Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

“How do I find this place again?”

“Take a photo with your phone, that way you can ask for directions back here”

Carsikapi Gate (Beyazit tram stop)
Carsikapi Gate (Beyazit tram stop)

My husband was sitting at a café inside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul with a steaming cup of tea. I was going to explore the bazaar but was worried I’d never be able to find the right café in that maze-like market. As it turned out, his advice was very helpful. When I had to ask someone for direction back to the café, I simply showed him the photo.

The jewelers’ corridor literally glittered. Each window was dripping with gold bracelets, chains, earrings, cuffs, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls and other precious stones in all shapes and sizes. The reflection of the light on so much gold made taking good photos impossible and made my eyes hurt.

One of the arched halls
One of the  halls

The displays were so beautiful: silk scarves, hand-painted isnik ceramics, pashminas, spices, handbags, silverware, and table linen. Even the trinkets and miscellaneous tourist tat looked pretty and enticing. The kilims, rugs and rug salesmen deserve a special note. These men are very insistent, they won’t take no for an answer. They will follow you and talk to you in different languages so pretending you don’t understand doesn’t work. We were polite but firm. No, thank you, we’re not interested in buying a rug.

Typical Turkish tea and coffee sets
Typical Turkish tea and coffee sets

I did, however, buy a leather handbag. I was coveting a gorgeous one embroidered with silk thread. I asked the price, TL (Turkish Lira) 500, more money than I had in my pocket. The young salesman then showed me cheaper ones embroidered in wool, very pretty too but not quite the same. These cost TL 380.

“I don’t have that kind of money right now, sorry.”

“How much do you have?”

“250 lira” I thought this might have been a mistake. No one needs to know how much I have. He said he was just an employee and was going to fetch the owner. I felt a bit uneasy; I do not like haggling at all. I was about to leave, anyway, because not having enough money felt embarrassing to me.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “This is just business. It’s not personal.”

Rugs and cushion covers
Rugs and cushion covers

The owner came in and asked if I had dollars? No. Euro? No. He smiled and let me have the handbag for the money I had. It felt like a bargain but it was definitely not at about US$ 120. “It’s made in Turkey, not China” said the owner. “Nothing from China.” A sign of the times, I thought. The young attendant wanted to give me a coin as a good luck token because I had no money left, which, apparently, is bad luck in Turkey. “It’s all right, thanks. I have some loose change.” This seemed good enough for him.

 

**********

Grand Bazaar

 Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

To get here, take the tram and get off at either Beyazit or Çemberlitaş.

The bazaar was established by Mehmet II in 1453 in what is now known as the Bazaar Quarter. This labyrinthine indoor market has cafes, restaurants, a mosque, a police station, offices, public restrooms (tuvalet) and banks. The Grand Bazaar extends to the adjacent streets.

What to buy: anything you want! I bought gorgeous pashminas, an iznik ceramic bowl, silk scarves and, of course, a suede and embroidered fabric handbag. Spices and tea are a good option too.

Advertisements

Istanbul street scenes

Allow me show you what I saw through my lens around Istanbul.

A simit vendor mingling with fishermen on Galata Bridge
A simit vendor mingling with fishermen on Galata Bridge
A leisurely stroll around Sultanahmet Square in the late afternoon.
A leisurely stroll around Sultanahmet Square in the late afternoon.
Street food
Even busy people have time to sit down and eat some street food
Spices at the Spice Market. Their colours and smells pervaded the whole place.
Spices at the Spice Market. Their colours and smells pervaded the whole place.
A shoeshiner with his traditional tackle.
A shoeshiner with his traditional tackle.
Eminonu
Eminonu
Taksim Square area. I was surprised by how Eropean these streets looks. It could anywhere, Madrid, Paris or Lisbon.
Taksim Square area. I was surprised by how Eropean these streets looks. It could anywhere, Madrid, Paris or Lisbon.
The streets around the Grand Bazaar are eerily quiet in the early evening.
The streets around the Grand Bazaar are eerily quiet in the early evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Istanbul: Hagya Sophia

It was a 15 minute walk from our hotel down Ordu Caddesi (Turkish for street) to what became my favourite place in Istanbul: Sultanahmet Square. There’s so much history that my head was sent spinning a few times. Where else can you sit down for a rest next to a column built in AD330 to celebrate the inauguration of Byzantium? Constantine Column is located in Ҫemberlitaş not too far from the Grand Bazaar.

Haghia Sophia bathed in winter sunlight
Haghia Sophia bathed in winter sunlight

Istanbul has a long and interesting history. According to legend, Greek colonist Byzas founded a colony in 667 BC known as Byzantion. In 64 BC it was incorporated into the Roman Empire as Byzantium. In AD 324 Constantine the Great became emperor and moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror invaded Constantinople after a long siege. He later rebuilt the city, which was from then on known as Istanbul.

