The Turkish Aegean islands Travel Guide
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Strategically straddling the Dardanelles, Gökçeada and Bozcaada were the only Aegean islands to revert to Turkey after the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne concluded the Greek-Turkish war. While the islands’ Greek Orthodox inhabitants were exempt from that year’s population exchange, both islands were re-militarized after 1937, and the Turkish authorities began to assert their sovereignty more forcefully. Although a formal population exchange was never instigated, most of the islands’ Greek population had left by 1974, to be replaced by Turkish settlers.
Both islands have good beaches: the smaller Bozcaada is fashionable with weekenders from İstanbul, thus expensive, while larger Gökçeada is cheaper and more dramatic, with less tourism.
Only seven nautical miles from the Turkish mainland, and a mere forty square kilometres in size, the island of BOZCAADA (Tenedos) is less militarized and more architecturally homogeneous than neighbouring Gökçeada. Its gently undulating countryside, covered in vineyards, leads to near-deserted sandy beaches and pebbly coves. Lacking great sights as well as the pretensions of other Aegean and Mediterranean islands, it’s a place to wander and absorb, as well as eat and drink.
That idyllic picture tempts Turkish holiday-makers and second-home buyers alike, and the island can be quite overrun in summer, when you’ll need to book accommodation in advance. Bozcaada’s popularity may also prove to be its downfall, however. The little island is struggling with energy and waste issues, and there’s talk of dredging the quay to accommodate cruise ships. Meanwhile, Turkish customs opened an office in Bozcaada town in 2012, perhaps preparing for access from nearby Greek islands.
The only real settlement on the island, BOZCAADA MERKEZ, centres on a single, slightly scruffy square, just inland from the taverna-lined quay and its neighbouring castle. A surprisingly elegant town, built on a grid plan along a slight slope, it holds an atmospheric Greek quarter of cobbled streets and old houses shaded by leafy vines.
Among the largest citadels in the Aegean, the enormous castle that dominates the little fishing port and ferry jetty was successively expanded by Byzantine, Genoese, Venetian and Turkish occupiers, and most recently restored in the 1970s.
There’s not a lot to see inside its double walls, apart from remnants of two mosques and some Roman pillars, as well as various tombstones and an old army barracks. For anyone interested in geocaching, there’s a cache tucked away in a hole within the inner walls.
Bozcaada’s most developed beach, Ayazma, 6km southwest of town, offers watersports and sunbeds, plus four restaurants just inland. The next bay west, Sulubahçe, has good broad sand but no parking or facilities, other than a campsite well inland. Beyond, Habbelle is more cramped, with a single snack bar/sunbed franchise.
Inland from Ayazma and its abandoned monastery, another paved road leads southeast past secluded, sandy Beylik cove, and then above small Aqvaryum bay, tucked scenically to one side of the Mermer Burnu cape. Once past Tuzburnu with its lighthouse and sandy if exposed bay, the road swings north on its way back to the port.
Thanks to its breezy climate and volcanic soil, Bozcaada has been famed for its wine ever since the days of Homer – a two-thousand-year-old silver coin struck here bears a bunch of grapes. Around eighty percent of the island’s arable land is currently under vine, much of it the traditional grape varieties found only here and on Gökçeada, such as the whites Vasilaki and Çavuş, and the reds Karalahna, Kuntra and Karasakız. The white grapes are extremely sweet, so need to be fermented to almost thirteen percent alcohol. Local red wines tend to be rather tannic; the entire grape is left in the vats throughout the fermentation process.
Of the island’s six vintners, Talay, Corvus and Çamlıbağ have the best reputation; all have well-signed tasting boutiques in the Greek quarter. Corvus (wcorvus.com.tr) is the most prestigious, but also overpriced; at the other outlets you can buy decent wines from TL10 a bottle. The Talay tastery has its own wine bar upstairs, with cheese and charcuterie platters accompanying wine by the glass.
Turkey’s largest island, just northwest of the Dardanelles, GÖKÇEADA makes a blissful escape from the often overdeveloped mainland Aegean coast. Unpretentious and for the most part unchanged, it’s scenic, fertile and volcanic, with healthy pine and kermes oak forests, fields of oleander and wild thyme, sandy beaches with mountain backdrops, and springs pure enough to drink from.
Known as İmbroz until 1970, the island was taken by Greece in the 1912–13 Balkan Wars. During the Gallipoli campaign, it served as British commander Sir Ian Hamilton’s HQ, and an important way-station between Límnos and the battlefields. Handed over to Turkey in 1923, it remains an important military base, though its main claim to fame is its superb organic produce, especially olive oil, tomato jam, honey and cheese. Its summer tourist trade comprises some Romanians and Bulgarians, but mostly consists of thousands of returned Greek islanders and their descendants, especially around the main Orthodox panayır (festival) of August 14–16, when beds are at a premium.
Gökçeada’s small inland capital is known as GÖKÇEADA MERKEZ (Panayiá). A modern settlement with little character, it is the island’s business hub as well as a transit point for travel elsewhere.
Gökçeada’s northeast coast is home to the island’s small ferry harbour, at Kuzu Limani, and the seaside village of Kaleköy. Gökçeada Su Altı Milli Parkı, stretching between the two, is a national marine park where Turkish marine biologists are trying to revitalize the endangered black mussel population, which grow as much as 5cm wide.
Arguably the best (and closest) of several south-coast beaches, just 10km from Gökçeada Merkez, is Aydıncık, 1500m of sugary blonde sand lapped by warm, pristine water. The salt lake just inland is a major habitat for migratory birds, especially flamingos, and the entire area is supposedly a protected reserve – though this has neither prevented tourist development nor deterred Balkan tourists from wallowing in the shoreline’s black mud, said to have healing properties. Windsurfing conditions are the best in the north Aegean, so windsurfing schools cluster on the beach.
A paved road heads west from here, mostly hugging the coast, for 15km to the long, unsigned Kapıkaya beach (no amenities); another 5km leads to the marked (1km) side road to Lazköyü (Ayía Káli), a 400m, scenic, protected sandy bay with just a summer snack-shack.
There’s no public access to any beyond before Yuvalı, a further 9km, and even there you must patronize the beach restaurants of the sprawling Mavi Su Resort. The final beach, 3km west of little Uğurlu (Livoúnia) fishing port, is Gizli Liman, with no facilities but fine sand and a pine-grove backdrop. From Uğurlu a paved road leads back to the western hill villages.