Burgazada: a sleepy island get-away

After a whirlwind tour of Turkey, I was able to sleep in on Thursday morning. My friend Jini and I bumped our heavy suitcases down the spiral staircase of Istanbul’s sweet Kybele Otel, dragged them to the tram stop, and headed to the Eminönü pier to find the station for our one-hour ferry to the Princes Islands—Adalar.Ada” is Turkish for island, and -lar is the plural form. (Just sayin’.)

Oh, how I love the Istanbul ferries!

My friends Mark and Jolee Zola generously offered their apartment to us for the week, and I’d texted their friend Hamit about our arrival. No response. My fingers were crossed that he’d be there to meet us, since I had only sketchy directions to the apartment—and no key.

We were met on the pier by a gray-haired man with a Cheshire grin. Hamit greeted us warmly and led us to his little red electric cart. There was room either for our luggage or for one of us—an easy decision. He piled our suitcases onto his back seat and drove slowly enough for us to follow him up the steep hill to the Zola apartment, which took our breath away (in more ways than one).

Hamit saved the day! That’s our luggage in his back seat.

The hike was a steep one, and the place was bright, spacious, and filled with lovely Turkish carpets and pictures. Home for a week, with an airy terrace and garden to boot.

Burgazada is a sleepy little island of about two square miles with a population of about 1200, which swells to ten times that in the summer. The island is like the top of a mountain, covered with trees except for the north side, which faces the big city. It’s odd to stand in silence among the trees and face a view of thousands of concrete buildings across the water (4 miles away).

Jini revels in the joys of nature with a bustling Istanbul in the distance.

Burgazada features picturesque Ottoman houses interspersed with 2 to 5-story apartment buildings climbing the hill above the water.

A matched pair of Ottoman houses, one refurbished and one needing some love.

There’s also a Greek Orthodox Church at our end of the town and a mosque at the other end.

The dome of the Greek Orthodox church just below our apartment.

There are also cats, which are both fed and hated by the locals. Yesterday one scratched a hole in our terrace screen (the little bastard).


This cat-sized hole is reminiscent of our red squirrel screen holes in Minnesota, only bigger.

Could this have been the culprit?

No cars are allowed on the islands (except for fire trucks and government vehicles), but the horse carriages of yesteryear have been replaced by a bevy of small electric carts. Horses did all the hauling and transportation on the island the last time I was here (2013), but in past years concerned citizens have protested the misuse of horses, especially with the steep streets on the islands.

This tourist cart carries people to a little outdoor restaurant on the back of the island.

Apparently the life expectancy of an island horse is two years after being enlisted to pull a carriage, so the government ruled to end their use. A few horse carriages are still available for tourist use, especially on the weekends. There’s a little “taxi stand” down by the dock; a short ride within the town is 30 lira (about $5), and a full tour of the island is 100 lira.The downtown taxi stand on Burgazada on the weekend. During the week there are only a few carriages at the ready, but on the weekend there are plenty.

Long ago there were as many stray horses as cats on the island, but we’ve only spotted a few as we’ve wandered the island.

We came across this fellow browsing in a park down the road on our first day.

Friday morning we walked down to the weekly street market, where we made a killing on FABULOUS vegetables, fruits, and cheese—more than we’ve been able to consume, and for a mere $20. The ailing lira has been to our advantage, though it’s devastated the Turks. When I lived here the lira was about the same as a Canadian dollar, ranging between 70¢ and 80¢. Now a lira is worth a whopping 16¢. Turkey is in a severe recession since the attempted coup in 2016, and the lack of tourists has made it all the worse.

Jini attempts to communicate with Yaşar, a singing vendor at the market. Below a dopey video I took of him singing. I’m a little challenged with videography, as you can see. Yaşar was singing, “Tomato, avocado.”

We’ve hiked most of the island as well as Kınalıada, a smaller and sleepier island next door to this one. That, too, has a high peak in the middle, and we hiked over the top and around the side. Though it was only about a three-mile hike, it was grueling (and hot).

Here’s a view of the back side of Kınalıada, just beyond a deserted beach area. I expect it will be busy come June.

We’d brought a picnic lunch, and we stopped to buy some icy water after we reached the peak for the second time (on our way back). When we got back down to the city side, we pulled off our shoes to cool our throbbing feet in the sea, which felt like Lake Superior in the summer. Cold.

Jini dries her feet after their frigid plunge into the Marmara. Pebble beach, like Lake Superior.

Saturday night my friend Julide (Julie Day) came out to the island, suggesting we attend a spring festival on the next island of Heybiliada: the Hıdır Ellez. Jini was coming down with a cold, so Julide and I went alone to enjoy a beer and mezes followed by an evening of music, dancing, singing, and watching other celebrants jump over the bonfire. My goodness! Sadly, the last ferry left at 8:45, which made our night a short one.

