Turkey's Bozcaada's island draws visitors with its history and viniculture

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In the eastern Aegean, just a few hours’ sail from the mouth of the Dardanelles, lies a small, wedge-shaped island that echoes with chords of history. In Vergil’s Aeneid, the epic tale by Rome’s greatest poet, it is said to be where a sly Greek army hid their fleet after leaving their legendary equine gift at the shores of ancient Troy. In the First World War, the British built an airstrip there, using it as an outpost during the Allies’ abortive Gallipoli campaign. After Turkey’s war of independence, it was handed back to the Turks.

Today Bozcaada is known for its warm, dry climate, steady sea breeze and wine, as grapes have flourished there since antiquity. One-third of the island’s 40 sq km – and 80% of its farmland – is now covered in vineyards. Alongside the three main varietals of Karasakız, Altı nbaşand Karalahna, farmers now plant European grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and its wines are slowly drawing international attention, as travellers and connoisseurs visit and write up their experiences.

Off the Mainland

The island’s second asset is its sand. In the summer months, its population of less than 3000 swells to 10,000 as foreign tourists – mainly German, British, French and Dutch – arrive to enjoy the quiet splendor of its beaches, sip local wine, lounge in the sun or explore the island’s historical sites. Most stay in small guest houses rather than large hotels, in keeping with the island’s hushed and intimate character. Another feature visitors tend to notice is a constant, gentle wind blowing from the north. “The island is never still; you feel like you are sailing,” Deniz Barlas, a local painter, told the New York Times. In fact, this air stream – called the Etesiansin Greek and flowing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean – made the island important prior to the advent of windward sailing, as ships powered by rowers could not sail north through the Turkish straits and waited favourable winds at Bozcaada.

Today, these same winds make the island a comfortable respite from the intense heat of Turkey’s more well-known tourist haunts like Bodrum, Didyma and Antalya. The average temperature is 14°C and during the summer it is typically a few degrees cooler than the mainland. It is also closer to Istanbul – a seven-hour trip by car and ferry that is an increasingly popular holiday spot for Turks. Since 2012 direct flights by seaplane run from Istanbul’s harbour in the Golden Horn.

Empires & Conquest

 For those with a taste for history, there is much to see on Bozcaada. The island’s choke point location has made it a strategic spot since ancient times. In the fourth and fifth centuries BCE, at the height of Greek power, Athens kept a naval base there. It was overrun by the Persians in 493 BCE, then the Spartans in 389 BCE, only for Athens to regain it two years later. En route to conquests in the east, Alexander the Great sent one of his generals to seize it, who returned with a new alliance and 3000 mercenaries.

Over the next 15 centuries, it was controlled in turn by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese and Ottomans. Which group first built the majestic Bozcaada castle is disputed, but Mehmet II had it rebuilt after taking the island after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Visitors arriving by ferry today pass this citadel on the eastern shoreline, fringed with ramparts and a 250-metre-long moat to the south – all telling symbols of the island’s most desperate need: defence.

On the Grape

 Though records of viticulture before 1923 are rare, it is certain the island has an ancient wine culture. Coins unearthed there dating to the Hellenic era depict bunches of grapes – a symbol of the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine in Greek mythology. In the 16th century the Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi spoke of Bozcaada’s wines and by the 1800s the island was exporting 800,000 barrels a year, with its vintages known throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Wine was less successful in the early decades of the Turkish Republic, but the industry received state support to modernise in 1998 and has been making a comeback. There are now six wineries on the island, including Turkey’s largest wine-maker, Corvus. Many smaller boutique producers have also sprung up in recent years, so surprises thus await Bozcaada’s more adventurous visitors.

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