After five days the gloss of Istanbul‘s old town was wearing off.
The Blue Mosque and Ayasofia continued to amaze, but pushing through the queues to get into them did not. The cart where we had dinner on our first night still served a decent kebab, but the restaurants in the area were expensive and bland.
After exploring other neighbourhoods, Sultanahmet started to feel like the tourist attraction it was. Historic, beautiful and captivating, but not reflective of the city that sprawled around it.
It was time for somewhere new.
We had been offered apartment rentals from Wimdu during our time in Istanbul, and with close to 500 places available it was hard to know where to start. Location or price? Swimming pool or balcony? Coffee machine or private submarine?
For no particular reason we headed to the other side of the Golden Horn, to the areas surrounding the infamous Istiklal Street. While this mile-long shrine to chain stores and ice-cream shops held little appeal, other parts of the large Beyoğlu neighbourhood seemed far more interesting.
Sweat running down our faces, we slowly bickered our way up the steep Çukurcuma streets in the afternoon sun. An hour walking in circles later (“oh, sorry, someone put the wrong address in the system…”), we were finally ushered into our upgraded room.
And, well, it looked like this.
There was much rejoicing. Followed by cold showers and a lengthy spell under the air conditioner.
Eventually dragging ourselves back onto the street, the differences to Sultanahmet leaped out. Other tourists were unexpectedly rare, given the location. Old men smoked while children ran around their feet, squeezing past fruit stands and garbage bags on the narrow footpaths. Vendors pushed carts of food down the road, blocking traffic while hawking their wares to an indifferent audience. A decaying charm oozed from the old buildings.
I liked this place.
Çukurcuma is one of the famous antique districts of Istanbul, and it showed. Quirky little shops lined the broken cobbles, centuries of accumulated junk relics piled haphazardly outside. Bathtubs and bread bins vied for space with picture frames, coat stands, leather jackets, wrought-iron lampshades … even a Michael Jackson record and the gramophone to play it on.
None of which, unfortunately, would fit in my pack.
Instead I drank coffee in the local cafes, coming to the realisation that hipster architecture students are the same all over the world. I found a cheap-ish place to have a beer down one of the side alleys, and regularly did so, then found an expensive-ish place to have a pizza and regularly did that too.
I stopped to watch kittens playing on doorsteps, chattered to the guy in the little convenience store down the street, and avoided spending time with the screeching masses on Istiklal. While Sultanahmet was somewhere to admire, Çukurcuma was somewhere to just live for a while.
After two days we moved several hundred metres down the road, to another of the aparthotels that are common in Istanbul. Closer to Taksim Square and in a more run-down neighbourhood, our suite was glorious. Light and airy, it was another place we didn’t want to leave. During the heat of the day we barely did, emerging only occasionally to find food.
Derelict buildings faced their lived-in neighbours, a legacy of large-scale migration last century. Laundry flapped from lines across the street as the smell of pee wafted from dark corners. This was not a high-rent part of town, yet I was comfortable there.
Old women gossiped from adjoining windows. Men looked up from their games of backgammon as we passed, mild interest on their faces. Dogs lazed on the warm tarmac, shuffling languidly away as cars threaded past.
I liked this place too.
Finally, a week after arriving, it was time to leave. Like so many others before us, Istanbul had both captivated and enthralled. I pressed my face to the window as the tram trundled past Sultanahmet one last time, sunlight still glinting from the Blue Mosque, the line for Ayasofya still stretching for miles. As another crowd of visitors swarmed out of the open doors, I sat back in my seat and smiled.
Sure, this was a highlight of Istanbul … but it was just one of many.
It had been good to find some others.