Island Istanbul

I’m back in Oakland now, but I still have Istanbul stories to share, so I’ll be posting those all week as I get over my jet lag!

We were only in Istanbul for a week — six days, really — and at the beginning of our stay I was still thinking the city was all too much. I had heard that the Princes’ Islands, a nine-island archipelago in the Sea of Marmara, are easily reachable by ferry. Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there until I read that the islands ban motorized transport: all island traffic is via foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage. Istanbul traffic is a force to contend with. Rush hours are awful and weekends are not necessarily better: twice during our stay, we hailed cabs only to be refused; the drivers said the traffic was too bad in that direction.* As for the flow of traffic, lane lines seem to be but suggestions, and for pedestrians, crossing nearly any street (even the little ones) means nerving oneself to dart between cars. Meanwhile this is a city of 14 million inhabitants and still more visitors. So the thought of a car-less getaway really appealed to me.

Ink sketch of a bridge and ferry in the Bosphorus, Istanbul

In the summer, it’s possible to take a fast catamaran to the islands (about 40 minutes), but at this time of year the catamaran schedule is reduced and didn’t suit us. There is also the public ferry (about 1 hour 20 minutes) and various private ones (about 1 hour), but when we got to the pier at Kabataş, we couldn’t find the private carriers, so we tapped our Istanbulkart and got in line for the regular ferry. It was quite crowded; it must be abominably so on weekends (we went on a Wednesday)! But there was plenty of space on the boat, and we found seats right next to one of the outdoor railings. It was an interesting ride, with city views giving way to atmospheric smog and seabirds, and then the islands themselves.

View when docked at Beşiktaş.View of Istanbul from the Bosphorus

One of the public ferryboats (like the one we were on).Sehir Hatlari public ferry in Istanbul

Shipping containers and cranes, so reminiscent of Oakland.Shipping container cranes in Istanbul

Shipping containers in Istanbul

1908 terminal building at HaydarpaşaHaydarpaşa terminal building, Istanbul

Graffiti on a pier on the Asian side of Istanbul, reading "The fanatic brothers"

Smoggy view of the shore of the Asian side of Istanbul

Seagulls over an overcast Sea of Marmara

View of the Sea of Marmara, the edge of a ferryboat railing, and distant islands

There were also vendors among the ferry passengers: men selling scarves or jackets, a simit seller, and an enthusiastic salesman who essentially put on a live infomercial show, demonstrating a four-way vegetable peeler (peel, peel, peel: “cucumber salat!” slice, slice, slice: “chips! chips!”) to vocal audience approval and quite a number of sales.

Simit seller holding his stacked breads, Istanbul ferry

Five of the nine Princes’ Islands are unreachable by public boat (some are un- or sparsely inhabited), and two of the remaining four are relatively unpopular for tourists (in a city of 14 million, “unpopular” is always very relative!). All looked charming.

Princes Islands, Istanbul, as seen from a boat

A pier near the Princes Islands, Istanbul

Burguzada waterfront, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Heybeliada waterfront, Princes Islands, Istanbul

When the ship stopped at Burgazada, I was taking photos of the pier’s cats when Erik pointed into the water. “Look, jellies!” Sure enough, there were a few small jellies pulsing slowly in that otherworldly way they do. We were enchanted. Then, as the ferry pulled out again, we walked to the other side and found the sea teeming with the creatures.

Cats on Burguzada pier, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Jellies in the Sea of Marmara

Jellies in the Sea of Marmara, near the Princes Islands, Istanbul

The most popular island is the largest, Büyükada, but you know me, I rarely want to do the most popular thing. So we disembarked instead at Heybeliada, the second-largest, second most popular island, and home to a restaurant Istanbul Eats has called “reason in and of itself to plan a day trip to the islands.” As we made our way down the pier there was another cat just outside the railing, and in the water behind him, countless more jellies.

Sleeping cat and jellies, Heybeliada pier, Princes Islands, Istanbul

The Princes’ Islands are officially still part of Istanbul, but they definitely have a different feel. Oh, there are plenty of cats and dogs, of course, but the lack of car traffic, the abundant plant life, and the old-fashioned houses create a more leisurely atmosphere. We hadn’t made any plans for exploring, so we just walked around a bit, enjoying the peace (I was also very excited to find a small, artsy/hipster shop).

Feyton (horse-drawn carriage) sign, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Fluffy cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Old buildings and feyton (horse-drawn carriage), Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul Bougainvillea and old buildings, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Old house, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

See the cat in the tree?Napping cat in pine tree, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Old houses, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

See the cat?Cow cat perched above pink house, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

White cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul Palm tree, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

White cat and street art, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Grey cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Laundry hanging from a balcony, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

And we did end up getting lunch at the recommended restaurant, Heyamola. We were the only customers, though not the only occupiers of tables; several staff members seemed very busy on laptops or with notebooks. We had a delicious and very fresh meal. The fish — a locally caught sole — was especially luscious. I’m not sure what it was seasoned with, but I could have eaten it all day.

An eggplant meze, and zucchini with walnutsEggplant and zucchini-walnut cold meze, Heyamola restaurant, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Shrimp casserole; grilled octopus in the backgroundShrimp casserole, Heyamola restaurant, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

The amazing fishLocal sole kebap, Heyamola restaurant, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

We needed to get back to Istanbul by early evening, so we decided to catch a boat back after lunch. We bought some cookies and waited for the ferry on the waterfront benches. One of the cats trotted over to us and hopped up beside me; after a couple of energetic attempts to climb onto our laps and my shoulder, it settled between us and had a nap. Sweet kitty.

Lisa Hsia and friendly local cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Lisa Hsia and friendly local cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Lisa Hsia and friendly local cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Friendly local cat, Heybeliada, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Sketches by Lisa Hsia at Heybeliada waterfront, Princes Islands, Istanbul

Our ride back was on one of the faster private boats; it was minimally fancier than the public ferry, but we were again entertained by a showman of a salesman. He put on another participatory show with some kind of citrus juicer that you insert directly into the fruit; his spiel involved clapping, sound effects, hip undulations, and offering cups of juice to random passengers. He sold a lot of six-packs of those gizmos.

Ferry passengers, Sea of Marmara

I didn’t look as much at the scenery this time around, but instead observed our fellow passengers, who included many women in various forms of head covering (everything from simple scarves to black shawls and niqab). Where we live, it is still too easy to imagine that all covered women fit a simple profile, but here I have really appreciated seeing them in their diversity. I am not free of preconceived notions, stereotypes, and ignorance, and it is always good (and humbling, and challenging) to be reminded of that. (When I got home, a friend shared this relevant piece.)

I’d like to go back to the Princes’ Islands some other time, maybe even staying overnight. It would have been nice to have more time to sketch the architecture or check out the more historic sites. I notice there are some AirBnBs there, so… next time!

Seagulls in the sky

*The first time, we took transit instead, though I had to go back and change my shoes so I could walk to the tram station; the second time, we just walked, getting soaked in the rain — a ridiculous outcome since I had accidentally packed two umbrellas, but left them in the apartment!go back