Julide and I pose with a woman we’d met while dancing. We’re squatting as a part of the festivities.
After dark there were scores of people jumping over this bonfire right on the street.

I also took Jini to tour Robert College, which impressed her immensely. It’s a stunning park-like campus, and I was tickled to chat with former teaching compatriots Cyrus, Jamison, Jake, Myra, and Alison. Cyrus showed us some major improvements to the campus, which was already gorgeous. When I mention to Turks that I taught at Robert College, eyebrows are raised. 

Gould Hall, on the Robert College campus
Robert College now has this bright, open cafeteria instead of the old basement one.

We finished our tour with a mile walk to Ortaköy, where we visited the newly-refurbished Ortaköy Mosque. Because it was the first day of Ramazan, we had to wait until the noon prayer was over then were allowed in. The main part of the mosque is alight from both windows and stunning chandeliers—only for the men. The women’s room is dull and unexciting. What does that say?

Here’s where the men pray…
…and the women at least get a few windows.

We also indulged in kumpir, the local baked potato mashed with butter and cheese, then topped with an array of items like corn, sausage, olives, pickles, mushrooms, tapenade, and other delicious items. I’ve never finished one before, but I cleaned that one right up. My belly felt like after a Thanksgiving dinner, but oh, well. It was delicious.

Jini gleefully accepts her kumpir, a baked potato with all the fixings.
Here’s a close-up of my kumpir.

So ends this sojourn. I have a 4:15 AM flight, and I plan to catch the midnight bus from Sultanahmet to the New Istanbul Airport. Rumor has it that Erdoğan built this airport because he wants to abolish any references to Ataturk, his nemesis. The older (very adequate) airport is called Ataturk. That’s a $12 billion expense to erase an old foe. Hmmm…

Supposedly this will be the largest airport in the world once it’s finished. People are up in arms over the expense, especially after he spent over a billion dollars on his 1000+ room presidential palace. The heck with the unemployed.

Well, I still love this country. Farewell, Turkey…until next time.

Last days in Istanbul—for now…

We had three more days in Istanbul, and our arrival was daunting, at best. Our driver, Sabahattin, performed valiantly, but the Sultanahmet traffic was chock-a-block. We spent nearly an hour to go three blocks. At least it felt like it. Five of us hopped off the bus about four blocks from our hotel so we could arrange rooms before luggage and other travelers arrived.

It’s faster to go on foot, even with a load.

We had less than half an hour to gussy up for an exclusive dinner Tom Olson had arranged. And oh—what a dinner! We weary travelers looked pretty classy for our trip to the Mikla Restaurant, rated #38 of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Yup, the world. It’s on top of the Marmara Pera Hotel near Taksim and absolutely fabulous. We started with a quick peek into the nearby Pera Palas, a Neo-classical hotel that dates back to the 19th century. We oohed and ahhed at its fabulous decor: heavy draperies, glittering chandeliers, and ornate carved wood. Ataturk stayed there, as did Agatha Christie when she wrote Murder on the Orient Express. It’s just been renovated, and it’s a masterpiece.

Susie, Marnie and Jane pose in front of the Pera Palas’ classic elevator.

We were early for dinner, so we imbibed in a glass of wine before boarding an elevator for the top story. We were led through the restaurant to an open terrace overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea.

My dopey movie of the Bosphorus from the top of the Marmara Pera

If the view wasn’t enough to knock us off our feet, dinner was beyond compare. We were served numerous hors d’oeuvres like a whole-grain cracker topped with seasoned hummus and thinly-sliced radishes, and an anchovy baked onto a wafer-thin cracker with a heavenly sauce. Oh, and the bread—my goodness! Their whole grain bread was sumptuous and crusty with heavy olive oil for dipping.

Our radish hors d’oeuvre on hand-made whole grain cracker.


Anchovy filets baked onto a light pastry crust with a dipping sauce.

My first course was a 6-inch prawn served with seasoned seaweed, a tart/sweet red sauce and“şeker bean” hummus. YUM!

Oh, the prawns!

For the second course Susie and I shared a beef rib steak, rare, served with chard, mushrooms, artichoke, asparagus, and a reduced wine sauce. Oh, heaven! We couldn’t eat it all and hope the remains went to a worthy devotee.

Our rib steak, already half devoured–mustard sauce on the side.

My dessert, recommended by the waiter, was Buffalo Yogurt: a dollop of mint and molasses-flavored yogurt topped with strawberry sorbet and sugared walnut crumbles. It was a clear winner (we tasted each other’s desserts and mine was the best).

