on April 11, 2009
Along with the Aghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, no trip to Istanbul is regarded as being complete unless it includes a visit to the Grand Bazaar. It's fame is almost legendary but I have always found the response of tourists to be mixed; put simply you either love it or hate it.Always one to buck the trend, my reaction having visited this summer was "It was OK". This is why…Having been to Tunisia and Morocco I knew roughly what to expect of the Grand Bazaar. The hustle and bustle, rows of units selling the same stuff, confident and friendly traders, haggling for the best prices - yes, I now consider myself a veteran. I feel confident enough to haggle and am happy to walk away if the price is not right. I might sometimes come away feeling that I could have done better but I am willing to have a go.The Grand Bazaar is basically an old covered market in the heart of Istanbul, a few minutes walk away from Sultanahmet. It has several entrances and consists of a maze of alleyways, each one specializing mostly in one kind of wares - so you'll get a row selling gold, another selling leather good and another selling glassware. Of course, just to confuse you, there are shops here and there which don't follow the pattern so don't be surprised if you find yourself walking in circles trying to go back to a particular shop. Unlike the Bazaars in the medinas in places like Tanger or Tunis, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar feels almost "purpose built". The alleys are quite wide, the walls are freshly white-washed and the lighting is excellent - it really makes the gold sparkle in the windows of the jewellery souks. The paving is immaculate making it ideal for wheelchair users or people with pushchairs (although quieter times might be easier for these groups). Contrast this with the dark and grubby alleys of Tunis which I personally found much more atmospheric.Entering the bazaar through one of the narrow arches, I thought we would be immediately set upon by traders but it really wasn't the case. In fact, at one souk, we stood for age trying to find someone to haggle with! At three o'clock on an afternoon in August I was amazed how quiet the place was. I would have thought that a lack of potential shoppers would make the traders even more intent to help us spend our money but it seemed to only make them less interested.If you have never been to a bazaar like this, here's what you need to know. All bazaar traders are extremely perceptive and can tell almost immediately which country you are from without you saying a word (one or two guess Scandinavian when they see me, I used to let them think they were right, but it turns out almost as many can speak Swedish as English so you'll still get pestered). They use this to get you to stop and look; often they'll use some colloquial expression that surprises you so much your feet stick to the ground and you can't help breaking into a smile.Don't say you are merely looking because "That's OK, looking is free, come into my shop and look some more". If you claim to have no money, that's also OK because "everything is practically free". You may think you have an answer, but you're wrong. The Turkish stall holder has all the answers.Don't kid yourself into thinking you're going to get any bargains. This is the biggest market in one of the world's major cities; rents are high, nothing is free.The trader will suggest a price, you should start at a tenth of that and work up. Aim to pay about one third of the original asking price. Never - I said NEVER - offer a price you aren't willing to pay; this is very bad form. If you can't agree a price, walk away. Be polite, the dealer might come after you and change his mind; don't burn your bridges.Unless you are buying in the antique section, nothing is rare. You will find the same item elsewhere, probably for less. Don't be too hasty, buying at the first stall, look around first before you start spending. Often you'll look at a display item but when you buy, your item will be given to you boxed up. Ask to look at the item first to make sure it is the right item and that it is not broken.The Grand Bazaar is the Turkish equivalent of the Metrocentre with cafes and tea houses, a mosque and even a little police station! As you would expect, you will pay a premium for drinking tea in the Bazaar as you do with the goods on sale. I was disappointed to find that I could have bought the set of tea glasses for 4 Euro less at the Spice Bazaar instead (I found many prices lower at the Spice Bazaar in fact) but had to remind myself that I had already got a good deal by haggling (think about what you'd pay in the UK at a shop like The Pier for a set of tea glasses). There is little you can buy at the grand Bazaar that you can't buy anywhere else in Istanbul; tea glasses, t-shirts, any kind of item bearing the "evil eye" symbol, fruit tea, Turkish Delight, embroidered cushions, leather pouffes, coloured glass lanterns. Much of item low quality, much of it pretty tacky. Leather goods seem about the best in terms of quality and you can get some good prices on bags and coats - not sure who wants to but a leather jacket in the midle of August though....In the end I came away with a set of tea glasses and teeny spoons, two boxes of Turkish Delight, three boxes of Turkish fruit tea, a t-shirt, a fridge magnet and some bracelets for just over £20.00 which I found reasonable for an expensive capital city.Overall I found the Grand Bazaar somewhat sanitized without even the pantomime I'd anticipated to liven things up. Many stall holders won't even haggle and have set prices. Unfortunately it's not always obvious which ones these are and even managed to offend one trader who took back the goods we were holding up! For a more exotic experience I suggest you try the Spice Market or Egyptian Bazaar as it's also known - now that's a real sensory experience and cheaper to boot! Full marks for the range of goods but points deducted for lack of atmosphere.
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