The Bazaars

After the historical, contemplative visits of this past couple of days, it was time for something a bit more vibrant: I went to the Grand Bazaar!

I wasn’t sure at first whether it was within walking distance or tram distance, looking at the map, so let me save you the trouble: it’s a mere 15 min walk from Sultanahmet tram station. It’s all the same street until Çemberlitas, the Burnt Column, and then up north for a short while.
The entrance to the Grand bazaar looks like that of a pedestrian tunnel, but once inside I found myself in a bustling, sprawling, labyrinthine network of covered streets and galleries. The only way to really appreciate the age of the place is to look at the roof, where aged and faded paintings remain from times past, because there are no walls to be seen anywhere: every square inch of surface is being used to display merchandise. It’s like a Muslim Akihabara: just as seizure-inducing, except with touts everywhere.

I began by wandering around, getting lost on purpose, to get a feel of the place. It wasn’t even that crowded, but there were just as many touts peddling stuff as actual customers, so it added up. They aren’t more aggressive than, say, the restaurant touts here in Akbiyik Street, but it does mean that if you want to stop and take out your map to get your bearings (something that I do constantly) then you have approximately 0.5 seconds to find your position and get going before you hear a voice say “Hey what are you looking for my friend this is my shop”, like that, all in one sentence. Normally I have zero problem ignoring tiresome strangers, but it gets taxing after an entire morning…
After that first approach, I got lost for real. I hadn’t been so utterly lost since I was in Japan! The Lonely Planet guide includes a map of just the bazaar, which is really helpful, but I realised with a feeling of dread that all the streets look exactly the same and they’re all called almost exactly the same, so it takes forever to find points of reference. There are sections of the bazaar that are nominally “themed”, like the Silver Quarter or the jewellery street, but in practice they all sell the same stuff… I must have gone through the central crossing like a dozen times!

I was having trouble judging which stores were nice and which were cheap tourist traps. On the steet a glance at a shop’s window, interior or even sign can tell you exactly what demographic it’s targeting, but most of the stands at the Grand Bazaar don’t have any of those three things: it’s just product, crammed into every available nook and corner. The guides didn’t help much: they recommended Silk & Cashmere, which turned out to sell what I affectionately call “grandma-wear”, and a specific jeweller for silver where, to my dismay, everything on display on the window was HIDEOUS. I was on my own!

I ended up trusting a textile shop that looked nice and had amazing shawls and pasminas. I found the perfect silk scarf to bring as omiyage, deep blue with a rich purple design, and I even tried my hand at bargaining for it! From a sticker price just north of 100€, I managed to bring it down to 60€… which probably means it could’ve gone for 30€ and the sellers flayed me alive, but ah well. The guy even went through a whole routine where he pretended to ask his boss to lower the price for me, it was really amusing. They spoke in Turkish (my interpretation: “Ahahaha this foreign infidel is gonna make our day” “Yes he is eating this up, we’re awesome, but seriously what are we having for lunch.”) while occasionally code-switching to English for my benefit (“He say for sixty he buy” “Hmmm.”).

My dad had warned me that as soon as I set foot on the bazaar everybody would know where I was from and people would spontaneously talk to me in Basque, but in fact nobody’s been able to guess where I’m from so far -not even after hearing me speak. I’ve been asked whether I’m Russian three times (which: hell to the nyet), once German, and one guy even asked me if I was Norse (which: thanks! But between the paleness and the red nose and forehead, I think I look more like a British tourist in Majorca).

Once I had scored some loot and walked along the entire length of the bazaar like ten times over, I left the Grand Bazaar through the north exit and began making my way downhill towards the Egyptian Bazaar, more commonly known as the Spice Bazaar. But before that, I took the chance to visit Suleimaniye Mosque, an enormous and grandiose mosque that sits on top of the hill.

Compared to the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar seems tiny and sedate with its two crossed streets. It’s enough space to sell every type of spice, tea, lokum and baklava imaginable, though. From all the vendors selling an equally varied range of products, I went with Malatya Pazari (mostly on instinct, although I did check that their baklava didn’t look oily). I got paprika and cumin for myself, and an assortment of lokum and baklava to take to work. Another success!

When I left the Spice Bazaar, also through the north, I found I was already at sea level, right in front of the New Mosque, another massive construction that I also visited.

Afterwards I took the tram from Eminönü back to Sultanahmet, where I dropped my acquisitions at the hotel and began a draft of this post that the Blogger app must have deemed subpar, because it saw fit to delete it and I had to start over…

I didn’t know what to do with my afternoon, because the Archaeology museum closed at four o’clock, and after a frantic search for anything that would be open beyond five I ended up going to the Çemberlitas Hamam. It is noteworthy because it dates back to 1584 and it was designed by Mimar Sinan, the architect who built the Suleimaniye Mosque. As a hamam it was very perfunctory, but the uniqueness of the building adds to the experience.

Lastly, after having sweated my fatigue away I went for dinner at an uninspiring place off Divan Yolu street. I only bring this up because a middle-aged Italian couple sat next to me and the woman proceeded to give the waiter the third grade about the menu –which already had Italian translations. What’s going on with the Italians? Later on, that same lady made the waiter take away the bread because it was hot. I’m not making it up.

I left before they finished… I can’t imagine what went down with the desserts!

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