Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Turkish Idyll Lost in Time


LATE on a peaceful night in May, on a quiet island in the Sea of Marmara, I walked alone on a curving street edged by walls dripping with ivy. Behind the walls, palms and red pines loomed above Ottoman mansions that drowsed in the leafy darkness. With no sound but my own footsteps, I continued down a slope that led to my seafront hotel. Then I paused. Ahead of me, in the half-light cast by a streetlamp, I saw a cluster of tall, undulant shapes at the turning. “Women, or horses?” I wondered. Nearing, I nodded: horses. And then I laughed out loud. How on earth, in the 21st century, was it possible for me, or for anyone, to succumb to such poetic confusion? It was possible only on an island like the one where I found myself: the island of Buyukada, an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul, a place where time stands still.

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For more than a millennium, Buyukada has lured travelers from the Golden Horn to its lush hillsides, dramatic cliffs and romantic coves. Only two square miles in size, Buyukada, population 7,000, is the largest island in a green, hilly archipelago that rises from the Sea of Marmara like a convoy of basking turtles. The islands — known as the Princes, or, in Turkish, Adalar — are actually a far-flung district of Istanbul, but unlike the city on the mainland, with its roaring traffic, Wi-Fi-ready cafes, skyscrapers, and galleries and concerts that court a global audience, they haven’t seemed to have gotten the text message that the 21st century has arrived. It isn’t entirely clear that the message about the 20th has arrived, either. To set foot on Buyukada is to enter a living diorama of the past, wholly preserved. There are no Starbucks here, no skyscrapers, no cars; only bicycles, horse-drawn buggies (called faytons), filigreed mansions and tile-roofed villas set amid flowery lanes, and emerald hillsides that drop down to rugged beaches.
I had learned of Buyukada only two years ago, when a beguiling invitation exhorted me to travel there for a costume party (the theme: Fruits and Flowers) at a friend’s seaside villa. Having been to Istanbul twice before, I wondered why I had never heard of this offshore Shangri-la. Intrigued, I hunted down whatever information I could find, and learned that the Byzantine Emperor Justin II had built a palace and monastery on Buyukada in A.D. 569. (He was the “prince” who gave the Princes Isles their name.) More monasteries followed and in ensuing centuries they became prisons for emperors, empresses and patriarchs who fell out of favor on the mainland.
But during the Ottoman era, Buyukada shed that dark heritage and transformed itself into a pleasure island. Greek fishermen made their homes there; and, eventually, wealthy families built elaborate mansions (kosks) and comfortable villas (konaks). For the first half of the 20th century, the island was popular among prosperous Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Turks, for whom it served as a kind of Hamptons. But when Greeks left Istanbul in the 1950s, following a wave of violence against minorities, they left their wooden summer homes behind them. In their absence, the island fell out of vogue.  Affluent Turks ignored Buyukada, preferring to vacation in Bodrum on the Mediterranean.  The island that had been named for an emperor became a day trip destination for poor residents of Istanbul seeking affordable leisure — picnics on the piney beaches of the Dil Peninsula and horse-drawn fayton rides.
But over the last decade or so, interest in Buyukada has revived. A number of old Istanbul families are returning to their summer houses, well-heeled investors are renovating old properties, and a handful of academics, artists, writers and foreigners (like my host) have come here to retreat from modernity, setting up stakes in Arcadia. The place is a time capsule, an hour by sea and a hundred years in time from the bustling Bosporus.
I didn’t hesitate to accept the party invitation, and so it was that I got my first glimpse of Buyukada on a blue-skied summer morning from the deck of a ferry that a friend and I caught at Istanbul’s Kabatas ferry dock. On the horizon, a cream-and-turquoise terminal rose, domed, with pillared archways. Soon we were proceeding through those arches along with throngs of day-trippers who bought wildflower coronets from vendors and sauntered off in their daisy chain headdresses up a street that led to a clock tower ruffled with bougainvillea. Nearly all the island’s shops, restaurants and hotels are clustered there, at Buyukada’s northern tip. As we strolled, faytons hurried past, bearing women in headscarves, the drivers chirruping, the horses whinnying. Eventually we found ourselves on Recep Koc, the colorful market street, and shopped for our evening’s costumes. For my friend; a bunch of bananas (Fruit); for me a garland of orange roses (Flowers). Hailing a carriage to the party, trailing flora, we fell under the spell of this fairytale island. That was when I knew I would come back: Buyukada deserved a second look, and a deeper exploration.
And so, this spring, I returned. My party host, Owen Matthews, agreed to show me the island’s attractions, along with his tireless sons, Ted and Nikita, ages 5 and 8, and their brisk little dogs. Our plan was to explore Buyukada in a convoy of bicycles, with a dog or two as mascot. On Owen’s recommendation, I stayed two blocks from the clock tower, at an Art Nouveau-flavored wedding cake of a hotel called the Splendid Palas. Built in 1908, the hotel is double-domed, white as icing and grandly down-at-heel, with four tiers of balconied rooms and creaky crimson shutters. Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII once stayed there, and when I ascended the marble staircase and entered the entry hall, I almost expected to see the Duke and Duchess appear in the hotel’s fountained atrium, dancing a ghostly tango. In Istanbul proper, I had stayed at hotels that looked out on stirring monuments of antiquity, like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. But on Buyukada, the hotel itself exhaled the mystery of another age. So did the street below where a queue of buggies — green, yellow, pink and candy red — waited for passengers. With their wicker seats and fringed tops they looked like Easter baskets on wheels.
