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8 May 2012

Istanbul III: Adventuring

We were in Istanbul for five days and made two day trips during that time. If we had spent more time in Topkapı Palace, we probably would only have had time to go on one excursion, but the weather was so nice for most of our holiday that we wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors.

Kınalıada, the small island
The first adventure we went on was a boat trip to the Princes' Islands, a series of nine small islands off the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, of which four can be visited by boat. For the princely (ah hem) sum of 4L, or about £1.30, you can take a ferry from Kabataş (return tickets are also available) out to the islands, which takes between 50 and 90 minutes. We decided to get off at Heybeliada, the "saddlebag" island, which is the second biggest. If we had time, we would then get another ferry to Büyükada, the big island, before returning home. Each island has its own character: Heybeliada is mostly Turkish, for example, whereas Kınalıada, the small island is predominantly Armenian. Although the sun was shining in the city that morning, by the time we got on the boat, a thick fog had descended, which meant the boat trip was pretty chilly and didn't offer a particularly good view. In fact, at some points, we could hardly see beyond the seagulls that were flying alongside the boat.

Welcome to Heybeliada, the "saddlebag" island
The sun was out on Heybeliada, though, and we bought some bread, humus and other picnic supplies from one of the the few shops and cafes on the island's main drag. We walked up the steep hill out of town, past streets filled with crumbling, colourful, wooden mansions, which were faintly reminiscent of the American South or Central America. We hiked through the woods in search of the beach but most of the beaches seemed to be part of the fenced off military zone so we made do with a pontoon with a view of the Asian shore and the Sea of Marmara. We managed the full island tour in a few hours and then recaffeinated with a Turkish coffee at one of the seafront cafes. We decided to go straight back to the city, rather than visiting one of the other Princes' Islands, and the boat was so rammed that we didn't get a seat and had to sit indoors, rather than enjoying the more clement afternoon weather. If the weather is good, I would definitely recommend a trip to one of the Princes' Islands--most islands don't offer a huge range of attractions but if you're happy to walk, hike and, depending on the island, sunbathe, you could definitely do worse than Heybeliada.

View of the Asian shore from Heybeliada 
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Istanbul was so that I could swim in the Black Sea and having done a little research, it seemed the best way to do this was to take a Bosphorus cruise (12L) up to the town of Sarıyer and then travel by bus to either Rumeli Feneri or Kilyos, both of which are villages on the European Black Sea shore. The former has an ancient lighthouse (its name means "European lighthouse") and the latter is more of a fishing village, with plenty of beaches, so we picked Kilyos. Saturday was a gorgeous, sunny day and our cruise up to Sarıyer was much more pleasant than the boat journey to the Princes' Islands. Both sides of the Bosphorus are dotted with grand, colourful houses and small, densely packed villages. It was an enjoyable, 90-minute journey to Sarıyer, where we got the 151 bus to Kilyos, a precarious 20-minute journey through the hills (NB to pay your fare, you either need a travel pass or to find a local who is willing to take your money in exchange for scanning their pass).

Cruising up the Bosphorus
There were no signs to the beach or much evidence of a town centre, so by guesswork, we ended up down by the sea. Kilyos is very high up for a seaside town and finding a way down to the beach proved quite difficult. We had been warned by the guidebook and online research that the beaches were often rammed on sunny Saturdays but the beach club we reached seemed to be closed and the beach was almost deserted. Not that we minded. It was lovely and sunny and the sand was soft and warm. We almost went for a dip in the Black Sea but decided to find out whether we were likely to get any food from the beach club first. Even sitting in the "VIP" area on an unmown lawn, looking out into the sea through a dirty glass pane didn't detract from the faded charm of the place as we ate our sea bass and chicken. Then, out of nowhere, a bride and groom appeared on the beach and took some photos. It was a lovely, if slightly surreal moment, given it was clearly off-season in Kilyos.

Beach wedding at Kilyos
Unfortunately, by the time we got back down to the beach, that darn fog had descended again--surprisingly quickly--and although the sun was still out, it was suddenly much cooler and the idea of swimming in the sea was much less appealing. The sea itself was actually quite warm when I finally went in (not all the way)--all those winter training sessions in the Med have obviously paid off. We decided to walk back along the beach and, in doing so, found a beach that seemed busier and much less windy; we also found the heart of the village, with its little beach shops and restaurants. If you go to Kilyos by bus, keep on walking up the hill from the bus stop in the centre of town (don't go towards the market) and you'll hit the main drag and then the beaches--we went the rather scenic route!)

Actually, the Black Sea wasn't too cold
As there was only one boat back to Istanbul at the weekend, which left Sarıyer at 5.20, we decided to take a bus home instead. The 25E and 25T buses both go very frequently back to the city centre but take over two hours to travel ten miles. We had noticed that one of the stops on the bus from Kilyos was called "Haciosman Metro," which made us wonder if we could get the metro from there back into the city. My Time Out guide, unhelpfully, only gives the transport maps for the city centre and doesn't indicate that the metro lines extend further (a shame given this edition only came out last month). We were able to get the metro all the way back to Taksim, just in time to go up the Galata Tower at sunset. NB: The metro token machines don't take notes over 20L; luckily, someone took pity on us when we didn't have any change and let us go through for free.

The beach at Kilyos
If you only have time for one day trip, I would probably suggest the Bosphorus cruise and visit to either Kilyos or Rumeli Feneri. The cruise is worth doing in itself but visiting the two fishing villages, especially "off season," is a fun if sometimes surreal experience. Kilyos looks like it was done up in the 1980s and hasn't had much in the way of updating (or litter picking since then). Of course, if it's too cold for the beach, you might consider visiting Rumeli Feneri instead, or doing the three-hour full Bosphorus cruise, which gives you three hours for lunch at one of the towns on the Black Sea.

[Other Istanbul posts: introduction, getting to know the city, food and drink]

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