After a relaxed breakfast the next morning at my hotel in Çanakkale, I headed to the bus station. Shuttle buses leave every hour for the village of Geyikli, from where you board a ferry to the island of Bozcaada. The bus ride takes about an hour and passes through some lovely scenery on the city’s outskirts. Narrow village roads wind their way through rolling green pastures and farmland golden with wheat. It was as pleasantly far removed from city life as possible.
At the Geyikli station, there was an hour’s wait for the next ferry. The cafe owner nearby let me store my luggage inside while I went down to the beach and dipped my feet in the cool blue waters of the Aegean Sea. Before long, the ferry had arrived and cars and pedestrians made their way toward it. Bozcaada is a popular weekend or day trip destination for many Turks, and the ferry quickly filled up. I took a seat on the top deck and outside, anxious to catch my first glimpse of the island I had so far seen in pictures only.
Half an hour later, the stone ramparts of the Bozcaada Castle came slowly into view as we pulled up to the harbor. Within minutes, we had docked at the pier and began disembarking. The main square, a short stroll away, was teeming with life. Cars are not allowed in this part of town, so you get around on foot, or on bicycles and scooters. I had reserved a room at one of the countless boutique hotels scattered across the island, and I received a warm welcome from the owner Nilay, a Bozcaada native. The location was perfect, less than 30 seconds walk from the main square. I stowed my luggage, quickly freshened up and headed out on to explore.
My first foray was into the local market stalls lining the walkways of the square, offering handmade crafts and delicacies. It was an alluring display of produce, including colorful jars of tomato and fig jams and garlic confit, boxes of almond and mastic cookies, sachets of lavender, alongside strings of shell necklaces and hand-wrought rings and earrings. The island is fairly small, and this side of town, Bozcaada center, can be covered over a couple of hours. To get a lay of the land, I strolled through the cobblestoned walkways of the Turkish and Greek quarters. The streets are a pleasure to pass through, with white-washed walls, window shutters painted in the brightest hues, colorful planters and chairs laid out every few feet, and just the general relaxed air of a town that knows how to balance work with life.
Eventually, I made my way to a hive of restaurants serving typical local fare. At one, I had a small serving of stewed squash blossoms stuffed with cheese; at another, I had a main of grilled fish. The cats in Bozcaada are very assertive! As I ate, no less than three kept coming by in turns; one simply stared at me with a disconcerting gaze, another placed her paw on my lap and her eye on my fish, while the third made a couple of failed attempts to swipe some food from my table. I hastily finished up and then went to explore some more. With curfews in place, shops and restaurants began closing around 8:30 p.m., and before long it was time to turn in.
The next day began in the nicest possible way. As a general rule, the traditional Turkish breakfast is a delight, with cherry tomatoes and olives, different cheeses, sweet and savory spreads and fresh fruit. However, at Elit Konukevi, the experience is sublime; it’s not just the food but also the way it is served. The hotel is managed by Nilay, her husband Mehmet and their son. I like early breakfasts and arrived before anyone else had. Before long, I was served with a veritable feast: a large bowl of cherries and apricots, a small tray of sliced cucumber and tomato, a silver dish of "menemen," orange and fig preserves, olives, pillowy buns stuffed with cottage cheese, a platter of cheese with strawberry and dried apricot garnished with poppy seeds and walnuts, and silky pudding covered in crunchy vermicelli. Nilay came over after a short while to ask how everything was, and I learned she had made everything herself. I gave myself over to an indulgent repast, fortified by endless cups of Turkish tea; Mehmet very kindly insisted on several refills, and it was difficult to resist an excellent meal with their warm hospitality. Theirs is a place where you feel genuinely welcomed and well looked after, as if coming home to family.
After breakfast, the first stop of the day was Bozcaada Castle. Looking for the entrance, I came across a market set up just below the castle walls. Teeming with people, it had a festive air as everyone milled about greeting one another and sought out the choicest items from the products being offered. Eventually, I found the pathway leading up to the castle drawbridge where I paid a small entrance fee and stepped inside.
Bozcaada Castle was first commissioned by the King of Troy to withstand potential attacks from the sea. Subsequently, it came under the Byzantines, and then the warring Venetians and Genoese. After a treaty in 1381 ended the conflict, the island was marked as a neutral zone; the inhabitants were evacuated and the fortress walls demolished. Then, during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror, a new fortress was built on the ruins of the old one. In the early 1800s, the Russian and British forces occupying Bozcaada destroyed the fortress, and it was not until the era of Mahmud II that it was extensively restored.
