Dotted around the Sea of Marmara just off the Asian coast of Istanbul lie a group of nine islands, known as the Princes’ Islands. During the summer months, the islands are a vey popular tourist destination but in winter the picture is quiet a different one.
Naturally, the islands can only be reached by boat and in the summer ferries run from Kabatas and Sirkeci on the European side as well as from the Asian side calling on four of the islands and ending in Büyükada (Large Island). In winter, when rains fall and storms are raging the islands are often cut off for weeks on end, a circumstance of nature which made them an ideal place to exile troublemakers.
The Byzantine rulers were the first to discover the ‘prison’ at the doorstep of their empire’s capital and no less than five empresses from Irene to Anna Dalassena were sent to the island and a convent after their various conspiracies and intrigues threatened the emperor of the moment’s power. The Ottoman’s followed the tradition and exiled troublesome princes there, which is where the islands got their name from. I read some of the life stories of the empresses and they are truly fascinating but far too long to recount here.
Another famous ‘banned’ was Leon Trotzky who was sent here from Russia in 1929. During the Victorian area, the Princes’ Islands became a much coveted summer retreat for wealthy citizens of Istanbul and their sumptuous wooden summer houses make up a great part of today’s charm of the islands.
In addition, except for some service vehicles, no cars are allowed, so the only means of transport to get around are horse drawn carriages, bicycles and your feet. Last summer I boarded a the IDo ferry from Kabatas and was on my way to Büyükada.
Looking back at the receding shoreline of Istanbul gives you a fantastic panoramic view of many of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, all lined up in a row and beckoning to be admired. I met a lovely couple from Singapore on the ferry and we decided to explore the island together, so when the ferry docked, we headed for the carriages. An insider tip: of course, everybody rushes for the carriages, so when a ferry comes in, there is a long line. Just turn left, head along the water until you find their assembly place. Any carriage will take you out of line, don’t forget, this is Turkey and you are happily clip clopping along far ahead of the maddening crowd. Which is a good thing, because there is only one rather steep road which leads along the fabulous wooden houses to the top and a park with wonderful trees and a little café. Given the popularity it can get quite crowded so you are well off if you get a head start.
On top is the Lunar Park , a monastery and St. George Church and you can switch from carriage to donkey and ride up if you wish, but we decided to turn around, have a meal in one of the restaurants in a side street and then explore on foot until the return ferry.
Another insider tip: many restaurants are along the waterfront and guides take their groups there. You are far better off, leaving these behind and heading for a ‘hole in the wall’ as we did.
As you return Istanbul you come past the other islands and can see the difference in vegetation and formation. In spring the islands are a sea of purple due to the Judas tree blooms. In 2003 a wild fire raged and destroyed a great part of the pine forest, but luckily much has grown back.
Check out the ferry schedule, but if you miss the last ferry back, you don’t have to swim. There are several hotels, some in converted wooden houses, where you can spend the night. One of the nicest daytrips when in Istanbul and cheap into the bargain because the ferry only costs approx. $2 one way. The carriages are approx. $50, but if you share it’s not so bad.