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The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was the first shopping mall.  It was built in 1461. The bazaar has about 4,000 shops and is like a city.  The Sultans used to have armed guards surround the building at night to protect it.  It was the most important shopping place in the world during the Ottoman Empire.

Going to the bazaar was one of the things that I was really looking forward to doing in Istanbul. My Aunt Lois sent me some money so that I could buy myself something in Istanbul and I knew I wanted to spend it at the bazaar.

We did not expect that the building of the Grand Bazaar would be so beautiful!

First of all, you don’t just buy things at the price they tell you, you have to bargain. I really like bargaining and thought it would be more fun than regular shopping. I read articles about how to bargain before we left for Istanbul. And also when my Uncle Sy came to visit, I also learned a little bit about bargaining from him. Here are some of the bargaining basics: (1) Don’t pay more for something than you really want to pay, (2) If you agree on a price with the seller, then you shouldn’t say another one because that is rude, (3) Be very polite and friendly when you are negotiating, (4) If you decide not to buy something, then just say no and don’t feel bad about walking away because the people selling stuff do this every day, (5) Don’t show how much you might like something because they might not make the best price for you, (6) The sellers usually tell you a price that is two times what they expect to sell it for, so you can start negotiating with half the price they tell you.

Every guide book says that the bazaar is overwhelming, but it really isn’t that bad. Mom was thinking that she might not go because she thought it would be too much. But we all went and thought it was great. The building is cool and the bazaar was very interesting.

It made it easier for me to shop because I had ideas about what I wanted. I knew that I wanted jewelry and maybe a pretty scarf. Some people say that bargaining is part of the fun of going to the bazaar. You might be wondering if I bargained? Yes, I did. Bargaining was very fun.

My Dad made a conversion sheet for me from 10 Turkish Lira to 100 Turkish Lira counting by 5s so that I would know how much Euros I was spending. Also while we were walking to the bazaar me and my Dad made a code word. The code word was “cosi-cosi,” which means “so-so” in Italian. And if my Dad asked if I liked something and I said “cosi-cosi”, it meant to my Dad that I really wanted to buy it, but thought it was too expensive so was going to start bargaining.

The first thing that I got was a pretty scarf. My strategy for that one was to pretend I was going to leave so he would make the price lower. This is how it happened. First he dropped the price 10 percent. Then I told him that the light blue color might get stained with food, so it wasn’t the best for me. Then he lowered the price. Then I said I liked it but it was more than I wanted to pay. Then he showed me other scarves and I said “no thank you” and then he asked me what I would pay. I told him I was going to keep looking at other places and as I was walking away he made another price. And at the end, I bought it for 40% of what he first said. My parents said that they really thought I was not going to buy it when I started to walk away.

After I bought my scarf, the seller and I took a picture together.

And other thing I got was a bracelet. Remember how I told you how you can’t show a lot how much you like it? Well, my Dad had to make my mom go in a different section because she kept saying how much she liked the bracelet and she was being so enthusiastic that it was ruining my bargaining. I kept walking away to check my conversion sheet because I had to keep track of how much money I had left. It was hard to think about Turkish Lira and Euros and Dollars. The man selling it kept offering a price to my Dad, but Dad told him it was my money so he had to negotiate with me. This time I made an offer that was a little less than what I really wanted to pay for it. Then he made an offer, then I said a price that was in the middle and he said “OK.” My bracelet has little mini Nazar Boncuk charms (or Evil Eye Beads) in different colors. The eye in the beads are supposed to keep you safe from evil spirits. It is one of the most common decorations that I saw in Turkey. You can see women wearing them as jewelry and you see them at homes and hotels. My Great Grandma Rosie believed in the “evil eye” and after people that she thought had the Evil Eye left, she would spit three times for good luck!

My brother got a beautiful chess set. Ever since we got to Roma, he had been looking for a chess set as a souvenir from this year. The board is very pretty wood and it is decorated with inlaid mother of pearl. Eli shows a lot of enthusiasm when he likes something, which is not great for bargaining. But he did a good job anyway and part of his negotiating was to get two different sets of pieces from different chess sets. He got one side is ancient Roman characters and the other side is ancient Egyptian characters. The pieces are made of brass.

The seller showed Eli a puzzle to solve where you have to switch the places of the knights.

We all had a great time at the Grand Bazaar.

Stopping for an apple tea break at the Grand Bazaar.

— Nell

With our food guide, Megan, at the cheese stall.

A high point of our trip to Istanbul was the food. We literally ate our way through the city.

As java-philes, it took us a few days to adapt to being in a tea culture. Surprisingly, Turkish coffee appeared infrequently. But the black tea flowed continuously from samovars, and its scent permeated the air. We are not usually souvenir shoppers, but we purchased a set of the popular glasses that the Turks use to consume their tea as a memento (and because the funky curbed glasses made tea drinking extra fun).

On our second day we tried something novel: We signed up for a food tour. A group of young friends had started a web site called Istanbul Eats to ferret out the most spectacular offbeat culinary finds in the city. They soon found themselves receiving emails from people who had followed their blog requesting help guiding visitors to tiny purveyors around town. So they started putting tours together.

