Turkey’s forgotten paradise
Ihadn’t expected distinctive Thirties architecture. Nor had I foreseen so many trees, or so many reminders of Nantucket, the Amalfi coastline, California… An hour on the steamer from Istanbul and I was among the Princes’ Islands, a set of nine verdant outcrops in the Sea of Marmara that have been inhabited since antiquity. My companion for the day was Gursan Ergil (pictured right), one of Turkey’s leading garden designers with an international portfolio – a recent commission was for a garden at the new Turkish embassy in Mongolia. Gursan is a native of Buyukada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands, and while he keeps the family house there in order as a summer retreat, he works from a studio at home on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Earlier this year he showed me the steeply rising seventerraced garden he has so sympathetically remodelled for a prominent local family at Bebek, a chic village on the European side of the strait, some 10 miles north of Istanbul’s heaving heartlands.
Apart from minimal essential services, there are no petrol-driven vehicles on any of these islands – it’s clip-clop only, and Buyukada’s taxi rank, a few strides from the Ottomanstyle ferry terminal, has the whiff of an Irish horse fair. Silence rules, broken only by the hum of electric bikes, seagulls, the odd wheelie suitcase and the rumble of pavement refrigerators, displaying ice cream and the trawlerman’s morning catch.
We set off on foot, shaded on an unseasonably hot November morning by plane trees and lofty acacias. “This,” said Gursan, “is how the streets of Istanbul looked when I was a boy.” Those streets are less leafy today, and pressure on existing urban green spaces is intense. Last year it was a plan to develop Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square, Istanbul’s hub, that provided the initial spark for the waves of protests that continue to rock the country. In July, activists and frightened onlookers (myself included) fled to escape tear gas and water cannon.
Shade is paramount on Buyukada and its widespreading cedars, some cloaked with bougainvillea, are reputedly Istanbul’s healthiest and largest. Alas the same cannot be said of its palms, some of which, like those being treated along the French Riviera, are dying from a disease brought by a red bug approaching the size of a Turkish lira coin.
Fine cedars shade Çolak Villa, a striking early Thirties residence with an almost purely green garden that seems to have dragged its anchor from Mussolini’s Rome. Cypresses, yew and clipped pittosporum hedges are enlivened with wisteria, threads of Virginia creeper and a few token scarlet geraniums. Indeed, Çolak was built by an Italian architect, for the grandparents of Nazim Unsal who lives here during the summer with his family, his parents and his brother’s family. Like so many Turkish gardens, where space permits, there’s a small bostan or vegetable garden at the top, out of sight, close to redundant stables, newly planted on my November visit with broad beans and lettuces against beds of rocket, parsley and rosemary. The gritty and slightly acidic soil is of a rich foxy hue – a characteristic enshrined in the name of nearby Kinaliada (Henna Island), where cliffs rising from a cobalt sea are the same red.
Our next garden was even more of an intact period piece. Dervish Villa is close to where Trotsky lived in exile for four years from 1929 and where he began his history of the Russian Revolution. The house was built in the late Fifties by Sedad Hakki Eldem – Turkey’s Le Corbusier – who also designed the garden and garden furnishings (lamps, seats, pool, steps), in one sweep.
Eldem knew his geology, and designed the villa to withstand earthquakes without serious damage. Neslihan Taki lives there now and, rare among Turkish women I have met, is herself something of a horticulturist, skilfully maintaining her clifftop