Monday 4 May 2015

Making like a local

With what felt like half the population of Istanbul on this holiday weekend, we hit the ferries today, on an excursion out to the Princes Islands. They’re an archipelago in the Sea of Marmara, only four of the nine properly inhabited, and very popular with Istanbullus for day trips and as summer retreats. Pine trees, sandy beaches, hills, little towns of narrow cobbled streets between pretty Victorian villas, some smartly painted, others peeling picturesquely – what’s not to like? Especially as, big attraction for me, there are no private cars, and the main mode of transport is carts drawn by pairs of horses. (The Turkish name is fayton, which sounds exactly like phaeton, which is what they are.)

The main island is Büyükada and that’s where most people went, but we got off at the previous stop, Heybeliada, and were very glad we’d made that choice. For a start, it was much less crowded than the other turned out to be, and less touristy – but mainly it was just so pretty. The town is draped over the saddle between two wooded hills, one of them topped with an old monastery, and down at the waterfront there are cafés and restaurants looking cheerful with umbrellas and awnings, and there were small boys playing football, and dogs asleep everywhere, even in the middle of the road.

They were perfectly safe: the horse carts went around them, titupping along on their wooden shoes (a noise-pollution measure) as they took people and goods up and down the hilly streets. We had a 20 minute spin around, bumping around a circuit that passed a park busy with picnickers on the other side of the island, overtaking cyclists and pedestrians, brakes scraping and bell jingling as we went. Lovely!

Then we walked past the shops and homes and all the many cats up the hill to the monastery, where the gardener was tipping cabbages over the wall for the sheep and goats in one enclosure while hens scratched around the beds of tulips in front of the building and a most unexpected peacock displayed his tail to a frankly unimpressed rooster. There was a bride in frothy pink, with a bunch of balloons, posing for photos around the streets, old ladies in long coats and scarves plodded along, electric three-wheelers whined past laden with big shopping, and people sat drinking coffee, the thick and horrible Turkish version necessarily served in tiny cups with a glass of water to wash the taste away afterwards.

The ferry ride back was enlivened by the feeding of the gulls – an established custom with a simit (bagel) seller coming on board with his basket on his head, to sell the rolls to passengers. They then spent the journey leaning over the railings, holding out torn bits to the gulls gliding alongside in confident expectation of a feed. Which they got, either by snatching it from fingers or swooping to pick it up from the water. Lots of simple fun for both feeders and photographers.

There was more satisfying photography to play with that evening down at Galata Bridge where the fishermen’s rods made a thick fringe along both sides as the sun set and the mosques were lit up and the muezzins called. It felt very calming, to sit in the courtyard of the New Mosque watching the worshippers wash themselves (sometimes rather perfunctorily) before going inside to pray while their kids played around the cloisters and a full moon rose behind the minarets. I really do like Istanbul.

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