. Kitty-corner from it, the Hacapulos Mansion is used today as the Government House. Distinguished by its tower, the Mizzi Mansion once housed the offices of the Levant Herald. At No. 78 stands the Con Paşa (John Pasha) Mansion, famous for its elaborate wooden facade. Immediately adjacent to it at the end of Hamlacı Street, the İlyasko Mansion with its red tower is where Leon Trotsky lived for two years after he fled Stalin's regime in 1929; it is in ruins today. Next to the Kuyumcuyan and Mahmuet Esat Bozkurt mansions, the Fethi Okyar Mansion on Halik bay at the south of the island is another of elegant structure. Meanwhile one of the loveliest buildings in the quarter of Maden, one of the island's oldest residential areas and named for the copper mines ('maden' in Turkish) worked here by the Ottomans in the 18th century, is the Sabuncakis Mansion, also known as the 'Gözlü Ev' or House with an Eye. A short way beyond the Church of Hagia Nicola, the elegant, two-story white building with a pink cornice and a garden directly opposite Sedef Island is where the well-known Turkish writer Reşat Nuri Güntekin made his home for many years.
JUST MEANT FOR ROMANTICS
Another Büyükada treasure is nature. As the number of green areas in Istanbul decreases by the day, Büyükada preserves its pine woods and groves of mimosa and magnolia which are its greatest asset. Çankaya Caddesi's last surprise before Dil Burnu is Değirmen Beach. Lying opposite the pine-wooded area known as Dil Burnu because it sticks out into the sea like a tongue ('dil' in Turkish), Heybeliada completes the magnificent landscape. As the best place on the island for watching the sunset, Dil Burnu has been immortalized in song. One such song, by historian and writer Ahmet Refik Altınay, which starts, “Again this year the island was nothing without you; I strolled along at 'Dil', awash in endless tears,” sums up the romantic atmosphere here.
THE HIGHEST POINT
The wooded slope at Yorgoli Beach on the southern shore of the bay is Lovers' Hill. The road leading up from Nizam Caddesi, which takes its name from the hero, Ali Nizami Bey, of Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar's novel about life 'ala franga', to the 164-meter-high Hristo Tepesi, the island's second highest hill, is lined with pine, bay and linden trees. Lovers' Hill, where the hero and heroine, Nihal and Behlul, of Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil's novel, Forbidden Love, meet is ideal for romantically minded souls who yearn to take long walks amidst the scent of pine and resin, gather pine cones on lonely paths, and weave wreaths of daisies. The Old Greek Orphanage, which rises specter-like at the highest point of the hill, is an abandoned wooden palace. When this building, which was designed in 1898 as one of the most sumptuous hotels of its time with ballrooms and a theater, was refused permission to open, it was bought up by a Greek banker and donated to the orphanage of the Greek Patriarchate. Opened as such in 1903, the building served as a refuge for thousands of homeless children until it was closed in 1956.
ISLAND OF FESTIVALS
After a tea break at one of the outdoor cafes on Birlik Square, it's time to climb to the top of Aya Yorgi, the island's highest hill. At the top of this slope, also known as the Way of Wishes for the tiny scraps of cloth tied as votive offerings to the bushes on either side of the stone path by people of every religious persuasion, stand the Agios Georgios Church and monastery. Legend has it that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas had this monastery built in 963 A.D. in honor of the Cappadocian Saint George who performed miraculous cures. Monks who desired to retreat into seclusion in the Byzantine period withdrew to this hill, which today is invaded by visitors especially on 23 April and 24 September, St. George's feast days. Apart from these special days when people of every religious faith pray and make wishes here, the island also has its own festival. The Islands Art and Culture Festival, which every year organizes concerts, films, dance and theater productions, exhibitions and water sports on the Istanbul Islands, principally Büyükada, begins in the second week of July and adds color to island life for a week. Immediately adjacent to the monastery at the top of the hill, the rustic cafe and restaurant enclosed by a wooden fence is the perfect choice for a grand finale to an extended island tour. Situated at the island's highest point, it not only offers a panoramic view of Istanbul but also makes visitors fall in love with the island, as do its countless other intriguing spots.