We’d been in the Grand Bazaar for about five minutes when my loved one cracked: ‘What exactly is our purpose here? What are we trying to achieve?’ Purpose? Achievement? Had he learnt nothing over the years? I put my foot down. This was a recce, I told him, and with a birthday coming up it was only right that I studied the huge choice of goods on offer before returning on The Big Day to blow some birthday cash. And goodness me, if you’ve got some birthday cash to blow, Istanbul’s the perfect place to do it in.
(Unless you’re a man, perhaps).
Wandering back to our hotel one night, a man stopped us on the street and asked if we wanted to buy a rug, and then seemed surprised at our refusal, because let’s face it, there could be nothing more sensible than to go off, late at night, with a stranger in a new city to check out the knots on his Konya. Humph. It’s not as if there aren’t rug shops on just about every street to choose from, after all. Seriously, Istanbul is a ruggie’s paradise, but a bit of research would be well worth the trouble, and you could do a lot worse than visit the ruggie bible Hali magazine.
Less ruggy, but fun all the same, I did indulge in an easier, cheaper and lighter purchase of several inexpensive cushion covers. You’ll find vibrantly-coloured cushion covers and textiles all over Istanbul, and they make wonderful gifts and keepsakes.
Named after the western Turkish town where they were produced during the Ottoman Empire, the best ceramics, needless to say, are hand-painted, predominantly in cobalt blue and white, and based on classical designs. Admittedly the heavier and more breakable of purchases, (which is what put me off) but there’s a fantastic choice of tiles, bowls, plates, serving dishes, jugs, storage jars and vases on offer.
Easy to pack, and a wonderful souvenir of any trip. Istanbul is heaving with precious and semi-precious gems, in a variety of settings. In fact, the amount of jewellery available in Istanbul is bewildering, and you’ll need to take a few days to get your eyes in. Or you could luck out, as I did, and meet a kind woman from the Finnish embassy who tells you about her favourite shop, recommended by all her Turkish friends and colleagues in Ankara. Needless to say, I indulged. (An amber and a turquoise pendant, and an enormous lemon topaz ring, in case you were wondering…)
Evil Eye Amulets
You see them everywhere in shops around Istanbul: evil eye, or nazar, amulets that protect against jealous and evil thoughts or bad wishes. The idea is that the amulet will attract the evil eye and absorb its power before it can do any harm to the wearer. You’ll find evil eye jewellery, beads, key fobs, trinkets, shopping bags and general decorations everywhere - even on the tail fin of certain planes. A nice keepsake – mine now hangs in the kitchen, where who knows, it might even improve the cooking.
Teas and Spices
The Spice Bazaar was perhaps a little less spicy than I’d been hoping for, but was still fun, full as it was, not only with spices, but teas, Turkish Delight, perfumes and bath products. The spices themselves didn’t strike me as the best of bargains, however, and were possibly cheaper in a less obvious setting.
Curiously, the Turks drink far less coffee than I’d been expecting, preferring strong, dark çay. At the jewellers we were given cups of Apple Tea, which was sweet and refreshing and utterly delicious, and there are plenty of varieties on offer all over Istanbul.
In the UK, we’re used to cubes of red or green (rose or mint flavoured) Turkish delight with, if you’re lucky, a nut or two inside and a sprinkling of dessicated coconut or icing sugar on the top. In Turkey, however, Turkish Delight, or Lokum as it’s known, comes in all shapes and sizes, with flavours such as lemon, strawberry, orange blossom, ginger, cinnamon, coffee, almond – the list goes on, with a variety of fillings or outer coatings. As the accompanying photo illustrates, it would probably take a good year to try them all. (Well worth the effort, though.) The story goes that the confection was created in the 1700s to appease a sultan with a cracked tooth, and the soft, chewy delicacy that we all know and love today makes wonderful gifts.
Organic Cotton Towels
The last thing I expected to buy in Istanbul were bath towels, but the wonderful Arasta Bazaar was near our hotel and we discovered Jennifer’s Hamam, a shop owned by an enterprising Canadian who arrived in Turkey a few years ago and set out to find the handful of weavers left who could produce her organic cotton range. Not only is she reviving an old industry and creating jobs, she’s also exporting her towels worldwide and gaining a faithful following. The wonderful thing is, not only are they the softest, fluffiest, most luxurious towels you’re likely ever to come across, but, unlike mass-produced ones, they stay that way, even after washing and hanging out to dry on the line. An affordable luxury, and I’m a convert.