Sadly, our visit is ending – we sit in a cafe in Istanbul drinking apple tea, listening to the street sounds, feeling the crowds and crossing paths with strangers on this trip where east meets west. The city evaporates before us, we have taken pictures, lots of pictures as evidence that we were here and that these fleeting moments actually existed as looking back it seems like a dream.
I said at the beginning of this road trip when we arrived in Istanbul our hotel was the original we stayed in 20 years previously and it was a nice place to start and end our journey. Although memories fade and exact locations were a little vague, we were aware that in order to visit many of the sights we would have to walk across the Galata Bridge, which was just steps from our hotel. The bridge spans the Golden Horn – in one direction Asia in the other Europe. I could remember that the Galata tower was at one end and the Spice Market at the other. However, what I had forgotten was the fishermen who stand shoulder-to-shoulder and line every inch of the bridge and having to dodge their lines as they cast off totally ignoring the throngs of passers-by in their pursuit of catching fish.
The city of Istanbul never fails to deliver in terms of things to do, cultural experiences or attractions. One of our first group meeting points was The Pudding Shop. Today the restaurant resembles little of what it once was. For those of us who were hippies in the 1960s it was known as the place where travellers would meet to follow the hippie trail and associated with the counter-culture of the times. For those who are too young to remember they may have seen it in the film Midnight Express. As it was, we met at the Pudding Shop because of its location within spitting distance of both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. These we would visit as a group but we would be left to our own devices when it came to the markets. Nobody is foolish enough to even try and keep a group of 40 people together in the maze of lanes and alleyways that make up these attractions.
The Spice Bazaar
Not its real name, centuries ago, goods were brought from Egypt to the market and it was then and still is today officially called the Egyptian Bazaar, however Spice Bazaar gives a better indication of what to expect in the way of sights, sounds, colours and smells in this ancient shopping complex. It may be a tourist trap where there are spices, teas and aphrodisiacs aplenty to be bought, but I enjoyed the experience. Perhaps one of the highlights for me of exploring this part of the city was sampling unusual, edible and exotics fruits that the salesmen were happy to let you taste before parting with your money. This is where I got a taste for dried strawberries (not particularly exotic but very delicious) – now I know exactly what to look for when shopping in Al Campo!
A short walk through the ancient alleyways and winding lanes will lead you to the Grand Bazaar. This is not your average shopping trip. It is like no other market you have ever experienced. There are more than three thousand stores packed into a warren of over 60 streets. You are guaranteed to get lost, at the very least disorientated but that is all part of the fun. The Bazaar is like a mini city with restaurants, banks, a police station, even a mosque. Whatever you desire, you will find here, whether it is books, furniture, food or a million other things.
You find beautiful carpets hang at the entrance to one stall while a myriad of colourful lamps hang from the ceiling of another. Mountains of cheap dresses and shirts are piled high next to the man sipping apple tea and plying quality gold and silver. On another stall, a stack of glittering trinkets and the scent from a tower of hand-made soaps wafts through the crowd. Beautiful leather handbags in every colour imaginable line the walls and windows of the shops in the leather section. It is only when you show interest in purchasing and start to haggle over the prices you realise which is the genuine item and which is the almost impossible to identify imitation. Every day around 400,000 people pass through one of the small stone arches into the labyrinth looking for bargains. True bargains are very hard to find, if they exist at all. But you don´t have to shop just go to explore and enjoy the experience.
And after the spinning head not knowing which way to turn, and the exhilaration of haggling, we moved on to another aspect of the city. Turkey has always been a melting pot of culture and religion as reflected by the two great buildings that look across the crowded Sultan Ahmed Square at each other ….
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