Visit Istanbul's Hidden Polish Village
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this hidden haven of Polish history might not be around for much longer.
By Stephen Starr
You might think Turkey an unlikely spot to find a small, isolated community of Poles, and you’d probably be right. But that makes the village of Polonezköy — which has been popular with Pope John Paul II and other Polish celebs — all the more intriguing.
Nestled in the middle of a forest an hour’s drive outside of Istanbul — Turkey’s most populous city of 16 million — Polonezköy has become the place to escape to when city life gets to be a little too much. Visitors might want to check out this quaint and tranquil village soon before increasing government controls take effect that may erode what makes it so appealing.
Polonezköy was founded in November 1842 when Ottoman leaders offered a dozen defeated Polish revolutionaries sanctuary on a patch of forested land 18 miles northeast of Istanbul. At the time, their uprising against imperial Russia had failed miserably and, with nowhere else to go, the group set up a community known today as Polonezköy, or Adampol.
In the centuries that followed, Polish émigrés who fled the revolution, conscription and the Siberian gulag found refuge in Polonezköy, surviving by hunting deer and birds in the 7,500-acre forest. Over the years, its splendid isolation has attracted the likes of novelist Gustave Flaubert and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as well as Pope John Paul II, himself a Pole.
These days, its quaint restaurants, gift shops and historical buildings portray life decades ago, a time when the community was largely cut off from the outside world. At the center of the village, a group of hand-carved wood figures depicting the first Polish settlers occupies a park in front of the library and art gallery. Around a quarter of the community’s 200 residents still speak fluent Polish — some are even descendants of soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.
Polonezköy attracts hikers and history nerds looking to experience an unlikely slice of medieval European life.
Visitors can take in The House of the Memory of Zofia Ryży, a 19th-century cottage dedicated to the memory of resident Zofia Ryży and upon whose walls hang newspaper clippings and decades-old artifacts. One of the oldest homes of the village, it’s a piece of typical Polish architecture of the era. Agnes Modlinska, Ryży’s granddaughter, offers tours in Turkish, English and Polish (call ahead to schedule).
What makes Polonezköy especially interesting is that “there were many Polish émigré settlements around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they were assimilated,” says Marzena Godzińska of the University of Warsaw, who’s been visiting since 2005. “Polonezköy had kept its Polish ethnic and cultural character, at least until the 1970s.”
It was around that time that bed-and-breakfast establishments and other types of accommodations began opening in the village, and curious local Turks first began stopping by. Because the small hotels were run by Poles and not Turks, proof of marriage wasn’t required for visitors to stay overnight together, so young couples from Istanbul would sneak out to the village for romantic getaways.
Today, Polonezköy attracts hikers and history nerds looking to experience an unlikely slice of medieval European life — from tourists and locals from Istanbul. Its church and cemetery, which date back more than a century, and a school and culture center are cornerstones of the village’s Slavic identity.
“The best part about living in Polonezköy,” says Barbara Ohotski, a 30-year resident who runs the Club Adampol hotel and restaurant, “is that we are both in and outside the city.”
But at the same time, she warns, not all is well.
The best time to visit used to be during the local Cherry Festival, which was held every summer and attracted many of the 1,000 tourists who travel from Poland annually. However, in recent years the festival has been held less frequently.
“Since the village came under the control of Beykoz municipality [the district in which Polonezköy sits], funding for some events has been stopped,” says Ohotski, who wouldn’t comment further on the issue. Local municipalities run by officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have in recent years, however, sought more control over activities by independent groups right around the country. One pro-government newspaper even claimed that Polonezköy is now empty of Polish-heritage residents.
For now, holding on to their traditions looks like a new battle facing the Poles of Polonezköy. “Anything is possible in the future. Many of the people living here are now old,” says Ohotski. “Will the young people who went away to study come back? Will they want to live here? No one knows what the future holds.”
GO THERE: POLONEZKÖY POLISH VILLAGE, ISTANBUL
- Where: Forgo a taxi and take the D1 city bus from Kadiköy, a 90-minute ride that offers a window into modern, urban Istanbul. Buses leave every day at 10 am and 2 pm. If you do take a taxi and plan to return to the city the same day, you’ll want the driver to hang around — taxis are scarce in Polonezköy.
- What to do: The village itself is small and its most interesting points can be visited in a few hours, but don’t leave without hiking through the surrounding deciduous forest and lunching at the Leonardo Restaurant. The Polonezköy Country Club is the best choice for overnight stays.
- Pro tip: Cell coverage is patchy at best on the trails and gorges through the surrounding forest. If a hike is in your itinerary, don’t try winging it and getting lost — as I did. Download local maps beforehand.
- Stephen Starr Contact Stephen Starr