Riding the ferry to Turkey's forgotten paradise

The Princes’ Islands are an archipelago of nine islands where noise is banned, and beauty and history reign supreme.
Published June 22, 2015

After returning from a thrilling visit to the early 17th century Blue Mosque and the sixth century Byzantine masterpiece – the famous church-turned-mosque-turned museum in Istanbul – Aya Sofia, my Turkish friend said with authority, “Your trip to Istanbul will be incomplete without seeing Princes’ Islands, a reminder of the Ottoman era.”

Free from noise pollution, and away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, the islands welcome you to experience its rich cultural legacy. With its distinct ethnic minorities, it opens wondrous windows out into the past and the era of the Ottoman Empire.

Kizil Adalar (Princes’ Islands) is a chain of nine small islands with Büyükada, the largest and most popular one, in the Marmara Sea. It is said that the islands were used for the exile of the princes and then members of the Ottoman Sultan's family during the siege of Constantinople in 1453, in the Byzantine period.

Serene and peaceful, all four islands are a tourist's dream. You won't hear so much as a single harsh sound here, as the entry of vehicles here is banned. The rhythmical sounds of horse hoofs and musical bicycle bells, though, do keep echoing in this paradise,

Oğuz, a resident of Izmir, shared his feelings: “The traffic-free paradise offers us a lot. We frequently visit one of the four islands once a month to enjoy its attractions. It is not just incredibly scenic but also affordable for visitors wanting to get away from the crowded city of Istanbul.”

To get to the Princes’ Islands, one has to buy a ticket and get on a ferry or boat from the Kabatas area. There are big boats, small boats, ferries and sea buses.

For 10 Turkish Lira, I got tickets for both sides. The voyage in the ferry was some memorable trip. The dark blue water of the sea, the cool breeze, the lovely architecture of various buildings on both sides of the sea – it was overwhelming.

It is important for tourists to start their trip in the morning, as it will take one whole day to fully enjoy all the attractions before they return. Also, take care to check the ferry schedules and not miss the return ride, otherwise you will have to spend a night there.

After completing a voyage of nearly an hour and 40 minutes from Kabatas in a regular ferry, the last stop is of Büyükada, the largest of the nine islands.

Büyükada (meaning Big Island), has a greater importance than all the others (the three other islands open for tourists are Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kinaliada). When we reached the Big Island, our guide informed us:

“Byzantine empresses Irene, Anna Dalassena, Euphrosyne, Zoe and Theophano spent their time in exile here. Leon Trotsky, a Russian theorist and Marxist revolutionary, politician and the founder and first leader of the Red Army, also stayed for four years here in Büyükada.”

The island is also the birthplace of Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid, a renowned Turkish artist whose art blended the touches of Islamic and Byzantine art with abstract influences from the West.

The real joy came when we embarked the horse-drawn buggies on a sightseeing tour of the island.

To quote my Pakistani friend Zahid Khan,

“The island, apart from its historical value, resembles a combination of Kalam and Nathiagali, as the buildings look a lot like those in Nathiagali and the roads meandering through forests bear a resemblance to those of Kalam valley in Swat.”

Also, you must not forget to get the ice-cream available everywhere on the island. Eat it while walking on the beach. You can thank me later.

— All photos by author

Fazal Khaliq is a journalist with a focus on culture, tourism and archaeology.

He is the author of The Uddiyana Kingdom: The Forgotten Holy Land of Swat and runs the website, The Morning Post.