Soon, Owen, Ted and dog, Martha, appeared on the terrace, and off we went to fortify ourselves with lunch. We had to walk only a couple of blocks to the restaurant, but the walk reminded me of the 19th-century panoramas you might stroll past in a museum exhibition. Wisteria tickled our heads as we edged alongside konaks with buttressed terraces, carved moldings and louvered shutters. Some had been gleamingly restored. Others were frail, stripped of paint, their sagging wooden bones laid bare, shutters hanging by one nail. They leaned against overgrown trees like exhausted brown pelicans. To me those derelict buildings breathed the romance of history, whispering, the present decays; the past remains. It was a whisper I would hear often over the next few days. Somehow, it suited my goal as a traveler: to be shaken from my routine, to discover new pleasures in an unfamiliar context. On my first trip, Buyukada had tantalized me with that promise. Now, on longer acquaintance, it intoxicated me, enveloping me in the extraordinary life of a place whose everyday reality differed so delectably from my own.
Ted had chosen an outdoor restaurant called Ucler Tasfirin, facing the wharf building, and as we took our seats, I watched new arrivals make their way up from the ferry, pausing to treat themselves to hot, crunchy glazed doughnuts (lokma) or Turkish dondurma ice cream, which has an almost taffy-like consistency. We ordered pide — the Turkish version of pizza, shaped like a flattened canoe, stuffed with spicy crumbled sausage, cheese, green pepper and tomato — and lahmacun, which is like a Turkish tostada, a flat, crispy circle of baked dough dotted with ground beef. Ted showed me how to sprinkle the lahmacun with shredded lettuce, roll it up, and eat it in crunching mouthfuls, and then he lapped up his dessert, “sutlac” rice pudding, slightly scorched (a Turkish favorite). As Martha lobbied at our feet for scraps, schoolgirls in headscarves and trench coats whizzed by on bikes at breakneck pace, as if they’d fallen behind on a sightseer’s Tour de France. I felt as if we had fallen into the Tintin cartoon “King Ottokar’s Sceptre,” in which the boy hero visits an “enchanting region” whose fezzed and kerchiefed inhabitants keep up old customs.
After lunch, we made our way toward the bright yellow Buyukada cathedral, the Aya Dmitri, and the beautifully maintained Hodegetria parish church, near the Fayton Meydani (buggy square). The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul keeps up the island’s splendid churches and monasteries, with their polished silver-and-gold-trimmed icons, jewel-toned chandeliers, antique pulpits and Greek-speaking monks, who admit tourists (if they’re in when you ring at the door).
We ducked into the churches only briefly, because Ted, weary of walking, was eager to start biking. Climbing aboard a buggy, we rode to the family’s villa, past Clock Tower Square, past the hotel, and a quarter mile down Cankaya Caddesi, which merges with the mansion-edged Nizam Caddesi, which snakes around the island’s northwest side, cut by lanes that drop downhill to the rocky shore. Nikita joined us, and father, sons and I chose our steeds and pedaled uphill.
We had gone only a couple of blocks, dodging buggies and bicyclists, when Owen turned right on a lane where we found the ruined villa where Leon Trotsky once lived in exile. It was down the slope from a pasha’s mansion that once served as a setting for a popular Ottoman-era soap opera filmed on the island (which needs no special effects to evoke a 16th-century air) and that now is being renovated by a developer.
For the banished emperors of Byzantium, Buyukada had been a grievous place; but for Trotsky, it was a sort of sanctuary. From 1929 to 1933, he lived in a gorgeous, light-filled villa on this hillside, writing his autobiography and his “History of the Russian Revolution.” In his spare time, he rowed around the island’s coves with a Greek fisherman, accompanied by bodyguards. (An amateur naturalist, he identified a species of red rockfish in the Marmara waters that he named Sebastes Leninii.)
As the saws of workmen at the pasha’s kosk droned nearby, we pushed open a gate, shoved aside tendrils of wisteria and prickly branches of wild rose, and made our way through a thicket of saplings and underbrush. We kept quiet, not sure we were allowed on the property; and then, there it was: the rose-brick shell of Trotsky’s villa, rising roofless, with empty Gothic windows and a towering ornamental facade — an opera set dropped in a wilderness. Suddenly we heard voices. Was it the police? No. It was a group of Swiss tourists, necklaced in cameras, emerging from the portico. One of them proudly declared, “I’m an old Trotskyist!” Inside, we saw traces of staircases that had once climbed to a vanished second floor; a doorway, covered in creeper, led to a kitchen, where the stove and counters still stood, frothed with greenery. Reaching into a cluster of leaves, Nikita seized a corroded old pan and held it aloft like a trophy. “Look!” he crowed, “I found Trotsky’s frying pan!” Owen showed us faded painted friezes that curled up the walls, and pointed out a tall central upstairs window, flanked by sun-bleached shutters, that looked out on the sea. “That was Trotsky’s study,” he said.
