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Büyükada: the Writer’s Island

The Princes Islands, part 2

Since he became enchanted by the ‘Big Island’ 15 years ago, Owen Matthews has enjoyed its seasonal changes and watched its popularity grow – not least among soap-opera fans

  • Owen Matthews at his desk on Büyükada. Photograph: Monica Fritz

Büyükada, August 5, 2015

It has been 15 years since this island first captured us in its delicate web. It was early spring when we first came to Büyükada. White paint was peeling from the façades of the grand houses after a winter of sea winds and damp. The cafés were mostly closed, their windows covered with brown paper. The venerable Splendid Hotel was closed too, in the days before natural gas came to Büyükada, when central heating was regarded as a metropolitan luxury. My girlfriend and I had to make do with the İdeal Pansiyon, a tottering three-storey wooden mansion covered in precarious fretwork detailing that with every gust of wind trembled to be free.

The name was unconsciously ironic, of course, because in truth the beds squeaked alarmingly, the shared bathroom was covered in boarding-house grime out of a Steinbeck novel and our room inexplicably housed an antique Westinghouse refrigerator that rumbled all night. Outside on the balcony, clearly structurally unsound, the seagulls were as loud as motorcycles. Bed and breakfast cost ten million lira, charged per person per night like in a flophouse. But the proprietress was friendly and served us tea in a parlour decorated with old family photographs and dominated by a cast-iron stove connected to the chimney stack with wonky steel flues.

There was an odd stillness about Büyükada that we found bewitching, that charm of abandoned places that clings to off-season resorts, the sense that life is elsewhere. Back then the memory of the terrible earthquake of 1999 was still fresh. Spooked Stambullus had decided that the islands were in an especially dangerous corner of their seismic zone. Surely if that’s the case, I thought, better to live in a flexible wooden island house than a rigid concrete urban high-rise? I did not press the point. Rents were low. All our new Istanbul friends regarded the idea of living on the island as a sign of deep eccentricity bordering on insanity.

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Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 53
  • History on a plate

    Three groundbreaking archaeological exhibitions shine a spotlight on great Anatolian empires and their champions. Istanbul showcases John Garstang’s illuminating work on the Hittites. Berlin celebrates the work of Friedrich Sarre, who brought the Seljuks to life. And treasures from the Phrygia of King Midas head for Philadelphia

  • The Empire Unvarnished

    Luigi Mayer made his mark with lively, quirky scenes for the British ambassador to Constantinople, painting viziers and villagers, soldiers and servants across the Ottoman Empire. He deserves to be plucked from obscurity, argues Briony Llewellyn

  • Connoisseur 53

    London’s luminous Liotards, prayers on a shirt, bare truths in Beyoğlu, and a Biennial all at sea… Plus three lost Anatolian empires and their intrepid champions

  • Eastern Nuance

    The 18th-century Swiss portrait artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) is widely regarded as the first Orientalist. The four years he spent in Turkey from 1738, drawing and painting Western merchants and diplomats as well as Ottoman citizens, made him the first serious European artist to find his subject matter in the East.

  • The Grandest Vizier

    Few statesmen of the turbulent last years of the Ottoman Empire can have held more illustrious titles – at a less auspicious time – than the diminutive Küçük Said Pasha. David Barchard looks back over the eventful and chequered career of a man of many parts.

  • The Princes Islands

    Owen Matthews introduces our portrait of the Princes Islands, from busy Büyükada, via pretty Heybeliada, one-hill Burgaz and arid Kinaliada, to the haunting, deserted Yassıada

  • Broad Bean Feast

    Besides being quite delicious, the simple broad bean is nothing short of a little bundle of magic. Rich in minerals and vitamins, it contains the chemical L-dopa, which feeds dopamine and adrenaline to the brain and body.

  • Heybeliada: Notes on a Smaller Island

    Heybeliada is more compact and less showy than Büyükada, but just as fair

Good places to stay
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Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
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