The outer boundary wall encloses an enormous green space that leads upward to the main castle door, just outside are the ruins of an old mosque on one side and an artillery room on the other. The doorway opens into an extensive courtyard enclosed within the stone walls. Steep flights of stairs lead into empty rooms within and up to the ramparts. The castle ruins, unfortunately, do not appear to have been maintained; grass and weeds grow wild and vines overtake many of the walls; while some of the artifacts discovered on the castle grounds have descriptions next to them to facilitate the tourist, there is no guide or other information available. It reminded me a lot of the ruins of Maniace castle on the island of Ortigia in Sicily, except that the latter was very well preserved and restored, while the former is largely unkempt. Nonetheless, it is a worthy excursion; once inside the boundary walls, you feel yourself entirely removed from civilization, and it certainly has breathtaking views of the sea.
Having been poking around under the hot sun for a couple of hours, I was ready for a cold drink and a brief rest. I decided to go to Veli Dede, an eatery in the heart of the main square. I ordered lemonade and an enormous chocolate cookie, which I took to the outside seating area where I spent a leisurely hour to the soothing refrain of blues music playing softly inside. Veil Dede is a family establishment and the current owner is the grandson. In addition to a fantastic array of deli foods and baked goods, they have their own brand of preserves, oils, beverages and even skin care products, all of which are developed locally.
After finishing up, I decided to walk up to the windmills; on the way, I stopped at a sherbet place for some ice cream, deciding on the cantaloupe, chestnut and sour cherry flavors. A winding road leads up a moderately steep hill, just at the edge of town. This is a popular trek for locals and tourists alike to watch the sunset. Luckily, when I went there were no more than a handful of people milling around. I sat down at the base of one of the windmills and leaned back against its stone wall. Stretching out before me was a panoramic view of Bozcaada Castle, lit up softly against the twilight sky, the town center below it, and the endless blue sea behind it. With no sound except the gentle breeze, a quiet settled around the place as the sky slowly darkened. An hour later, I reluctantly made my way back down and back to my room.
The next morning, I left immediately after fajr (morning prayers). I wanted to see Ayazma Monastery, located on the opposite side of the island and no more than an hour and a half away on foot. So it was, that with the streets nearly empty I set out at a brisk pace on the main road leading there. This would turn out to be one of my most rewarding experiences in Turkey. The road was completely empty, save for a car or two that whizzed past. The sun rose slowly up behind me as I passed beautiful stone houses, and vineyard after green vineyard undulating over hillocks. I was compelled to stop every few minutes to take in the scenery behind me, breathing in the crisp morning air and simply marveling at the beauty of it all. Eventually, the vineyards gave way to a road lined with pine trees that began winding its way downhill. Sometime later, I came upon a gorgeous looking outdoor restaurant, behind which was located the monastery. The latter turned out to not be what I expected, being only a single room edifice; it took no more than a quick glance inside.
Outside, I could just make out the faint sound of the sea as the road disappeared behind a curve, and I pushed forward. This is how I stumbled upon Ayazma beach, a fair sized strip of golden sand lined with beach chairs that was spread out just below the road. Talk about serenity personified. I walked along the deserted beach, unable to resist being pulled further and further away from the road. It was like being transported back into time, where I could expect a pirate ship to pull up to shore any moment seeking to bury treasure or run across scavengers hunting for spoils beneath the sands. Words actually fall short in describing how it felt to be in that moment, isolated and completely bewitched, with the sea beckoning me towards it.
It was with great difficulty that I finally pulled myself away, the only justification being that I had a Skype interview scheduled in less than half an hour. The owner of the restaurant above called me a cab, and about 20 minutes later I was in my room.
The rest of the day was fairly easy on activity. I found a bookshop, the only one in Bozcaada, with an excellent selection of titles in Turkish, English, German and Spanish. There I came across a battered old volume by Emile Zola; armed with this, I headed over to a cafe where I spent the next several hours half reading my book, half watching Bozcaada pass me by. Dinner that evening was at a fine harbor front restaurant that served excellent calamari and grilled kebab. Afterwards, I headed up once again to take in the view from the windmills and spent some time in quiet reflection before heading down. The streets were full of people ambling back towards their hotel, in obviously high spirits.
The following morning, I checked out after breakfast, picked up two enormous and sinfully delicious ginger-cinnamon cookies from a cafe and then made my way to the ferry station; Mehmet kindly accompanied me with my luggage on his scooter. As the ferry pulled away from Bozcaada, I was surprised by an overwhelming rush of emotion; discrete tears sprang to my eyes and it confused me. I realized that what I felt was pure, unadulterated happiness tinged with sadness at having to leave.
So, with a part of my heart left behind on an island in the Aegean, I marshaled my thoughts to the final trek of my journey ahead of me: I was going back to Istanbul.
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