Making Ourselves at Home in Cihangir, Istanbul
“I don’t know where that is,” says the guy, poring over the address I’ve hand-copied. “Just walk.”
“Walk?!” I say. I mean, I know we’re walking distance from Cihangir, but… “But I don’t know where it is. I’ll take a taxi.”
“The taxi driver won’t know it, either,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, trying to envisage exactly how well Zac will react to walking randomly up and down the hills of Cihangir, pack on back, without a map. “I think I’ll try a taxi all the same.”
Our mysterious address turns out to be a narrow, steep alley, lined with tall, narrow apartment houses, with a bevy of cats standing guard. I like it. I like it a lot.
And, to my surprise, I like our flat too.
“See, Mum?!” says Zac. “The entrance hall is bigger than our garret.”
And I think he might be right…
Wimdu have given us a credit to spend on one of their Istanbul apartments. I wasn’t optimistic about the flat, which was offered to us after several first choices weren’t available, but I’m genuinely chuffed with it.
(When using Wimdu, incidentally, do as I say, not as I do. And I say: “Book at least a fortnight in advance.”)
We have a kitchen! A washing machine! A dining table! And a desk in the bedroom!
I’d been thinking about getting a 2-bedroom flat, but this one is big enough to allow us plenty of space from each other.
We feel, in fact, pretty much instantly at home.
And… Did I mention we have a kitchen?
It’s an old Victorian building, with wrought iron banisters and a narrow marble staircase, and even a couple of books provided, which always makes me feel at home.
Plus a local area map to help us meander the warren of narrow streets that make up Cihangir.
I instantly feel much, much happier about our sojourn in Istanbul.
“We need to go to a supermarket,” says Zac, who’s clearly in settling in mode. (One of our favourite things whenever we have a base somewhere is doing the mundane stuff of life, just in a new city: shopping for a pencil sharpener, for example, gave us an amazing insight into Hanoi.)
“There’s a Carrefour here,” says the girl from the letting agency. “You need to turn by the mosque, and it’s right there…”
“Excellent!” Zac’s a creature of habit, and he does like his Carrefour, a business which, for whatever hypocritical reasons, strike us, like Starbucks, as a more pleasing face of globalisation than, say, McDonald’s or Accessorize.
“I wonder what an Istanbul Carrefour’s going to be like?” I say. “Nothing like a Chinese Jah-le-fo, I bet.”
“Smaller, I’d have thought,” says Zac. “And, no pork.” (After sojourns in Lebanon and Israel, both of which have restaurants with plenty of pig on the menu, we’re not as quite as Vitamin P-deprived as you’d think from the time we’ve spent in the Middle East. But pork is looming large on our horizons.)
“Oh,” I say. “I bet they have pork.”
“WAIT!” he says. “Let’s make a list.”
They do have pork! And everything on our list.
In fact, but for the presence of pastirma and Turkish beef sausages, rather more yoghurt and yoghurt related products than we’re used to, and perhaps a few too many pulses, it’s a disappointingly unexotic Carrefour.
So we meander around the local shops. We stock up on giant peaches, fresh plums, burstingly ripe tomatoes, garlic, onions, enormous radishes, a selection of green leaves – “WILL you not TASTE that?! You’re EMBARRASSING me!” “But how else am I going to find out what it is?!” – lemon sodas and Turkish red wine.
We identify a promising baklava joint, and some cool looking local cafe-bars, drop off our shopping and then wander some more.
I feel genuinely happy to be in Cihangir.
We’re a handful of yards from the horrors of Istiklal, and clearly in tourist apartment central, but the district, much of it built by Europeans around a century ago, has a boho cutesiness that reminds me a lot of Plovdiv.
There are art galleries in converted bath-houses. A Manhattan-styled pizza joint. The odd clothing boutique, and the odd retailer of tourist tat, plus a wealth of second-hand stores.
Yet there’s also plenty of cheap büfes (local stores), old men hand-squeezing oranges for juice, authentic hammams and, y’know, not-really-for-tourists junk stores.
Not to mention the cats, of course. Rather as kittens dominated Egypt for us, so cats, who secretly rule the city, dominate Istanbul.
Like this fella, who clearly believes he runs his secondhand bookstore.
“Yep,” says Zac, as we meander home. “I definitely like this flat.”
“I really like this neighbourhood,” I say. “It’s still crumbly enough in places to feel kind of real.”
We’re both much happier here than we would have been amid the stellar buildings and overpriced restaurants of Sultanahmet, across the water, or we were by the chaos of Taksim.
Cihangir manages to combine a sense of authenticity and history with – let’s be honest – the easy stuff that tourists (for tourists we are) need.
We can walk to Istanbul Modern from here, and we’re barely four tram stops from the big ticket sights across the water. It’s just so easy…
“How much longer are we here for?” Zac asks.
“Well,” I say. “We’re here for six days. But maybe we should extend?”