Unspoilt and cheap, can Bozcaada really be in the Med?
Saturday 12 September 2009
With Lesbos and Limnos shimmering in the distance, Bozcaada has all the hallmarks of a classic Aegean island. Certainly, the windows of meze on display at the harbourside restaurants would not look out of place in any of the increasingly upmarket Greek islands in the surrounding seas: seafood-stuffed vine leaves, octopus kebabs, squid under oil, tarama and olives. The only giveaway that my wife and I are not in Greece is the price of the sludgy black coffee that we're sipping, which costs the equivalent of 20p a cup. Like a reverse Midas touch, everything we lay our hands on is a quarter of the price of its equivalent in Western Europe. It's like being on a Greek island, only without the euro.
The tumultuous history of Turkey's sole Aegean possessions – Bozcaada and neighbouring Gökçeada – has been shaped alongside that of its neighbours across the water. Under its Greek name of Tenedos, Bozcaada sneaked into the history books during the Trojan War, when the wily Achaeans hid their fleet behind the island while their enemy succumbed to the lure of the Trojan Horse.
In the 14th century, the Venetians and Genoese squabbled over the island's strategic location, and actually went to war over this sublime 15-square-mile speck. Another sad bout of wrangling between Greeks and Turks in modern times saw an exodus of Greeks from the island, and left Bozcaada sealed off from the outside world. It remained off-limits to foreigners until the 1990s, which meant that it preserved its Aegean island culture. Meanwhile, the use of the Turkish lira here has insulated the island from the effects of a rising euro; a development that plagues many once-cheap Mediterranean hotspots.
The daily market that rings the central square of Bozcaada's only town (also called Bozcaada) is perfect for food-lovers. Piles of ruby-red cherries overflow in abundance and ping off the cobbled streets as they are weighed and wrapped up by the stallholders. There is feta cheese, tomato jam, grapes, pastries, and virgin olive oil decantered into a hotchpotch of plastic bottles. And on this implausible island you can both sample and afford every box of goodies on display.
The map of Bozcaada in the same square depicts an Eden covered with vineyards, with a cluster of wind turbines on the western tip providing green energy for the entire island, a trio of deserted beaches to the south and a surrounding sea filled with fish. But as we discover over the course of our time there, it's all true. Rows of vines drip down to the sand as we pull up to the remarkably empty Ayazma beach. A seaside vineyard is marked by a hand-painted "For Sale" sign. We learn the plot is on the market for around £15,000.
Being trapped in paradise is not on our agenda. Instead, we content ourselves with sampling the island's wines back at Bozcaada's harbour later that evening. The locals, who have had more than 5,000 years of practice, have honed their skills to perfection. We sit outside a local producer's outlet called Talay, where we taste six wines, then order four extra glasses plus a selection of cheese and nuts to accompany it all.
The volley begins with a local vasilaki grape, a crisp odourless white, and a karasakiz red, which comes chilled. By the time we knock back a red kalecik karasi and a white sidalan it becomes clear that the more difficult the grape is to pronounce, the better it tastes. This half-hour in heaven, including the purchase of two bottles to take away, comes to £20. A less personal experience in one of the co-operatives would be cheaper still.
Yet summing up Bozcaada on price alone would be churlish; it's also misleading. After all, bargain hunters in search of meal deals and cheap pints will probably be put off by experimental Aegean cuisine and modestly priced award-winning wines. The island is also relatively tricky to get to. Ferries depart every two hours from the one-ship port of Geyikli on the mainland, a bumpy minibus ride off the Istanbul to Marmaris coastal highway. (Blissfully free of EU health and safety regulations, the 75p boat ride also requires a leap of faith onto the harbour pontoon over a foot or so of clear blue sea.) But as a post-Troy sojourn or a stop on a Greco-Turkish Aegean trail, Bozcaada is blossoming into a boutique bolthole.
A pre-dinner stroll past the mosque to the Greek church confirms this. We weave past a hip jewellery store, a shabby-chic bar filled with antique armchairs and a 400-year-old mansion which houses our decidedly trendy guest house, the Gümüs Otel.
After a supper of fish soup, stuffed squid and local bream, washed down with an unpronounceable red (for about £20 a head), we discuss the Greek historian Herodotus's comment: "God created Bozcaada so that man could live longer." Your holiday cash should last a little longer here, too.
* Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; thy.com) flies to Canakkale from Heathrow, Stansted, Manchester and Birmingham via Istanbul. From Cannakale, ferries operate via Geyikli Yukyeri on Bozcaada (00 90 286 444 0752; gestasdenizulasim.com.tr).
* Gumus Otel (00 90 286 697 8252; gümüsotel.com.tr). Double rooms start at TL75 (£30), including breakfast.
* Turkish Tourism Office: 020-7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk
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