I’d been dreaming of the Grand Bazaar Istanbul ever since the day I first heard about it. In my mind’s eye I’d already painted a picture of a dingy Ali Baba-esque cave, with glittering treasures within. So when we finally got to Istanbul, I couldn’t wait to go shopping to the world’s oldest shopping mall.
The Grand Bazaar has four main entrances. This used to be the trading centre of Istanbul, back when different sections were allotted as per the wares being sold by the merchants, allowing them to be more organised, and secure. The market used to be locked at night, with guards patrolling it. Not much has changed, as I noticed armed security guards standing unblinking at the gates.
Top 5 things to buy at the Grand Bazaar Istanbul
Shopping, is interestingly the last on the list of the many activities that take place at the Grand Bazaar Istanbul. We saw the merchants sitting around on stools, nursing cups of steaming hot turkish tea. Young tea runners walked briskly through the winding lanes, deftly swinging beautiful trays as they collected empty cups while distributing fresh ones. The salesmen were everything I imaged they wouldn’t be. Honest, cheerful, generous and warm. They could sell tourism to Turkey with just their twinkly eyed smiles. Many conversations, about their goods, their country, my country and Bollywood celebrities later, I walked out, my arms loaded with boxes of Turkish delight, dried and candied fruit, vanilla beans and some freebies he’d thrown in. No, there was no pressure to buy, but I enjoyed the experience so much, how could I not! Business schools could learn a thing or two from these guys!
Turkish spices are close enough to Indian spices for us to not get too carried away by the exoticness of it. However, strolling through the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul does get you rather excited about the spices with the pretty little mounds they’re displayed in. Additionally, the Grand Bazaar, being one of the most tourist-frequented places in the world, also stocks a whole lot of traditional Ottoman spices rarely found in modern Turkish kitchens. Our picks? Definitely stock up on some red pepper flakes (Pul Biber). For the westerner it’s a great timid chilly hit, and for us Indians it’s a nice new flavour addition to our repertoire of chilli powders in the spice cabinet. We also picked up some Sumac – flakes of a berry with a sour taste that’s great for marinating meats. There’s also the Turkish variety of a whole lot of more common herbs and spices like Oregano, Mint etc.
Over the years, thanks to Charles (who just like any good South Indian, loves his coffee) I have become a coffee drinker. However, in Istanbul, it wasn’t the Turk Kahvesi (Turkish coffee) but the Çay (Turkish tea) that I was constantly ordering. The weather, the sweetness, the rich aromas, it all worked beautifully together. These were water based, not milk based, so they were light enough to keep downing whenever I felt too cold. But that wasn’t the reason I left the Grand Bazaar with packets and packets of tea and tea mixes. It was the displays. The delicate mounds of petals, barks, herbs, roots, buds and of course leaves; all neatly labelled, some with flavours, some with properties like energising, uplifting, relaxing etc. They looked almost too pretty to throw into a pot of boiling water!
As soon as I looked at all the beautiful blue Iznik tiles and ceramic ware prettily lined up, row after row, a friend’s words rang in my head. “It all looks beautiful sitting in co-ordinated sets on those shelves, but when you buy a one off piece to bring home, it looses all of that charm”. I tried to picture one of these pieces looking absolutely out of place in my home. Right he was. However, the Tagines did look awfully tempting, but I pulled myself back, reminding myself that I will buy from Morocco eventually. Once again, the traditional turkish teacups in their beautiful bulbous design vied for my attention, but I had to remind myself that I’d never actually use them! Naturally, I now regret not having bought them, so don’t make the mistake I made. Buy a pair.
I’d grown fond of a Turkish carpet that I found in my family home years ago. And I couldn’t wait to see them in Istanbul, the fine artwork, the intricate designs, the rich colours. And the Grand Bazaar didn’t disappoint. While I’d seen several carpet stores around the old city, the sheer range on display at the Grand Bazaar was stunning. From cheap synthetic knockoffs to genuine antiques, they all made me want to reach out and run my fingers across the lush weave as they sparkled under naked bulbs.
This one’s a touchy topic with me. You can tell from the pictures how stunning the lamps on display were. I passed this particular lamp store a couple of times, and lusted after that moroccan patterned brass and glass design. Simple, yet intricate and classy. I kept thinking I should pick it up, but the thought of lugging that large lamp around for the rest of the day stopped me. Of course I regretted it as soon as I got back to our apartment, as soon as I sat down on the flight back home, as soon as I got home and looked at these photographs again. I did make a trip to a local store and bought one that comes as close as possible (paying a ridiculous amount of money) But that’s one of the things travel teaches you, isn’t it? To grab opportunities and make the most of them, because you never know what you’ll regret!
What’s been your biggest learning with travel?
Note: You may notice that I’ve left out the essential Turkish Delight from this list. That’s because I think those are best bought at the Egyptian Bazaar (aka the spice market) over at Eminonu.