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Büyükada – The Big Island

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With a name that literally translates to “Big Island”, Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul’s nine Princes’ Islands. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and finding ways to escape the crowds.

After disembarking the morning ferry, we hunted for a bike to rent and went straight to the shop with the newest-looking bikes on display. After receiving the payment, the guy took us past the nice bikes, around into a back alley and hauled much older bikes out of the shop’s garage. Shenanigans. We could have (and probably should have) complained, but were keen to avoid stress. Büyükada had already cast its “chill-out” spell on us.

Not even hordes of screaming Turkish high-schoolers could ruin our relaxed vibe. After having visited Burgazada on Easter Sunday, we had sworn to never return to the Princes’ Islands on a weekend… and so, we choose to visit Büyükada on a Monday. Little did we know, however, that this particular Monday was a school holiday. Every teenager in Istanbul was on our ferry, and they were all in exuberant, screechy spirits. Luckily, most of them made a beeline for the first beach and we quickly found peace.

At Yörükali Beach, on the southwestern end of the island, we paid 15 lira apiece and walked down a long path to the sea. The cover charge is apparently a way to keep the kids out, because we were completely alone except for a British couple and a few shirtless Turkish guys working on a new boardwalk. Acceptable. The sea water was cool and refreshing, and I would have stayed in hours but for the jellyfish.

Büyükada Bay

For lunch, we biked to the center of the island, where roads converge in a mad intersection full of bikes, tourists and donkeys. This is the central nexus of the island, where you can grab lunch or choose to climb one of Büyükada’s giant hills… or have a donkey climb them for you. We felt guilty about burdening the poor beasts, so locked our bicycles and walked up. At the top of the southern hill, we found the Greek church of St. George, and a surprisingly affordable restaurant with a view of the Marmara Sea.

After eating, we punished our aching legs even further, and hiked up the other of Büyükada’s big hills to an abandoned Greek orphanage. This massive wooden building was falling apart, and a little creepy, so I wasn’t upset when we weren’t able find a way inside. From here, we returned to the ferry terminal. The great majority of Büyükada’s 7000 residents live on the northern side of the island, and hidden among the impressive mansions is a dilapidated home which hosted Leo Trotsky for four years.

This was a fantastic excursion, perfectly manageable in a day. It might be the busiest of the Princes’ Islands, but Büyükada has a lot more to do than Burgazada, and is the more lovely of the two. We never made it to the other islands (Heybeliada and Kınalıada) so are unable to conclusively judge which is the best, but it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying day out than the one we enjoyed on Büyükada.

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June 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm Comments (9)

Southwest of the Hippodrome

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The winding streets and cobblestone alleys immediately southwest of the Hippodrome have a radically different atmosphere from the rest of tourist-oriented Sultanahmet. Sloping down swiftly to the Sea of Marmara, this little subsection of the city has a couple beautiful mosques, as well as a pleasing working-class vibe.

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Just a few hundred meters from the chaotic crowds at the Blue Mosque, we found the quiet Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii. Yet another creation of the Ottoman master architect Mimar Sinan, this lovely mosque was built in 1571 for the Grand Vizier of Suleyman the Magnificent. We were frustrated to find the doors locked, but a student in the attached Koran School suggested we just wait until prayer time.

We relaxed at a nearby rooftop cafe until the call to prayer was issued from the mosque’s solitary minaret. Then, hoping that a solemn demeanor would help us blend in, we filed into the Mehmet Paşa along with the worshipers. This was the first Muslim ceremony I’d witnessed, and I found it quite moving. While we silently observed from the rear of the mosque, an Imam led the prayers. In unison, the men would bow, kneel or join in the chanting. [More Pics of the Sokullu Mehmet Paşa | Location]

Right down the street is the Küçük Ayasofya Camii, or the Small Hagia Sofia, so named because of an architectural and chromatic resemblance to Istanbul’s most famous mosque. It was originally built in 527 as a Byzantine church and, from the exterior, looks its age. So the magnificence of the recently-restored interior comes as a surprise. It’s not as colorful as other mosques, but has a wonderful two-story colonnade, and visitors are allowed to explore the upper floors. [More Pics of the Küçük Ayasofya Camii | Location]

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The Greek writing betrays the Küçük Ayasofya’s original use as a Byzantine Church

After finishing up in the Little Hagia Sofia, we poked around the neighborhood. For being so close to Istanbul’s most popular sights, there were few tourists underway on these narrow, uneven streets. Instead, we saw Turks going on about their daily lives — visiting the market, repairing rotted old buildings, and sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk, drinking tea. [More Pics from the Neighborhood]

To get home, we walked along the Sea of Marmara until reaching the Galata Bridge. This was a longer trek than we had anticipated, but an entertaining one. Views of Asian Istanbul accompanied us the whole way, along with stray cats, fishermen grilling their day’s catch on the wave breakers, and tankers sounding their horns on their way into the Bosphorus. [More Pics from our Walk along the Sea]

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More Pictures from the Sokullu Mehmet Paşa
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More Pictures from the Kuçuk Ayasofya
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More Pictures from our Walk along the Sea
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March 27, 2013 at 9:27 am Comments (2)
Bykada - The Big Island With a name that literally translates to "Big Island", Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul's nine Princes' Islands. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and finding ways to escape the crowds.
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