Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 12/1/13 6:10 AM

Travel: : Heybeliada Island, Turkey

Islet in the sun

The writer visits a lovely Turkish island with no cars but plenty of shaggy dogs.

It’s a gorgeous morning, a brisk wind rifling the surface of the Sea of Marmara, the sun still in a mild mood though we have crested the mid-day point.  I’m on the deck of the Baris Mancu and I’m wondering if I’ve done the right thing.

I mean, Istanbul has more things to see and do than a few days` activity  can possibly warrant.

I have yet to see the Dolmabahce Palace, yet to stroll along the Galata bridge, yet to visit the Museum of Innocence.

So what am I doing on this boat, having taken an impulsive decision to head out to one of the Prince Islands for a day trip?

Is it going to be one precious day wasted, a day I cannot afford on my tight Turkey timeline?

Seagulls on the wing

And then my attention is caught in the most startling way.

A seagull flies low, literally beside me, and he (or is she?) seems to be looking straight into my eyes. I blink, in bemused fashion, then the gull moves in closer.

Omigawd, I think, shrinking, only to discover the bird has deftly taken the piece of bread from the hand proffering it, next to me. And then, as if to say thank you, it performs a graceful one-wing fly-past.

This, I decide, is NOT going to be a day wasted.

The cruise takes a little over an hour to reach Heybeliada  Island and I`m hungry; it’s all that sea air, probably.

So, the moment I get off, I go in search of lunch. This is the easy as pie: the dock has an array of seafood cafes and  bistros,  and I pick the one with the most cheerful awning (blue and white) and proceed to feast on what is possibly the best repast  of my Turkey trip.

I partake of some freshly fried fish, nibble on a lahmacun, which is basically Turkish pizza,  wash it down with a glass of ayran and top up the meal with a poncik, delicious pastry smeared with jam and dusted with icing sugar.  Replete, I am  ready to take on Heybeliada now.


Istanbul has cats coming out of the stone work, little marmalade kitties inside the Hagia Sophia, tabbies on ancient stone steps, fluffy white felines preening beside the statue of a lion at the Topkapi Palace, just about everywhere.

Heybeliada, I notice,   seems overrun with shaggy dogs, cute, solemn-eyed canines and feral mongrels alike.

Tourist attractions

There are two striking buildings  on the island. One abuts the jetty, the Naval Cadet School, on the grounds of which stands  the Kamariotissa, the last Byzantine church to be built before the conquest of Constantinople.

The other structure that catches the eye sits atop a high hill, looming above the tree line, the 11th-century Aya  Triyada( Haghia Triada, the Holy Trinity) Greek Orthodox monastery.


There are no cars on Heybeliada , thanks be.

I decline to take a phaeton ride and decide to explore the island on foot, all 2.35 sq kms of it, or almost all of it. Upon reflection, this really is the best way to see the place.

I pass pine copses at regular intervals, I walk past sloping meadows with daisies nodding their bright heads in the breeze, and every few hundred yards, I come upon smiling men and women who could so easily be Greek/Armenian, both from their attire, headkerchiefs  and weatherbeaten features.

These people are friendly and ready to chat but for the insurmountable language barrier.


 Ottoman houses

And a little felicity with words  would have gone a long way here.

Because I come across a row of clapperboard houses, stately residences but strange residences, some of them at least.

Quite a few of these Ottoman style houses  have half of their structure in spick- and -span condition and the other half is  flaking, worn, with shutters hanging loose.

Some of them had the nazar embedded in the door or hanging from a piece of ribbon on a window.

These schizophrenic abodes are intriguing as hell but there isn’t a soul around who can satisfy my curiosity in any language I can understand. Ah well, I think, there`s always Google.


So, on I walk, rubber-necking like mad.

The sun sends dappled columns down from the treetops. Mimosa trees shed their blossom softly and I walk on a yellow-petal carpet.

The air is not quiet; there is the noise of the wind in the trees, much birdsong and the occasional clip -clop of the buggy horses as they trot past, the swish of cycle tyres as bikers bike past. Every few yards, I glimpse the blue ocean, and stand transfixed.

Parts  of the isle are  a riot of flowers: blue and pink hydrangeas, giant orange gerberas, violet, blue and yellow wildflowers.

Heybeliada is a saddle between hills, the second largest of the nine Prince Islands  that lie in the Sea of Marmara, to the southeast of Istanbul. The largest isle is Buyukada, the others are  BurgazadaKınalıadaSedef Adası, Yassıada, Sivriada, Kaşık Adası and Tavşan Adası.

Today only Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliadaand Kınalıada  are open to visitors.


Isles of exile

These are  islands with a fascinating history.

Princes and lesser royals were exiled on one or the other island during the Byzantine period. Over the centuries, these enclaves  have served as prison, convent, seminary, retreat, school; now of course, they are  where the seriously wealthy come for some R& R.

Heybeliada has a summer and winter population. During the colder months, only about 3,000 people live here; in summer, that number swells to 10,000, when owners come back to their holiday homes.


All too soon, it is time for me to head back to the pier to catch the boat back to the mainland. Since I have time,  I settle down to a cup of Turkish coffee in the piazza, and  watch a well-dressed madman talking long and earnestly to a bust of Kemal  Ataturk.

And I reflect on the fact that  Edward Barton, the second English Ambassador to be sent to Constantinople by Elizabeth I of England, chose to reside on this island to escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.

Wise man, indeed, though one wonders what could have constituted h. and b. back in that day.



On the boat back to Istanbul, I am treated to another show by the seagulls.

This time a phalanx of them soar, swoop, dive in for the bread from many hands, fly in formation, generally keeping us well entertained.

Watching the gulls do their thing, I have an epiphany. Sometimes, a day spent walking on an island is just what the madly- dashing- hither- and-thither tourist needs.

This ran in THE HINDU of 13 Nov 2013. 

All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.

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Aya TriadaBuyukadadogs in HeybeliadaHeybeliada islandKamariotissa Byzantine churchlahmacunPrince IslandsSea of MarmaraTurkey

Sheila Kumar • December 1, 2013

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