This may not look all that delectable, but it WAS! (Yogurt and sorbet rock.)

I give Mikla an easy 11 out of 10. Thanks, Tom!

The next few days I breezed small groups through three of my four walks, and I’ll share a few highlights. First of all, I know all too well that prices are higher in the Grand Bazaar because those 4000+ shops have a high overhead. I bought Turkish towels there anyway. At least I checked with a few vendors to get the best prices, and my friends followed suit. As we trekked the back streets behind the bazaar, we found the same items at a third of the price. Blush…

Rondi and Jane struggle to choose the finest Turkish towels in a Grand Bazaar shop.

We also stumbled across a man using  a funny little machine that looked like a coffee grinder. Actually, he was squeezing the oil out of black cumin seeds. They resemble poppy seeds or black sesame seeds, and the press puts out a core of black, hardened hulls pressed together into a tube. We were fascinated. The man explained that the oil (which looks like coffee) is good for your skin and for fixing stomach problems. He tried to sell some to us, but we passed.

The black cumin press.
A black tube emerges from the press.

I was excited to show my friends the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, but it was closed for renovation—BUMMER! I brought them down to a little spice wholesaler I know just below the mosque, where we all bought a number of spices.

Ulve Bey’s spices, outside his door.

Ulve’s son charged us 30 lira ($5) for a kilo of pul biber (a favorite Turkish spice like shaved pepper, but not so strong), and later I found it at a spice market near our hotel for 160 lira ($27) a kilo. More than five times the price. That’s why you should bargain in Turkey. It didn’t quite make up for the cost of our towels, but heck—I did my best.

Jini waits patiently outside while we shop for spices.

The next day we discovered a new museum in the Beyazit Hamam, which had been closed many years for renovations. It was damaged in the 1999 earthquake, and it took twenty years to fix it up, but what a find! The foundation of the hamam included recycled marble bits from the Forum of Theodosius (which ran along that stretch), including an upside-down soldier.

Can you spot the upside-down soldier in this foundation?

The museum itself had room after room of artifacts from old hamams, and the original sinks are still in place, three or four to a chamber. It was fun to think of sultans, harem slaves and community members lounging in these rooms, dumping hot water over themselves and indulging in soap suds massages.  

Any self-respecting woman in the harem would stagger in on these shoes. Imagine!


The wimps might wear these instead.


People would sit beside these sinks and scoop warm water over themselves. Or slaves might do it for them.

We wandered on to the Istanbul University gate, which was festooned with Turkish flags. I think nationalism is building again, hopefully in favor of secularism. Everyone we talked to has absolutely had it with the present regime. Enough said. 

The famed Istanbul University Gate— tourists not admitted.

Our final adventure on that trek was a visit with Recai, the owner of a little shop in the bookstore han (Sahaflar Han). He’s in my guidebook, but I didn’t recognize him because his tidy black beard is now gray, but he welcomed us warmly, insisting that we have a cup of tea and chat.

The cayçi serves Jini her first street tea.

It was a real hoot for us, and the man from the next shop, Fuat, brought Sue, Jini and me a bottle of water. Of course, we bought a few things from Recai—why not?

The friendly (and handsome) Recai Bey in the Sahaflar Han.

After lunch and a rest we trekked up to the Süleymaniye Mosque, the largest in Istanbul. It was closed many years for renovation; what joy to finally visit this expansive structure. An interesting note: ostrich eggs hung beside the 2000+ oil lamps to attract their soot, which was scraped off to make ink for the Sultan’s calligraphers.

Though the lights are electric, these ostrich eggs bring back memories of ages past.

Another note is that the famed architect Mimar Sinan designed this edifice and used to sit in a corner loudly slurping tea. When asked why, he explained that he was testing the acoustics of his creation. Sinan designed over 300 structures between the ages of 50 and 98. His tomb lies beside this mosque.

The Süleymaniye Mosque as viewed from the courtyard.


The interior of the Süleymaniye Mosque—descending domes.

We finished with a cup of ayran (a salted yogurt drink) and a shared bowl of fasuliye, a white bean dish with onions, peppers, tomato and spices. It not only offered us a delicious treat, but a needed break for our sore feet.

Fasuliye, ayran and bread. Yum!

It was hard to say goodbye to our travel compatriots, but Jini and I are staying on for yet another week at a friend’s apartment on Burgazada, one of the Princes Islands. More on that later.

Farewell, dear friends:
Ann Marie, Tom Olson, Tony Paulus, Jane Johnson, Jane Hofkamp, Sue Nordman, Sally Nankivell, Marnie Paulus, Rondi Olson, and Jini Danfelt. Friends all!