Istanbul (2010)

Horror on Büyükada

Day seven already! We get a boat to Büyükada, where a horror story takes place and a palace is close to collapse.

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Unfortunately the end of the weekend has also heralded the end of the good weather, because looking out of the window in the morning we are once again greeted by the now familiar grey skies over the city. It is a good thing we spent the previous day on the Bosporus, even though the weather will not hold us back from taking a trip to Büyükada!

To Büyükada!

For something completely indifferent, we walk uphill after breakfast and attempt to find a place to purchase jetons, the tokens needed to get access to the tram. We find it fairly quickly and in exchange for a few lira, we obtain four plastic tokens to take us there and back again. The first tram to arrive is absolutely packed, with people jammed up against the windows as if pickles in a jar. Just as we decide that it might be wise to wait for the next tram, the doors open and half the people come rolling out onto the platform as this is apparently their stop. Thanking our good luck, we hop on for the trip to Kabataş.

Once there, we see that the first boat to the Princes’ islands leaves within half an hour and the next one two hours after that. We were hoping to first see whether the nearby Dolmabahçe Palace was open (our guide says not on mondays, but after it brazenly lied to us about the departure location for the ferries, we refuse to believe anything it says), but decide to take the first boat instead. Waiting two hours in front of possibly closed palace doors is not our idea of fun and since the palace, like the Topkapı, is guarded by men in green uniforms with machine guns, storming the gates is probably not the best course of actions either if you value your kneecaps.

A few blasts of the horn and the ferry departs from Kabataş. From the back of the boat we have a magnificent view and not surprisingly, many families drop by to take pictures of the view or their children with the view. The boat first sets course for Kadiköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, before heading into the Sea of Marmara towards the Princes’ islands. We make stops at the isles of Kınalıada, Burgazada and Heybeliada before arriving at Büyükada. The sun is starting to break through the clouds and together with the calm weather, it makes the journey very pleasant indeed. After our first stop at Kınalıada, a few people on the upper deck start feeding the seagulls, so from there on our boat is guided towards Büyükada by about twenty birds swooping through the air for pieces of bread.

I will readily believe we have arrived at Haïti or Cuba.

Once on the island, we immediately find ourselves in the small city center with a few bars, hotels and ice cream stands. As it has warmed up quite nicely, we both get an ice cream with flavours such as kiwi, pistachio, cappuccino and caramel. Usually the cones are not really worth of mentioning, but in this case we have a choice of cone of which the upper half is covered in chocolate with nuts, pistachio, or colored sprinkles. The ice cream tasted excellent and notably, so did the cone. Enjoying a well-earned treat we pass the two most used modes of transportation on the isle on which motorised traffic is prohibited: bicyles and a horse carriage. It is quite unusual to be on a somewhat remote island and suddenly be surrounded by no less than three bike rental shops. We choose neither, however, and travel uphill (which other way in Istanbul) on foot to see what is up there and whether there is a decent view.

Soon we are out of the livelier city center and walk along a wide and quiet street with a number of houses—or I should rather say villas. When one street is lined by palm trees, I will readily believe that we have arrived on, say, Haïti or Cuba. We notice that despite the presence of many grand houses, there are also quite a few in varying states of disrepair. Especially many of the wooden buildings only carry traces of their original colouring and here and there we see some shoddily boarded up buildings that look as if they have not been occupied for a long time.

After quite the climb, we leave the settled area of the island and arrive in the forest that you can see crowning all of the Princes’ islands. Our arrival on the top of the island is only witnessed by a few horses and a few dogs, who seem mainly occupied with keeping the horses from wandering too far; a little while further we see two of them barking loudly at a horse to direct it back the other way. A small pathway from the thoroughfare, from which two elderly tourists come cycling who ask us whether we know where the nearby monastery is, leads to a decrepit concrete wall with an old iron gate in it. Behind it are the remains of what once must have been a full building—a kitchen and bathroom, by the looks of the furnace and basins. Some of the walls still have tilework on them and I cannot help but wonder if someone used to be proud of it when it was new and the building still there. A few yards ahead, the plot thickens when Vonne discovers a stack of petrified cement bags, gathered up as if someone once wanted to start repairs, but never did. The folds and tears in the bags were still visible, now forever captured in stone. It gave the whole scene a rather melancholic air.

