A voyage on the forgotten sea

Passing through resorts that would not have been out of place in the old eastern Europe, Adrian Mourby climbs an island summit and sees the Sea of Marmora transformed
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The Independent Travel

Everyone's heard of the Bosphorus, where Jason nearly sank his Argonauts. They've heard of the Dardanelles, too, where Winston Churchill lost his battleships in 1915. But who's heard of the Sea of Marmara?

Marmara is what connects these two famous stretches of water. It's a shallow sea, no bigger than the island of Cyprus, and it's only there today because when Asia collided with Europe it dented and the dent filled up with water. Nobody visits Marmara much except Russian tankers on their way up to the Black Sea and Turkish holidaymakers who can't afford to go abroad. Places this neglected always fire me with the naive conviction that there must be something wonderful there, just waiting to be discovered, which is how I came to find myself last month stuck, on a cold, windswept morning, in Yalova.

If you have not heard of Yalova that's not surprising. True, it's a major port on the Asian coastline of Marmara, but not much else. The only people you see in Yalova are waiting to get on the ferry, or getting off and wondering what the hell they are doing there. People sit in open-air cafés, wrapped in leather and Polartec against the weather, their body language surly until you engage them in conversation. The café I found myself in was typical of Asian Turkey: kebabs, cheap coffee and pictures of Ataturk.

"You like Yalova?" asked a man with bad teeth.

"It's OK," I lied.

"You going to the Princes' Islands?"

"No, back to Istanbul," I said.

"You go Princes' Islands," he replied. "Very beautiful. Not like Yalova."

At that point, everyone got up and started for the ferry, a big white catamaran and the first thing I encountered in Turkey that left bang on time.

We moved almost silently out into the Sea of Marmara which was on its best behaviour, cold, calm and dark - almost black - in the morning sunshine. I was not in the best of spirits but who would be after five days on the south coast of Marmara? Canakkale was like Eastern Europe. Erdek and Bandirma were worse, so bad, in fact, that all references to them seem to have been deleted from guide books. I was so low that after half an hour I was reduced to watching Turkish football on a blizzarding screen with everyone else. Suddenly, I noticed a range of islands to starboard. They were forested and looked devoid of the concrete and industrialisation that has marred so much of Marmara.

"Princes' Islands," said the man with the teeth who had crept up on me. "Very nice." Then he began to tell me how, back in Byzantine times, the Kizil Adalar were where royal princes were exiled to stop them trying to seize the crown. Well it sure beat being blinded or strangled, which was the usual fate of usurping kizil in those days.

Then, just in front of us, there was Istanbul, unmistakable on the cliff-tops of the Bosphorus. This is a city that needs to be approached from the sea. The minarets and domes of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and the Topkapi Palace rise up in a line together, making it clear how control of these heights means control of the Bosphorus and Black Sea trade.

"Princes' Islands," the old man again reminded me as we disembarked on Kennedy Caddesi. He even showed me where the ferry to them departed. Once I was sure he wasn't accompanying me, I paid my 10 million lire (£4) and took the duckboards across three other boats to reach the ferry, Temel Simsir. It was a big, rusty old tub that had once been white and was full of men selling sweets, simit bread and little glasses of hot tea. There were also canny vendors on board offering gloves and hats against the uncommon April chill. The first island we stopped at was Kinaliada. I recognised it from my sea crossing. It has all the aerials - TV, satellite and telecoms - for metropolitan Istanbul. They erupt into the sky like 21st-century minarets. What was also immediately noticeable about this island, and the next two, was the absence of cars. The police have motorised vehicles but everyone else gets by on foot, bicycle, or by pony and trap.

The last and largest of the three inhabited islands, Buyukada, was where I decided to disembark. Trotksy lived here before moving to Mexico and getting an ice axe in his skull. Buyukada has a charming Art Nouveau pier, a central horse depot where the commuters' car park would normally be, and a phenomenal number of cats. I watched them try to mug a fishmonger as he set out his stall. After talking to the drivers in Carriage Square, I hired a barouche to the only destination they recommended, the monastery church of St George. This sits on the highest part of the archipelago, though my driver made it clear I'd have to make the last part of the steep journey on foot. We set off past some splendid houses owned by wealthy Istanbul business men. Their verandahs and porticos reminded me of antebellum mansions from the American South or the Addams Family's pile. In the 19th century, these islands became fashionable among wealthy Turks who wanted to escape the dirt, heat and noise of Istanbul. Now their country homes are in varying states of repair, ranging from a glitzy new pink, straight out of Dynasty, to a huge peeling structure where even Van Helsing would have feared to tread.

The church itself was at the top of a steep cobbled lane along which sun-bleached ribbons had been tied. These, I was told, represented pledges that barefoot pilgrims, Christian and Muslim, had made in summers past. As I hauled myself up this gauze-strewn incline I paused from time to time. The view back to metropolitan Istanbul, sprawled across two continents, grew more impressive, especially when I recalled that 15 years ago most of the Asian side wasn't built.

The sun was beginning to set as I finally breasted the ridge and found the Orthodox church of St George, a squat little stone building with a pantiled roof, well and truly locked. Disappointingly the ramshackle wooden café that overlooks it was closed, too. April is too early in the season for Turks. But then I caught sight of the view west from the church across the Sea of Marmara and into the setting sun. It was like something from the Greek Cyclades, with little black islands dotting the swath of golden, ribbed water all the way back to the Dardanelles. The old man had been right. This was a truly beautiful spot, made all the more beautiful because it sits on a sea that nobody visits.

A cat started to befriend my leg while below the muezzin reminded me that my driver wouldn't wait for ever. It was time to go back down, and to go home. My journey had certainly not been wasted.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled with Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.turkishairlines.com), which offers returns from Heathrow to Istanbul from £174.

Where to stay

The Movenpick Hotel, Istanbul (0800 898317; www.movenpick-hotels.com), has double rooms from £168 per night with breakfast.

For further information

Turkish Tourist Office (020-7629 7771; www.gototurkey.co.uk).

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