The belle epoque gone? Not here

The Princes Islands, 10 miles out to sea from Istanbul, are a bizarre world of grace and indolence. By Jeremy Seal
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The Independent Culture
From the ferry deck, Istanbul's domes, minarets and the silhouetted fishermen on Galata Bridge seem to ignite in a crimson sunset. An Armenian textiles businessman sits back and sighs as the ferry carries him 10 miles out into the Sea of Marmara to his summer residence on Kinaliada, or Henna island. "The best commute in the world," he calls it.

Spectacular views at each end of the working day are one thing, but the hour-long crossing to the nominally Turkish Princes Islands also puts clear water between Istanbul's uneasy Armenian and Jewish minorities and an increasingly Islamic city which fell to the Fundamentalists in last year's local elections. "We do not know what this will mean," the Armenian whispers, "but it cannot be good news. More and more, the islands are where we feel most comfortable, and the one place where we can speak our own language without fear of raising Muslim eyebrows."

Holiday visitors are also taking refuge on these islands - from a booming city that can be as exhausting to explore as it is unquestionably exhilarating. Taking the ferry from the heart of Istanbul to the Princes Islands is to journey from crush to calm and concrete to clapboard. Istanbul's beguiling version of the Long Island-New York relationship also boasts horse-drawn carts, passable beaches and, its trump card, an idiosyncratic, time-warp grace untouched by Turkey's dramatic tourism boom of the last decade.

We drop the textiles businessman at Armenian Kinaliada, and unload islanders, vegetable salesmen and even rolls of loft insulation at ethnically-mixed Burgazada and Heybeliada (Saddle Bag Island) en route to Jewish Buyukada, or the four-mile-long "Big Island". The ferry grinds against a pier with ornate Art Deco and Arabesque lines. Since becoming the place of exile for upstart pretenders to the Byzantine throne a thousand years ago, the islands have gone their own, eclectic way. A road strewn with horse dung leads through a village between oleanders, rounded, pastelled and peeling Art Nouveau balconies, and wooden facades apparently inspired by everything from Gone With the Wind to the Bates house in Psycho.

At the Splendid Palas Hotel, there are enough acres of parquet, grand piano-littered reception rooms and period French notices such as 1er etage and caisse to put a holidaying Poirot at ease. From the early years of the century, the manager explains, the island was more like an offshore playpen which attracted everybody from princes to politicians, heiresses to war heroes, and Trotsky to Johnny Weissmuller. "They say that the jazz evenings and regattas put even the European rivieras in the shade," he says. The many other hotels that once graced the island - the Lido, the Savoy, the Hotel des Etrangers and others - confirm the island's pre- eminence between the belle epoque and the jazz age. Just two hotels survive.

Buyukada's heyday may be long gone, but the atmosphere of period indolence remains. During next morning's breakfast on the terrace overlooking the water, a group of elderly women, smoking through cigarette holders, sweeps up the hotel steps and settles down among the pot plants. "The belle epoque gone?" exclaims one woman in heavily-accented English, smiling through the cracks in her rouge. "Not here," she cackles, and invites me to join them for a few rubbers of bridge. In my shorts and T-shirt, I fear I hardly look the part and decline the offer. Instead, I hire a bicycle and set out to explore.

As I cycle, views of the sea and of distant Anatolia appear among the pines. A steep pathway leads me between bushes to which countless shreds of paper, cloth and even plastic bags have been tied, more like a hurricane among the household rubbish than votive rags leading to the island's renowned Church of St George. Nowhere else in Turkey do churches and synagogues outnumber local mosques as they do here, and among icons, samplers and pictures of St George slaying the dragon only coins and bank notes crammed inside the picture frames remind me that I am on Turkish soil.

A nearby track leads down to a hidden village above the sea. Here, the grand wooden houses have given way to shacks constructed from driftwood and PVC: the homes, repair shops, smithies and stables of the phaeton drivers. In a room barely six foot square, furnished by a gas stove and a bed fashioned from an old wooden palette, Cemal makes me tea. A Turk from Central Anatolia, he has worked on the island for 20 years. I wonder whether he resents the disproportionate wealth on Buyukada. He thinks for a moment before telling me that the islands are too quiet for anybody to trouble about such things. "Still," he adds, "I bet nobody in the big houses has offered you tea." True. On their gingerbread-style verandahs, the wealthy residents seem too busy combing their spaniels.

Later, I join a boat plying between the islands. At Heybeliada, starched white cadets from the island's Naval Academy heading for leave in Istanbul wait to board while draining boards, carts of mineral water and items of heavy mahogany furniture are disembarked. Here, I ride in a phaeton up Refah Sehitler Street. This is one of the islands' most beautiful streets where Bohemian style oozes from behind the flaking clapboard. "Victims of Prosperity," marvels the phaeton driver at the street's name. "If this is victimisation, give me some," he laughs; all this indolence seems to sap any possible sense of resentment. More than that, as I soon discover, even the effort of accepting payment for the ride seems beyond this particular phaeton driver.

An idle weekend soon passes exploring, eating fish by the quayside, popping between the islands and marvelling at the woodwork. As I return to Istanbul in another magical sunset, the city seems very noisy indeed.

How to get there

Direct scheduled flights to Istanbul are operated from Heathrow and Manchester by Turkish Airlines. Discounted fares on these flights are available with agencies such as Data Travel (01424 722394) - pounds 238 incl. tax. The same agent sells charter tickets to Istanbul on Sabre for pounds 139.

Ferries from the islands leave Eminonu near Galata Bridge regularly and cost about pounds 1.50 for the return journey.

How to get around

Travel between the islands is free. Bikes can be hired in Buyukada's main square for about pounds 3 a day.

Where to stay

The not-to-be-missed Splendid Palas Hotel on Buyukada (00 90 216 382 6950), which costs about pounds 20 per person per night for B&B in the low season. The characterful but run-down Ideal Pansiyon (00 90 216 382 6857), also on Buyukada, at pounds 6 per person is a cheaper option.

Who to ask

Turkish Tourist Office, 170 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DD (0171-629 7771).

What you need

A Turkish visa, obtainable upon arrival for pounds 10.