Enchanting Aegean island

By the time Turkey emerged as a modern nation in the 1920s it had relinquished almost all the Aegean islands it had administered during the Ottoman centuries. The likes of Rhodes, Kos, Patmos and Symi were all confirmed as Greek possessions, leaving just a pair of islands which Turkey insisted on keeping for their strategic location close to the mouth of the Dardanelles, the strait the Allies in 1915 had attempted to force before the fateful landings at nearby Gallipoli. One of these is Bozcaada.

Until the 1980s foreigners were discouraged from visiting six-mile-long Bozcaada for security reasons (though the fact that the Allies had used it as an offshore base during the Gallipoli campaign, and appear to have been made welcome by the island’s Greek-speaking Christians, may have also influenced policy). The result was to isolate Bozcaada from the transformation that tourism was then wreaking elsewhere across the Aegean. Visitors to the island, a forty-minute ferry journey from the jetty south of Çanakkale at Geyikli (three ferries daily in the shoulder season, more at weekends and high summer), may sense a place that only now has begun to catch up.

Bozcaada is a delight. It has one of the loveliest Ottoman-Greek harbour towns in the Aegean, and a good choice of small hotels imaginatively converted from former wineries, school buildings and 19th-century houses. All round the island are blissful sand beaches easily reached by hiring a bike, and the strikingly fertile interior supports a handful of flourishing family-run wineries including Amadeus whose wines are worth looking out for.

I was last on Bozcaada in September when the cobbled lanes of the town reeked of the ripe grapes that tractors were delivering in trailer loads to these wineries. One such lane, which ran between the grand facades of old townhouses, was where I ate at a taverna table beneath sprays of fragrant jasmine. A carafe of a rough island red from the local Karalahna grape was served along with grilled sardines and a tomato salad drenched in pomegranate juice. When the meal ended with the delivery to my table of a tray bearing a glass of water, a thimbleful of home-made cherry liquor and a shot of black coffee, I felt I was much further from Turkey than the eight miles separating me from the mainland.

Bozcaada has certainly woken to its own allure lately. Recent openings of boutique hotels, galleries and the designer bottle stores of the more prestige island wineries have lent the place an upmarket bijou feel. The town and its most popular beach, Ayazma, can be overrun in the summer holidays and weekends during the season.  It pays to time one’s visit and you’ll sense something of an intact Aegean bohemianism here; I spotted the words of the Sufi visionary Mevlana ‘Whatever you look for, look within’ – painted in cerulean blue on the clapboard walls of a shack. The island’s museum, meanwhile, is a treasure trove of moving memorabilia relating to Bozcaada’s history, and especially to the island’s Greek community which largely left on account of persecution during the 1970s.

Anybody visiting nearby Troy or the Gallipoli battlefields should include Bozcaada.  I’d stay in the faded but friendly old schoolhouse hotel, the Ege.

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