Day 19: Exploring Istanbul Part 1

Posted: August 7, 2014 in Istanbul
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Whew… Where do we start?  Istanbul is everything we’ve heard and more. About 15 million people live in Istanbul and they all seem to be on the streets at once. Driving is a nightmare. Traffic on the warrens of side streets and alleys has to be seen to be believed. There’s cats everywhere – literally everywhere – they’re in the museums and cemeteries and restaurants and bazaars.. And there are stray dogs in many places too (although we haven’t seen as many as we expected to). There’s restaurants or cafes on every street corner and people selling corn, mussels, pretzels, döner kebaps, roasted chestnuts and other foods every 20′ or so. The people are friendly and charming – the men with something to sell especially. It’s also spectacularly dirty and rundown and there are some side streets you don’t want to venture down and more than a few seedy, sketchy characters you don’t want to meet in a dark alley – or on a brightly lit street for that matter. So far, we’re loving it!

We started our first full day in Istanbul with a bit of a late start followed by breakfast in our room (yogurt, cereal and juice) then set out for our first destination – The Grand Bazaar. This place has been a market/bazaar since the 1400s and parts of the present incarnation date back to the 1600s… There’s between 3000 and 5000 “stores” on 60 “streets” and they get between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors per day. Unlike some of the markets we’ve been to in other cities, this one is about selling good quality stuff. There’s a few tacky tourist shops but most of the shops are selling relatively high end stuff – that’s probably because leases for a spot in the Grand Bazaar can run upwards of $80,000 a year. Prices are a bit higher for a lot of stuff because of the high rents but the variety and selection can’t be beaten… And the sales pitches are definitely part of the experience. From creepy  to pushy  to just plain charming these guys (we only saw a handful of women working the shops) can sell anything and “no thanks” just means they need to try harder. We were there for a couple of hours and saw a small fraction of the shops but didn’t buy much (we wanted to check prices in other parts of the city before buying at the bazaar). Marie and Caitlin did try on a few leather jackets, we looked at lamps and tea sets and Marie got the whole history of Turkish Delight from a charming young Syrian man. Caitlin, in particular, was the darling of the touts as they singled her out for all kinds of come-ons…

On that note, Caitlin had read in some of the guidebooks and online that many of the sellers were pushy and obnoxious and that it was unpleasant… She found it all good fun as did we. Some of the sellers are a bit rude but we just said “no thanks” and kept walking – the rest we found charming and some were hysterical. They have tough jobs – there’s 50 other people selling the exact same stuff just down the “street” and dealing with people is a tough gig… Dealing with a 1/4 million a day is insane… Kudos to the ones who can find a bit of humour and keep a smile day in and day out in a place like that… We weren’t put off in the least by the behaviour of the sellers but were a bit dismayed at the rudeness of the buyers.

After a while, we started to see a lot of the same items (although we’d only seen a fraction of the bazaar) so we stepped outside. We had been told by our landlord to look for Mahmutpasa street if we wanted to find better prices. Somehow we managed to exit the grand bazaar right onto Mahmutpasa and found ourselves shopping with the entire population of Istanbul  and a good part of the rest of the world as well. It was wall to wall people at times and the sheer volume of goods for sale is staggering. From tacky tourist t-shirts to high end evening gowns and dresses, it’s all for sale on Mahmutpasa… Caitlin spent some time in the high end dress shops looking at potential dresses for her winter grad (yup… in Victoria, students go to two! grad dinner dance things – the real one in June and a “winter grad” dinner and dance in December… and they need fancy dresses for both…). She found a couple she liked and we’ll try to find our way back to the shops later in the trip to try them on one more time before she makes a final decision.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat at one of the döner kebap places – doner are gyros or donairs back home. Spiced meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie served with pita and a few veggies… They’re delicious. The server was awesome (we got a kick out of him calling Marie and I his “momma” and “poppa” – he got a kick out of us telling him that a good “son” would pay for his parents’ meal) and with drinks the price was pretty reasonable for a filling and very tasty “lunch.” After that we continued down Mahmutpasa until we reached the Spice Bazaar – a much smaller version of the Grand Bazaar dedicated mostly to teas and spices but with a good smattering of other stuff for sale as well. You know you’re getting close to the Spice Bazaar by the smell – you can smell it about 1/2 a block away – this heady, intoxicating mix of spices (not at all like the “pungent” (to be charitable) aroma of bazaars in Thailand or Cambodia… We wandered around a bit sampling teas and checking prices before buying a bit of Turkish black tea, some kebap spice and some vanilla bean… We also got the lowdown on how to make Turkish tea (which is delicious). The secret is to make the tea strong (2 tablespoons of tea to about 2-3 cups of water) then dilute it with plain water to the desired strength… the result is strong tea that isn’t bitter… The only downside to the Spice Bazaar was the outrageously obnoxious behaviour of the throngs of women coming off the cruise ships… Don’t know what nationality they were but their behaviour was actually shameful – loud, rude, pushy beyond belief and spectacularly self-entitled – they grabbed, pushed, argued and basically made louts of themselves everywhere we turned. Even Caitlin was throwing elbows by the time we were done and Marie is still somewhat in shock that someone actually grabbed her and pushed her out of the way at one point… But even that couldn’t take away from the experience…

After the Spice Bazaar we headed back up Mahmutpasa, Caitlin tried on a couple more dresses and then we headed back to the apartment for a bit of rest and a regroup and then we headed out to explore a bit more and to have dinner. We made our way to the Sultanahmet area (a couple of tram stops from our apartment) and just kind of poked around and did the gawky tourist thing for while before heading back to one of the restaurants we’d passed (and where the tout had been especially friendly and charming) for dinner. Then we headed to our landlord’s restaurant to pay him for our stay (he was willing to give us a discount if we’d pay in cash rather than use the credit card so we needed to get more $$$). Then it was back to the apartment to call it a night – the lousy sleep from the day before, the heat and the crowds had done us all in.

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