A horror story

Back on the thoroughfare we spot the contours of a large building slightly below the top of the hill, and curious, we head towards it. It turns out to be an enormous, mainly wooden building that obviously has not been in use for years. There are no more windows, the wood is decaying everywhere, the roof has collapsed at several points and one side of the building has shifted downwards dramatically. The terrain is surrounded by a rusty fence on an old wall—in several place where the fence has been damaged or the wall collapsed, the hole has been covered up with parts of a bed frame. The whole building could easily feature in a horror movie and for several moments, I thought I had ended up in one.

Are these warnings? Am I not allowed to come any closer?

A narrow path leads between the trees upwards along the fence and while Vonne stays behind at the road, I follow the path. I am entirely alone and an eerie quiet surrounds me—even the sound of the birds deafens entirely. I approach the fence to get a better view of the building when suddenly a bird shoots away from the highest point of the building. With an almost unnatural speed she soars over the treetops, her wings clapping in the silence as if she cannot leave this place quickly enough. I carry on and see what must have once been the entrance to the building: two stairs leading up to the giant front door.

Once again I approach the fence, and this time the scream of a horse resounds—not neighing, but an actual scream of deathly terror or intense pain. The sound bounces off the rotten wooden facade, the rusty gates and long disused hydrants on the terrain. I cannot suppress a shiver. Are these warnings? Am I not allowed to come any closer? I make one last attempt. I kneel down at the fence and carefully aim my camera. My eye pressed against the viewer, I scan the abandoned windows when suddenly… a footstep on the terrain, very closeby! A deep, long shout that cannot be made by any human being! My heart skips a beat and as I lower my camera, I find myself eye to eye with… a chicken.

Now, if you think that this is the scenario of the bad horror movie I mentioned earlier, you would be entirely right—but this is exactly what happened. A short while later Vonne comes up the path as well and as we continue a walk around the fence, we speculate on what sort of building this could have been. A hospital? A boarding school? Possibly a hotel? A lack of signs other than the one which undoubtedly says something along the lines of “No entry on risk of getting buried underneath half a building” means we do not find an answer.

After this terrifying adventure we decide to slowly head back; also because descending on the other side also means a climb back up. We do take a different path back down the town and once again we can not help but notice the amount of abandoned buildings—we can only guess at the reasons. Perhaps Büyükada has more people leaving for the mainland despite having everything on the island? Who knows. In one alley we pass a beautiful house—no, a small palace with a monumental, column-adorned entrance with an amazing balcony on top. It has large windows and adornments in the masonry. It is also very much empty, there are no actual windowpanes and two of the columns have all but collapsed, requiring the balcony to be held up with iron girders. Right there, we would love nothing more than to buy this property and restore it to what must have been one of the most imposing houses on the island. To see it so dilapidated and overgrown is a sad sight.

And that sums up the image that we get of Büyükada: beautiful, stately, quiet and serene (although for an island that has no motorised traffic, quite a few cars do drive around: police, cleaners, island- and forest maintenance, some bus full of children) but also with a veneer of glory long gone. it is like seeing the high school beauty queen twenty years later with her first wrinkles.

Back to Istanbul

We arrive just in time at the harbour, because it has clouded up quite a bit and it starts to rain. We find shelter on a roofed terrace and decide to take the next ferry back and have dinner on the mainland. Otherwise it will be a very early dinner on Büyükada or shelter from the rain for an hour and a half before having dinner and then taking the last ferry. We do almost forget time while sitting on the terrace and upon discovery that the boat leaves in less than ten minutes, we very quickly pay, gather our coats, bags, camera and umbrella and dash off before we miss the proverbial—and actual—boat. We find a nice warm place indoors (it is getting somewhat chilly) and once again surrounded by a flock of seagulls, the ferry starts its reverse journey back to Istanbul.

There is one restaurant near the harbour that we want to try (admittedly, based on the cheerful sales pitch of the David Villa-lookalike outside), but it requires some strategy and planning to get there without running into one of the other recruiters who might recognise us and start a whole “Hello again! So nice of you to come back!” routine (unlikely given the amount of visitors, but we did hear from one of them that he had not seen us before, which was correct, so who knows). So after going around the block to enter the street from the other end (“Alright, make a left turn here, do not look across the street… alright, he has got his back turned, move now!”) we manage to get to our restaurant of choice unnoticed.

A tasteful dinner of kebab with yoghurt and sautéed lamb later, during which Vonne keeps on laughing about an earlier incident where I said the words “well well, so so, my my” as I stepped onto a loose rock, nearly fell over and the contents of my jacket pocket spilled out (exactly, I have no idea what is so amusing about that either), we head back to the hotel. Only one more day to go and our journey comes to an end!

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