It rained (and then flooded) the entire time we were in Istanbul. Thankfully, both the bazaars we wanted to visit, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, were mostly under cover. After a morning sorting out some things in the Australian consulate just north of Taksim, a more modern area of Istanbul across the Bosphorous from Sultanahmet, we walked, in the rain, past men fishing on the Galata Bridge, to the Spice Market.
The Spice Bazaar
As you would expect, the Spice Bazaar is the centre for spice trade in the area. It wasn’t quite as grand as I was expecting, nor was it as crowded, perhaps because of the rain. The piles of spices were quite small – nothing compared with the giant cones of colourful powders you see in markets in India. It was much more hygienic though – the spices were mostly covered with glass lids.
Neither Alicia nor I had any pressing need for a kilogram of saffron, so the highlight for us was tasting different kinds of lokum, or Turkish Delight. We eventually purchased a mixed half-kilo of various coconut and powdered sugar-covered treats, and it took us nearly three days, a seven hour bus trip and copious glasses of apple tea to make our way through them.
The Grand Bazaar
I was a little nervous about the Grand Bazaar. I’d been told by those who had gone before that it was crowded, full of pickpockets, bag slashers and the one place women are most likely to receive a sly grope during their time in Istanbul.
I suppose the rain was a blessing in disguise – the cobbled alleyways between the stalls were wide and dry and in some parts of the market, largely empty. We chatted with some silver sellers – real silver was out of our budget, so we were trying to find some fake (and therefore cheap) jewellery. They told us that we wouldn’t find anything fake in the Grand Bazaar – it was all real. Sure, okay guys.
In search of a tea set for Alicia, we met a friendly ceramic seller who was willing to sell us the cups and saucers we were looking for at what we thought was a reasonable price. It was great fun laughing with him, and while we waited for his assistant to sprint across town to get enough saucers for a set of 6, we taught him some English words to help with his bargaining and he recommended some restaurants to us.
The Grand Bazaar is Turkey’s largest, selling mostly tourist tat, although apparently locals shop there as well, so there must be something to it. It was certainly one of the most atmospheric markets I’ve been to on my travels. The sellers were friendly and we found their technique was not to hassle you. It was very different to the markets of India and Southeast Asia, where stallholders are more than willing to chase you down the street in order to make a sale.
Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it was just that Turkish hassle doesn’t have anything on India’s hassle. Or maybe you just shouldn’t believe everything you hear.
On my RTW trip during the summer of 2010, I met my friend Alicia in Istanbul and we spent the next 46 days travelling overland through Turkey, Syria and Jordan before I headed to Egypt solo to join up with a quick organised tour through upper Egypt.
Read more about this leg of my trip on my Middle East roundup page.