April 21, 2011

Paris Meets Brooklyn in Turkey's Historic Cihangir

After one of our many breakfasts at Van Kahvalti Evi, co-owner Cetin Simsek brought over a pocket-size Turkish-English dictionary and pieced together a conversation made mostly of unconjugated verbs. “Marry?” he wondered. No, we weren’t married. “Devour!” we cried. He was glad to hear we liked the food. “Sleep?” he asked, gesturing toward Sultanahmet, the district boasting an extraordinary concentration of historic sights and tourist hotels. No, we assured him, we were staying right here in Cihangir. “Ah, Cihangir,” Simsek said, nodding. “Coffee, people, cats.”

As neighbourhood distillations go, it’s a fine one: Cihangir (pronounced Jee-HANH-gear) blends Paris’s café culture with Brooklyn’s casual vibe and Rome’s free-range kitty population. That might be why the district is home to most of Istanbul’s Western expat community. And like Brooklyn, it claims a number of the city’s actors and writers – Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk is a long-time resident – which perhaps also explains the packed sidewalk patios at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.

Yet Cihangir offers plenty of experiences that seem to belong only to Istanbul, whether it’s stumbling upon one of the last of the traditional wooden houses, tucked down a tiny alley, or watching a basket slowly descend from a fifth-floor apartment, to be filled with bread and eggs from the grocer below. There are enough antique shops and galleries and boutiques and restaurants to keep you occupied for weeks, but be sure to spend an afternoon doing your best impression of a Cihangir local: Find an outdoor spot, grab a glass of tea and as the ferry horns and calls to prayer ring in the distance, watch the vibrant neighbourhood parade by.


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