Further along the street from Constantine Column is Sultanahmet Square on the right and Hagia Sophia on the left. I had been looking forward to seeing Haghia Sophia for a long time. Luckily for us, there were relatively few people queuing up outside (it was late December). We bought a museum pass (MüzeKart) for 85 Turkish liras, which is valid for 72 hours at all public museums and, most importantly, helps you avoid long lines.

The imam used to preach every Friday from the minbar. To the left of the minbar is the mihrab that points in the direction of Mecca
The imam used to preach every Friday from the minbar. To the left of the minbar is the mihrab that points in the direction of Mecca

The interior of Hagia Sophia (first a Christian church, then a mosque and now a museum) is striking. There are so many amazing things to look at: the calligraphic roundels in golden Arabic script, the upper galleries, the upper galleries, the mosaics, the painted ceilings, the marble columns and the light. It was a sunny day –the only sunny day of our week long stay- and beams of sunlight shone through the windows creating a magical effect.

Hagia SophiaIMG_3598

Haghia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom, was built in the 6th century AD and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian and used as an Orthodox Christian place of worship. In the 15th century, the invading Ottomans converted it into a mosque. They added the minarets, fountains and mausoleums. In 1935, President Atatürk decided to convert Haghia Sophia into a museum. 14 centuries of history, art and religion are contained within these walls.

I am thankful that the Ottomans decided to conserve the mosaics –or at least they didn’t set out to destroy them- although they are Christian symbols. Despite the ravages of time, these mosaics are still beautiful.  I find it bewildering that someone had the ability to paint such stunning images with small colourful tiles: Byzantine emperors and empresses, Christ, the Virgin Mary. On a personal note, these mosaics reminded me of art class at school. The teacher had taught us the Byzantine mosaic technique using tiny paper squares. We had to draw a picture, cut up the paper squares from magazines and paste them onto the picture to colour it. It made me appreciate the Byzantine artists a lot more.

Mosaic depicting Jesus
Mosaic depicting Jesus
Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya,  unesco World Heritage Site) is located across from Sultanahmet Square, a few hundred feet from Sultanahmet tram station.
Summer hours (15 April – 1 Ocotber) 9 am to 9 pm
Winter hours (1 October – 15 April) 9 am to 5 pm
The ticket booth closes an hour earlier. Entrance fee: 25 TL
There is a café and public restrooms on the grounds.

The food in Istanbul

Where to start? The delicious kebaps? The freshly squeezed pomegranate juice? Or the glorious baklava? My taste buds were in heaven!

Restaurant food

The most traditional dish, which I think I ate every single day, is the kebap (spelled kebab or kabob in English speaking countries.) It consists of skewered chunks of lamb or chicken cooked on a grill and served with grilled tomato and green pepper, rice or bulgur wheat and chips.

There are many different types of kebap, like the donner (the meat is shaved and served on a piece of flatbread,) or the iskender, chunks of lamb served on top of pieces of bread with tomato sauce.  The lamb can also be finely ground and made into meatballs (kofte.)

Among my favourite kebaps was the patlican kebap: grilled chunks of aubergine and lamb meatballs. One of favourite vegetables and deliciously seasond lamb with a wonderful smokey taste; what´s not to like!

Yummy iskender kebap
Yummy iskender kebap

There are fish restaurants on both sides of the lower level of the Galata Bridge. Their specialty is the fish sandwich. The grilled fish (the day’s catch) is served on a big bun with salad and onion. I don´t care for fish but my husband said it was very nice. I ordered a kofte sándwich -lamb meatballs with salad.

Fish sandwich
Fish sandwich

I was surprised to find so many familiar desserts in Istanbul. It was a sort of epiphany which really brought home the fact that most of the food we eat in Argentina was introduced by immigrants. The first day at breakfast I tried a little piece of a beige paste-like dessert. Its flavour brought me back to my childhood. I yelled “Mantecol!” As it turned out, it was halva, a traditional Turkish peanut dessert.

Other desserts we eat back home and are really traditional Turkish sweets are candied figs, candied pumpkin, candied quince or dried figs stuffed wuth walnuts. The difference is that Argentineans eat them with a slice of cheese and Turks eat them by themselves of with some yogurt. I felt at home when it came to desserts in Istanbul.

Delicious nuts and angel hair nests
Delicious nuts and angel hair nests

Ayran, slightly salty yogurt,  is a traditional Turkish drink. I still can’t decide whether I liked it or not. At least I’m happy I tried it.

We finished every meal with a cup of coffee (kahvesi) or tea (chay.) The coffee is strong and dense and goes down a treat with baklava. The tea is served in small glasses and its flavour is also intense. Apple tea, however, is very refreshing and tastes like you’re biting into an apple.

Turkish coffee and lokum
Turkish coffee and lokum

 Street food

I must confess I never consume food from street stalls, it seems unhygienic and teeming with bacteria. However, I dared try street food in Istanbul and discovered a new world, both delicious and affordable.

