Turkey’s best-kept secret
Is the little island of Bozcaada Turkey's best kept secret?
One of the secrets of successful travel lies in always turning adversity to your advantage. And so it was that, having missed our flight home from Istanbul because of a freak traffic jam on Bosphorus Bridge – topped off with being cheerily informed by airline staff that the next available seats were a full week away – when we happened, following a scribbled tip-off from a hotel porter, upon a happy Turkish isle that might otherwise have remained unknown to us forever.
For those who have comprehensively seen the sights of Turkey - who have trawled its Istanbul bazaars, plied its sandy southern coast, stayed in cave hotel luxury in Cappadocia and tramped its ancient remains at Ephesus - it might come as a surprise that the little island of Bozcaada, known in ancient times as Tenedos, roughly 15 square miles and home to a little under 3,000 people, is both so easily accessible from Istanbul, so relatively unknown even to many Turkish locals, and so entirely, deliciously divine.
Floating serenely in the Aegean Sea some 250 miles from the capital, Bozcaada constitutes a momentary pause in the clamour of modern life: a quiet, bucolic place of hidden beaches, cobbled alleys, whitewashed townhouses and old-timers playing backgammon on street corners. Donkeys browse in lavender-studded fields; fishermen haul in their daily catch; old ladies sip coffee on sun-soaked doorsteps; the pace of life is luxuriantly slow.
We arrive by ferry, unaware as yet of what pleasures await, from the windswept and singularly unpromising mainland harbour at Geyikli Yukyeri - home only, it seems, to two desultory cafes and a wide assortment of stray dogs. Which makes our arrival, somewhere near sunset, all the more marvellous. We gaze with astonishment at the vine-clad buildings, the riotous window boxes, the bobbing pastel fishing boats and the vast medieval fortress at the centre of town. We thread our way through the streets, each prettier than the last, to the small, quaint Hotel Kaikias, whose floors are wooden, whose beds are comprehensively draped in muslin, whose rooms are antique-clad and service is accompanied by a broad smile. We will rest up here a night or two, we decide, then head back to Istanbul to await our flight.
Even before we have laid down our bags, however, the little island has begun to weave its spell. Throughout the ensuing days we explore its southern beaches of Habbele, Ayazma and Ayana, splashing about in Aegean waves and watching crabs scuttle across empty sands. We clamber the Byzantine remains of the fortress. We eat well and often. And, more than anything, we slow down. We stop monitoring our watches and our email accounts, and relax into an island pace of life all but unchanged for centuries.
By the morning of the third day, we have decided to stay on for the week. In the afternoon, we rent a little local home in one of the prettiest backstreets, a tiny town-house filled with heavily lacquered antique furniture, glowering sepia photographs of ancestors and an aged television perfect for watching equally vintage Turkish soap operas. I head off to a local grocer's and return with vine tomatoes, sheep's cheese, fresh rosemary bread and salt-cured olives, along with a bottle of local wine. We sit out front, on stone steps polished smooth from centuries of just such sitting, and dine whilst watching locals pass by. That night, when we venture to a corner café for thick Turkish coffee, the patron greets us with a familiar smile. By day six, we feel we have lived here all our lives - or, if at all possible, would like to arrange to.
On our final Bozcaadan day (for now, at least), we visit all our favourite haunts. We stop for breakfast at Café at Lisa's, run by Lisa herself, a cheerful and enterprising Australian who also runs the local newspaper, then eat lunch at harbourside Koreli, whose kofte (meatballs) have been satisfying islanders for generations. After one last long afternoon on the island sands, we return to dine on a mezze feast at Lodos restaurant, then stroll to watch the sun set out over the sea. Heading back to pack our bags beneath those same glowering ancestors (who somehow now look less forbidding) we consider how the misadventure of an ill-timed traffic jam on the Bosphorus Bridge brought us to this hidden island paradise.
"You never know," we console ourselves the next morning, as we stop off for a final farewell cappuccino at Lisa's before boarding the ferry in the general direction of home, "Perhaps there will be a traffic jam this time too." Another week on Bozcaada, after all, would be the epitome of advantage over adversity.