I have wanted to visit this Polish Village so very close to Istanbul for many years, so it was with great excitement that I happily accepted an invitation from fellow DE's, Borus and Enigma to join them in a day of exploration in Polonezkoy.
Our day began at the Kadikoy ferry dock where Borus made us all comfortable in his car before taking the road to the Polonezkoy. For me the journey is almost always as much fun as the destination, and that would certainly be true of this experience. We drove on a multi-laned highway beyond the second Bosphorus bridge marveling at the huge new and stylish apartment complexes, the high-rise office buildings and the fact that this amazing city seems to grow miles and miles between our visits.
I have always wondered if there was any place near Istanbul that contained traditional American-style suburban communities with single-dwelling homes. Our journey took us through the neighborhood of Kavacik where we saw elegant homes in beautiful gated communities. These were neighborhoods that would rival any similar communities in the US, and established for me that there is certainly a growing influence of the upper middle-class in Turkey. This fact was further confirmed when we passed huge new shopping malls and supermarkets, new automobile dealerships and the ever present tall building housing a multitude of businesses and industries.
Leaving the metro area quite quickly we were suddenly in a vast forest. I had not realized that Belgrade Forest was balanced on the other side of the Bosphorus by a forest of equal or perhaps greater size. We drove through forested hills, the leaves of the trees slightly kissed with golden tips of autumn. There were streams and lakes reflecting the fleeting blue sky and sunshine. Borus explained that these two forests were the lungs of the city.
Moving nearer to Polonezkoy we entered a wildlife preserve which is home to a huge variety of birds and other forest animals including deer. We did not see deer, but there were signs warning drivers to be aware of deer. I did see a magnificent pheasant beneath the trees near the road.
Our road had gradually diminished into what Borus referred to as farm roads. Having spent most of my life in a rural environment they were comfortable roads for us, particularly when we encountered a tractor pulling a wooden cart.
Soon we entered the official village of Poloezkoy. It is perhaps best to define this village by what it is not. Being somewhat suspicious I was prepared for a couple of blocks of buildings with European facades selling Polish trinkets made in China. There was no such "tourist" street. The center of the town consisted of a small convenience store and a large map providing directions to the many restaurants and hotels in the area.
Taking advantage of the forest it seemed that most establishments were set on large tracts of land which had been cultivated into well-tended gardens. There is also a walking path through the forest.
Now hungry for lunch Borus drove to the Oboro Restaurant. As it was off-season (my favorite time to travel) many restaurants, including the Oboro were closed during the week. Through some magic Borus had persuaded this restaurant to open just for us.
We ate outside on a covered porch over-looking a beautiful garden still sporting the lovely last white roses of summer. Borus explained that during the summer the garden would be filled with guests grilling the restaurant's meats over individual grills, while children played beneath the shade of magnificent oak trees.
We had the option of cooking our own meat, but Enigma suggested that we leave this task to the professionals because he was concerned that we would become so engrossed in conversation that we would neglect to pay attention to the cooking. This was probably a wise choice. Mr. BR set off in the garden with his camera and came back many minutes later with lovely natural photos as well as a photograph of several restored antique automobiles parked at the hotel across the road.
Our meal begin with a fresh shephard's salad and absolutely the best borek I have ever eaten, along with rich yogurt. Soon platters of grilled meatballs and lamb chops begin to appear along with spectacular french fried potatoes and grilled peppers and tomatoes. The platters continued to arrive until we were well-pasted having satisfied our appetites. Even then we ordered one more bowl of the fantastic french fried potatoes, and completed our meal with tiny glasses of homemade walnut liquor.
The restaurant owner was charming and attentive, and I felt more like I was eating at my grandmother's house than an actual restaurant.
We were then off to........another restaurant. This time we were in search of dessert. We made our way to the Leonardo Restaurant which was open for business. They were in the process of decorating this charming building for Christmas, and the entire restaurant, built exclusively from walnut wood felt very European with a glassed-in dining area to provide diners with the opportunity of viewing the gardens.
We ordered chocolate cake and tea. I could not believe I could hold another morsel of food, but seemed to have no difficulty eating a huge piece of cake, and following that up with homemade sour cherry liquor. That was so good I had to bring a bottle back to our hotel room. My original intent was to take it home with me and serve it on Christmas Day, but I think it might not make it our of our hotel room.
The Leonardo Restaurant is owned by the great-great-grandson of one of the original founders of the village, and as we enjoyed our cake he related the story of his village.
The story of Polonezkoy is lengthy and rich in detail and character. The tiny village was established on land donated to the Polish community by Duke Adam Czartoryski. The first settlers were soldiers who fought alongside Turkey in the Crimean War. Soon refugees from Poland arrived to escape from the occupation of Russia, Austria and Prussia who partitioned Poland in 1772 and divided the country among the three occupying nations.
The story of Poloezkoy is a story of two nations. It is the story of Turkey, who granted refuge to the men and women who sought merely the freedom to farm their fields and harvest their orchards. It is also the story of Poland, a piece of which was preserved in the heart of the Ottoman Empire during the same time that the actual country virtually ceased to exist.
I was so impressed that the people of this village preserved their own heritage, culture and religion in the home of a culture that was alien to them. After dessert our host led us up a cobblestone street to the Memory House, a small cottage once occupied by his aunt. Now the home houses the photos and memorabilia of the four generations who have lived in this village. The former occupant dedicated her life to preserving her Polish culture and kept her home open to young people so they could experience their own culture.
In spite of their dedication to their own culture, the citizens of Poloezkoy are proud of their Turkish citizenship. I think the words of Zofia Ryay best explain this unique situation. "We are in a strange situation. The homeland of our distant forefathers is on the Vistula river, but the homeland of our closer fathers is Adampol on the Bosphorus. Maybe I stated this incorrectly. Our homeland is Poland, and Adampol is Poland with its traditions on Turkish soil." [Adampol was the original name of the village which was changed to Polonezkoy].
Our perfect day ended with a drive back to the main highway down a different country road. Along the road there were dozens of picnic places with covered tables, playgrounds and acres of fields for games. Borus told us that during the summer these places were filled with people enjoying the tranquility of the forests of Polonezkoy. I am sure there were enough picnic sites for thousands of people seeking this welcome refuge.
I have spent many days in Turkey, but this was one of the most memorable. Borus was disappointed in the cool and overcast weather. I was not. The air was crisp and cool with the hint of winter around the corner. The flowers of summer had been replaced by the golden leaves of fall. The village was not hectic, but rather settling into itself for a brief rest.
Taking the return ferry from Kadikoy to Eminonu we marveled at the determination of a group of exiles to preserve their Christian culture and national heritage in a strange land, and we once again reflected on the hospitality of the Turkish people who opened their lands and their hearts to these strangers from a far away place.
As the sun set on the Bosphorus we were embraced in the welcoming smiles of the people around us, and were carefully storing our memories of our day in Polonezkoy. It is yet one more example of a culture I find to be among the most gracious in the world.
Mr BR and I extend our appreciation to Borus and Enigma for creating this perfect day, and we hope others are inspired to spend a day, or a relaxing week-end in Polonezkoy. There are many restaurants and hotels to welcome you, and now I will leave the task of explaining how to reach Polonezkoy to the real experts.