Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Carpet Show

View of the Blue Mosque and Bosphorus Strait from our hotel's roof terrace
How many husbands would say to their pregnant wives, "I don't want to go to Istanbul. You should just go by yourself." I can think of only one...mine. But as it turns out, a girlfriend had also wanted to go to Istanbul, the timing worked, and we had a great ladies' trip with lots and lots of shopping in the Grand Bazaar, which both of our husbands would have HATED! Naples has a direct flight to Istanbul, so we can get there in about two hours of flight time. And guess what Turkish Air gives its passengers in that two hours - a printed menu with food choices for the full meal they serve to you. And you get a free, checked bag. How quickly have I forgotten how pleasant flying used to be. Turkish Air just set the stage for the rest of the our vacation. I was expecting Istanbul to be super exotic, out of this world different. Instead, we found a clean, efficient, beautiful city filled with pleasant people. Walking the streets was like visiting any other large, nice city, except this one was filled with the calls of the muezzin five times a day.

A Grand Bazaar Portal
Our hotel, Hotel Nena, was right in the Old Town, just a couple of blocks from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and a phenomenal view from the roof terrace, which doubled as our breakfast room and held the best breakfast buffet I've had at any hotel, ever. My friend and I quickly agreed that our first stop on Day One should be the Grand Bazaar, just in case we needed some extra time there. And upon entering the portal, we fell into some sort of Ali Baba time warp in which time both sped up and slowed down. As we wandered the alleys, explored the nooks and crannies, found a "hidden" courtyard for a sit down lunch, stopped for Turkish coffee breaks, and yes, even attended "Carpet Show," we stumbled out of the exit that afternoon having spent over seven hours inside. Seven hours! Time twists on itself inside, just as we twisted in and around the maze of streets and shops.

By the early 1600s, the shops and alleys comprising the Grand Bazaar had been covered, making it one of the oldest covered markets in the world. It has over 60 streets and I've read conflicting accounts of the actual number of shops, but the range is from 3000-4000. Much of the Grand Bazaar today is touristy (with daily visitors in the hundreds of thousands) and sells cheap, low quality goods at inflated prices. We had to search for the good stuff, but we found it! Our lovely hotel manager had offered to tell us where to get the stuff we wanted at lower prices elsewhere in Istanbul, but part of the allure of the city is the Grand Bazaar and the magic that the name conjures. When I use my Turkish towel at the beach (a thin, lightweight, cotton towel rather than our typical, terry cloth towels), I am transported back into the time warp. What did we buy...enameled, copper earrings and silver pitchers and copper teapots and pillowcases studded with old kilim pieces and harem (genie) pants and Turkish towels and kilim pillowcases and gorgeous scarves...and since 80% of visitors to Istanbul return home with a carpet, we felt compelled to bow to peer pressure.

"Carpet Show" (our name) was one of our most entertaining events all week. We had in hand the name of a shop tucked away off the main streets and considered very reputable with his offerings. My friend was interested in buying a rug, I was not. And so began Carpet Show. But first, of course, we were provided with tea. The first carpet brought out was for show only - a modern, Turkish carpet knock-off created in another country and sold by unscrupulous dealers as a real, Turkish carpet. This was to "train our eyes" to see the difference - we studied the colors, the workmanship, and so on. Then came our options. Most carpets were a minimum of 35 years old and sourced from various tribes around the country in which they were dowry rugs - woven for a special gift upon marriage and thereafter, used only for very special occasions and usually as something like a table covering rather than a floor rug. The shop assistants laid out rug after rug after rug. We exclaimed, we looked at the map to see the regions of origin, we studied the colors and the knotting on the back and the technique used. My friend found a rug she loved, and then...despite the fact that I was NOT buying a rug...the shop assistants brought out a rug I fell in love with - a Noah's Ark rug (covered with animals) on a black background and woven by a tribe from Mount Ararat. How could I resist! So as not to be impulsive, we both agreed that we should wait until the end of our trip and make sure we were not under some sort of Grand Bazaar induced haze. And to check with our husbands since the rugs are not exactly inexpensive. The great thing about waiting was that at the end of the week, when we returned for our rugs, we got treated to a second "Carpet Show," just for fun. Then the owner of the shop took us to his museum shop with some incredible pieces of clothing and rugs and even allowed my friend to try on a very old, bridal jacket.
Our lunch courtyard
And here is why the trip to Istanbul being a ladies' trip worked out. Nathan had recently gone to Bahrain and purchased two rugs, so he'd just had Carpet Show of his own. When I returned from Istanbul raving about Carpet Show and how much my friend and I loved it, his response was, "Are you kidding! I hated it! I couldn't wait to get out of the store." At that moment, I knew that "Maybe you should just go by yourself," had been one of the best things he's said to me...this year, at least.

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