One of the things I tried and loved was sahlep, a warming drink made with orchid bulb starch, milk, sugar and cinnamon. It has a slightly floral aftertaste. Or maybe it was my imagination, I don’t know. Sahlep is like a fluid custard. It retains heat for a long time, so be careful! It’s perfect for cold weather.

Sahlep vendor in Sultanahmet Square.
Sahlep vendor in Sultanahmet Square.

Seeing the first freshly squeezed pomegranate juice vendor made me very happy. The pomegranates were as big as my hand, bright red and very tempting. Their juice has an intense flavour, somewhat astringent, not too sweet and very moreish.

Simit was another great discovery. A bagel-like ring of bread, chewy inside and crunchy outside, covered in sesame seeds. Quite cheap (TL 1, about US$ 0.50,) I found it to be a highly addictive snack.

Simit with Hagya Sophia in the backround
Simit with Hagya Sophia in the background

There were roasted chestnuts (kestane) vendors everywhere. The smoky aroma permeated the city and was redolent of cold days spent curled up next to the fireplace.

In shops

There are many pastry shops, or rather, baklava shops, in Istambul where you can buy baklava and other sweets made with walnuts or pistacchios, syrup and angel hair of phyllo pastry. I t difficult to choose a favourite. They’re all suprisingly light and not too overwhelmingly sweet. Then there’s the famous Turkish delight –lokum-, a chewy, sticky, very sweet confection. I like the rosewater flavour the best but there are many different flavours to choose from. It was generally served with coffee.

The spice shops are a wonderful experience of colours, flavours and smells. They sell a wide variety of spices, teas, dried fruit, or nuts. They are worth a visit  so you can take a pinch of Turkey home .

 

Istanbul: random observations and first impressions

In no particular order, here are my thoughts and observations about the former capital of three ancient empires: Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman.
Sultanahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosuqe, my favourite.
Sultanahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosuqe, my favourite.

The name of city alone conjures up romantic images from the past. If I think of Istanbul, I think of sultans and harems, belly dancers and minarets and the Orient Express. Constantinople, to me, means grand, solid churches and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantium is synonymous with mosaics depicting religious icons created with minuscule tiles.

Mosaic icon inside Hagya Sophia
Mosaic icon inside Hagya Sophia

On leaving the arrivals area at Atatürk Airport, we were greeted by Lionel Messi’s smiley face. The Argentinean international striker is Turkish Airlines celebrity ambassador. Our taxi driver asked where we were from and when I said Argentina, he smiled and said “Messi!” a vendor at the Grand Bazaar said something along the lines of “my people don’t know much about [international] politics but we do know about football.” It was nice to see that people knew about my country even if it’s because of a famous footballer. Sport does bring down all kinds of barriers.

Although the majority of the population is Muslim, Turkish is a secular country. However, the influence of Islam on everyday life is pervasive. The call to prayer sounds five times a day from the minarets and is bounces off every surface and reverberates all over the city. After a while, I learned to tell the time by them. Some women wear the hijab, some wear a burka and some wear Western clothes and don’t cover their heads exercising their freedom to choose. Pork products, of course, are nowhere to be found.

Random street scene at Sultanahmet Square
Random street scene at Sultanahmet Square

Istanbul is forever straddling between two different worlds. Asia and Europe. The Ottoman culture versus the modernization and Europeanization brought about by Atatürk in the early 20th century. A first class city with traces of Third World problems.

Each city has its own particular smell that sets it apart. My nose tells me there are three distinct smells in Istanbul: cat, fish and perfume. There are quite a few stray cats and wherever they congregate, there will be a strong smell (for instance, the walk up to Topkapi Palace.) The Galata Bridge, where fishermen cast their lines and sell the day’s catch, smells like fish. And you can smell perfume anywhere. Turks seem to like wearing fragrance, which wafts in their wake. I wonder if this has any connection whatsoever with the fact that Islam requires the faithful to wash five times a day before prayers. It’s a very good habit that everyone should adopt, if you ask me. (I’m looking at you, Western tourist.)

Cat in a cemetery. Why are there cats in every cemetery around the world?
Cat in a cemetery. Why are there cats in every cemetery around the world?

The streets are a hive of activity: people coming and going, vendors touting their wares (and accosting tourists while they are at it), constant car horns, the cries of seagulls and the calls to prayer. What bothered me a bit was the lack of sense of personal space.

It is normal to see two men or two women walking arm in arm as a sign of friendship but kissing and hugging by couples is seriously frowned upon.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a restaurant, or rather, a tourist trap. We went in knowingly; we were aware of this but we decided to go ahead a book a table anyway. The restaurant is located in an 800 hundred year old underground cistern and artistic numbers were included. We saw a belly dancer, who was a bit disappointing, then a folk dance group, which was fun, and then the icing on the cake: a male belly dancer. I didn’t know that men’s hips are capable of such movement. He was absolutely fantastic! Apparently Abdullah from Lebanon is very famous and is even on TV.

The food. Ah, the food! Its smells and flavours are firmly etched in my memory and taste buds.