We hit the road again, cycling past mares grazing on the shoulder, their new foals alongside them. I spotted a beach club nestled on a green slope, with white deck chairs on a patio, cutting away to paths that led down to the pebbly shore, but it was too early in the season for it to tempt us. Still, I couldn’t help recalling that a highlight of my 2009 trip had been a visit to Nakibey, a beach club on the island’s northeastern curve that exudes the casually revelrous 1960s atmosphere of “The Flamingo Kid.” There, on a green-carpeted concrete pier, sunbathers lolled under striped umbrellas on deck chairs as bellboys rushed around bringing drinks and sandwiches, and I jumped into the sea and floated in the warm waves, gazing across the water to the spires of Istanbul.
We wished we could have hunted down markers of the Byzantine emperors and empresses who perished on Buyukada a millennium ago, or found some memento of the last houri of Sultan Ahmed II’s harem, who came to Buyukada in 1909, after the sultan was deposed; but time has erased them. Instead, as twilight fell, we went to pay respects to the gated Greek Orthodox cemetery, where wild irises grow, before returning to Owen’s rented 19th-century villa for a round of cricket and drinks on the terrace. There we watched the sun melt purple and amber into the Sea of Marmara.
It turns out that tourists and other escapists are not the only travelers who venture to Buyukada. Every year on April 23, thousands of pilgrims of all faiths journey fromTurkeyGreece, the Balkans and even Russia, making their way to the monastery of Aya Yorgi (St. George), which lies at the center of the island, atop Yucetepe, the island’s highest peak. As part of an age-old fertility ritual, they climb the steep road that rises sharply from a small plaza — Birlik Meydani (Union Square) — unwinding spools of thread and twining it around the greenery, from the base of the hill all the way up to the church at the summit.
We saw the signs of their recent pilgrimage when we hiked up to Yucetepe the next morning: the roadside was edged with tangled thread in every color, like a mile-long cat’s cradle. At the top of the mountain, beside the church of Aya Yorgi and the breathtaking views of the islands to the northwest, we saw the pilgrims’ hopes, written on paper, tied to the branches of trees. But before I could sink into too somber a reflection on this mythic tradition, a band of students from Kazakhstan broke my reverie, jumping onto bikes they’d dragged uphill, and rocketing down to Birlik Meydani with jubilant shrieks. The contradictory images thrilled and unsettled me; once again, Buyukada had a way of making me feel like a passenger in a time machine, with the year set on “shuffle.”
In a courtyard of the monastery, the Yucetepe restaurant offers a spectacular view of the surrounding sea. Mimosa perfumes the air, pine needles crunch underfoot, and waiters bring sizzling kebabs, grilled eggplant, tangy fava bean-and-tomato salad, and hot borek — triangles of pastry filled with tart, fluffy cheese — to outdoor tables. From our chairs, we could look east and see giant cargo ships anchored in the Bosporus, waiting their turn to head up to the Black Sea. On the grassy slope beside us, wild ponies, 10 feet away, grazed on blue-pink thistles.
Revived by our feast, we crossed wildflower-spattered woods to reach the island’s second-highest peak, Isa Tepesi, on our way to our final destination of the day: a hulking, dilapidated wooden structure, longer than a football field and more than a hundred feet high, that rises like a haunted manor, looking as if one good shove would smash it into matchsticks. A French-Turkish architect designed the compound at the height of the belle époque, intending it as a casino hotel for rich men and their alluring companions. But when the sultan, Abdul Hamid II, decided not to allow gambling, a philanthropist bought the hotel, and in 1902, donated it to the patriarchate as an orphanage. By the 1970s, after decades of neglect, the building became so dangerous that it had to be abandoned. But even in utter decay, it commands respect. Last fall, the Turkish government returned legal ownership of the building to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and a New York architect, Nicholas Koutsomitis, is looking into helping them convert it into a global center for the environment and interfaith understanding. They will have their work cut out for them: “The whole place is cleaned out,” he said. “All that’s left in there is some ghosts.”
We skirted the gated perimeter, peeking through the bars and spotting a defunct theater through a ravaged external wall. Sheep grazed on the grounds, and chickens strutted, unconscious of their awesome backdrop. The orphanage, eerie and timeless, looked like the ideal site for a zombie film.
As I marveled at this  enduring relic,  voices rang out on the path below. Turkish picnickers — no doubt heading for some benches in the pine groves — were strolling past, munching potato chips, oblivious of the ruin on their right. What to me was a wonder, was to them just part of the landscape they knew they would always find here, on this tiny island, year after year, century after century.....

READ FULL ARTICLE:http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/travel/buyukada-near-istanbul-is-an-island-idyll.html?pagewanted=all

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