“Kalimera” (Good morning). I’m sipping a coffee in a café in Zeytinli on Gökçeada when a dark-haired young woman plops down at the table beside me and starts chatting to her friends in Greek.
And perhaps this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since once upon a time, as İmbros, the island of Gökçeada was as Greek as Samothrace, which can be seen from its highest points brooding in the distance.
Louis de Bernieres famously used the abandoned Greek village of Kayaköy, near Fethiye, as the setting for his wonderful novel “Birds Without Wings,” but Kayaköy is far from the only abandoned settlement that could have caught his eye. Near Kuşadası, for example, there is the almost equally beautiful and romantic Eski Doğançay, and here on Gökçeada there is Dereköy, once the biggest village on the island (and some say in the whole of Turkey) but now so sparsely inhabited that there are barely enough residents to gather the figs that lie forgotten in the cobblestone streets.
Kayaköy was abandoned following the population exchange of 1923 that obliged the Greeks of Turkey to “return” to Greece and the Turks of Greece to “return” to Turkey. Gökçeada was, however, like neighboring Bozcaada, exempted from the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne that concluded the Turkish War of Independence. The stones of Dereköy, then, tell another story, not quite so comfortably far away in history, because it wasn’t until first the Wealth Tax of 1942 and then the tensions aroused by the Cyprus issue in the 1960s that most of the Greeks of Turkey’s two inhabited Aegean islands finally decided that the time had come to call it a day.
The ruins of Dereköy, then, are not all as old as those of Karaköy, but still they make an evocative sight, the narrow streets full of ghosts who compete for attention with the goats and chickens of the small remaining community. Dereköy means “Valley Village” and the settlement is interesting because, unlike the island’s other, older villages, it straggles up and down the slopes of the hills rather than hunkering down on top of them. Two churches, both locked but in good condition, testify to the size of the population that once lived here.
Up in Zeytinli, a pretty little village with streets so steep and narrow that cars struggle to pass, the Rum (Greek) owner of the café tells me that only about 50 or so people still live there, most of them, it seems, making a living from selling “dibek kahvesi,” a version of the normal thick Turkish coffee that is made from beans ground down in giant marble mortars (dibek) rather than in a machine. I ask my taxi driver, Özkan, if he can speak Greek since he obviously knows everyone here. “A bit,” he replies. “I can understand some of it because I was born in Dereköy and lived there until I was 15. But my older brother [in his 30s] can speak it as well [as understand].”
Until recently, one of the most patently Greek corners of the island was the main square of Tepeköy (Hill Village) where a Greek name Barba Yorgo (Father George) ran a delightful pension and taverna in a village square shaded by an ancient plane tree. Now, sadly, the pension has been moved to a new location opposite the depressing ruins of the old primary school. The emphasis now seems to be more on the wine made from the products of a vineyard stretching out in front of it and served in the restaurant beside it.
The back streets of Tepeköy remain very picturesque, and I still remember an old woman who popped her head out and greeted me with an emphatically Greek “yiasas” (hello) some years ago. Now the house I remember as hers is up for sale. It sits beside a compound containing the church and the school that was once as much a part of a Greek religious complex as a medrese was of a külliye (mosque complex). Beside it, pretty stone houses fall away on all sides, offering spectacular views over Gökçeada’s mountainous interior.
Non-car-driving visitors to Gökçeada arrive at the harbor of Kuzu Limanı, whence they are whisked by bus into Gökçeada Town, the main modern settlement on the island with a population of around 6,000. There, a cluster of business-style hotels straggle out from around the main square, which boasts a statue of Atatürk in a top hat that looks curiously out of place in such a rural setting. Buses continue down to the sea at Kaleköy, where a gaggle of seafood restaurants and a small chapel gaze out on a fishing harbor.
For those in search of a beach, Kaleköy doesn’t really fit the bill, which means hiring a taxi to get to Aydıncık, where a long stretch of soft sand is separated by a spit of land from Tüz Gölü, a salt lake that attracts flamingoes in early spring. Choices of places to stay here come down to the stone-built Gökçeada Sörf Eğitim Merkezi (Surfing School) or Şen Camping, a ramshackle collection of wooden cabins and tent plots.
Across the far side of the island, near Uğurlu, there’s another small but not very inspiring stretch of sand overlooked by the enormous Mavi Su Resort, a hotel and cabin complex created out of what was once a government building and still looks as if that’s what it should be. For something a little more inviting, you should head for Şirinköy, 2 kilometers inland, which has wall-to-wall family-run pensions.
But the finest places to stay on Gökçeada are a secret best kept for last, and they can be found in Yukarı Kaleköy, the stone-built Greek village that huddles beneath the ruins of a Genoese castle whose walls once ran right down to the sea. Here, the Yakamoz Motel offers a truly stunning vista across its rose-filled garden to the harbor and the surrounding mountains. It would be hard to imagine a more inviting setting, although a program of village regeneration is about to unleash a whole new generation of pensions in pretty stone-built houses nearby.
At the same time, work continues on restoring the church that was once the heart of the village. The cartouche above the portico dates it back only to 1949, when those responsible for it could have had no idea how short a time their community had left on the island. Interestingly, the portico is lined with marble columns and capitals clearly taken from a Byzantine ruin, suggesting that as recently as the 1940s such pieces were still readily available for use as building materials. Right beside the church, the old Greek café has been beautifully restored and reopened for business. On the hillside above it, a workshop turns out scented soaps for sale in the Gökçeada shops.
Returning to the harbor, I was struck by one last detail: a sign proudly announcing that as of 2011 the use of plastic bags on the island had been banned. This, I take it, is part of Gökçeada’s praiseworthy espousal of the Slow City movement, which seems to involve a belated but nonetheless welcome nod towards the idea of sustainable tourism, something most definitely to be welcomed.
Where to stay
Both Yenibademli and Şirinköy are full of small pensions. Except around August 15, when Greeks return to the island en masse to celebrate the feast day of St. Mary, you should be able to find somewhere cheap to stay very easily. Anemos Imvros Resort, Yukarı Kaleköy. Tel: 0286-887 3729
Barba Yorgo, Tepeköy. Tel: 0286-887 4247 Club Masi Hotel, Eski Bademli. Tel: 0286-887 4619 Gökçeada Sörf Eğitim Merkezi, Aydıncık.
Tel: 0286-898 1022 Otel Özbek, Gökçeada Town.
Tel: 0286-887 3600 Yakamoz Motel, Yukarı Kaleköy.
Tel: 0286-887 2057 Zeytindalı Hotel,
Zeytinli. Tel: 0286-887 3707
How to get there
Gestaş (www.gestasdenizulasim.com.tr) runs daily ferries to Gökçeada from Kabatepe, near Eceabat, and less frequent ones from Çanakkale. There are minibuses from Gökçeada Town to Yenibademli and Kaleköy. Otherwise, those without cars will need to use taxis to get around the island. Borajet (www.borajet.com.tr) flies to and from İstanbul to the island on Monday and Friday.