Outside the Spice Market (inside is kitchy; the real action is around the perimeter)

Seth and Nell enjoyed this amazing food tour (Eli was still not feeling well, so Jenny left the food tour halfway through to keep him company in the hotel). Our phenomenal guide, Megan, was an American graduate student finishing her dissertation in linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago. She was fluent in Turkish, had been living in Istanbul for well over a decade, and was friendly with all of the cooks and purveyors that we visited. I knew we were off to a good start when, 20 minutes into what would turn out to be a seven hour eating tour, Nell pulled me aside to whisper “This is turning out to be a lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be.” After a full day of traversing the city, taking in both information and food, with our bellies aching even more than our tired feet, Nell said that it was by far the best tour she had ever done. I agree!

Buying simit in front of the New Mosque (new because it's only about 500 years old).

We began the morning by stopping at a street vendor for simet that had just been delivered in a bicycle-driven heated box. To describe these round, chewy bread rings as “sesame encrusted bread” or “Turkish bagels” doesn’t do them justice; their flavor and deeply satisfying texture is unlike any other carb we’ve tasted. It may be from the pekmez used in the batter (go Google that one!).

Olives!

We went on to sample some local cheeses, but the real winner is what the Turks call, humbly, “white cheese,” which has the mouth feel of a combination of mild crumbly feta and rich cheddar. It appears on plates all day long, from breakfast through cocktails. We sampled a variety of olives, each one tasting distinct from the next, and then were ushered into a ‘secret’ hallway behind the Spice Bazaar to unwrap what we had purchased thus far and enjoy some tea with our breakfast. Nell discovered Turkish apple tea (which is not at all like the result of an apple-flavored tea bag) and it became her beverage of choice for the duration of our stay.

Nell helping the pide maker, who loves kids!

We next went to a small restaurant where local workmen duck in during the day for red lentil soup. The restaurant doesn’t serve anything else. And why would they? It was perhaps a perfect bowl of soup, with layers of flavor in each spoonful. After that we met a charming pide maker. Pide isn’t just a Turkish version of pizza. It is a thick oblong pita bread that, in our case, was covered with soft and hard white cheese and a spicy green pepper, covered with a raw egg, and baked quickly to order in a wood-burning oven. These canoe-shaped treats hail from Turkey’s Black Sea region.

The candy of sultans.

Our next stop was Altan Sekerleme, the marble-top countered shop of a family that has been making candy since 1865, following the same recipe that was used to serve Ottoman rulers. The Turkish Delight was a sublime, sensual experience, as were the rows of tall glass containers of colorful hard candies in flavors such as bergamot and orange-cinnamon. We stopped into another secluded courtyard to sample some pistachio halvah and have some more tea, before visiting with an amazing doner sandwich maker and drinking fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.

Vefa Bozacisi, the famous boza purveyor.

Nell and I were surprised to find out how much we enjoyed Boza, a drink made from fermented millet (or bulgur). It has a reputation for building vitality that has been used by warriors and nomads since the 4th century– and would certainly not be to everyone’s taste. We had ours with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas sprinkled on top at one of Istanbul’s famous boza bars, established in 1876. It was so popular with locals of all ages—kids stopping in after school to the elderly—that we had to hustle across the blue tiled floor to grab a marble table.

Now THAT's a mustache!

We ended the tour in “Little Kurdistan” where we enjoyed a chopped shepherd’s salad with pomegranate molasses dressing, a hand-made walnut baklava, and kunefe. Kunefe is made by drizzling a row of thin streams of flour-and-water batter onto a turning hot plate, so they dry into long threads resembling shredded wheat. The “pastry” looks like long thin vermicelli noodle threads. The pastry is heated with some butter and then spread with soft cheese. A thick syrup, consisting of sugar, water and a few drops of rose water, is poured on the pastry during the final minutes of cooking. Crushed pistachios are then sprinkled on top as a garnish.

Kunefe!

Sole kebabs and sea bass in parchment paper.

By Thursday, we were acutely aware that our opportunity for meals was rapidly diminishing (our flight to Rome was the next day). . . so we set about finding a few places that we were determined to try. Our lunch destination was Tarihi Karaköy Balikcisi, a small restaurant tucked away on a back street amongst vendors selling hardware that our food guru, Katie Parla, described as the best fish restaurant in town. We were advised to go at lunch when Maharrem Usta is working the charcoal. The unimposing restaurant was, in fact, so subtle that a shopkeeper who saw us standing in front of it looking around, came over to open the door for us—somehow he suspected we were in the neighborhood with lunch, rather than home renovation, in mind. We were ushered past the big barbeque pit on the first floor, up a narrow winding stairway, to a small table on the second floor. There, the owner brought over a large silver tray displaying each of the fresh fish being served that day. Eli decided to try the restaurant’s famous spigola cooked in parchment. Jenny and Seth followed what was rumored to be an excellent preparation—the sole on a stick, preceded by an exquisite fish soup. We left our plates spotless.

The pudding restaurant!

Despite that fact that we were feeling very happily satisfied after lunch, Seth needed to find Ozkonak—a real pudding shop. This was mostly because he had no idea what a pudding shop was, but liked the sound of it. This place has been in business for over 50 years, largely because of their tavuk gogsu, chicken breast pudding. (For the first time since 1982, Istanbul left Seth truly regretting his decision to not eat meat). He implored Jenny and Eli to order the pudding and describe it to him. The pudding doesn’t taste of chicken at all. We also ordered a thick, creamy rice pudding dusted with cinnamon, and a bowl of home made unusually thick yogurt (that was Nell’s favorite). And as we were leaving, we asked the owner if we could take home a portion of kaymak(the delicious Turkish version of clotted cream made from the milk of water buffalos) to save for breakfast the next day. It was amazing!

The owner of the pudding shop was very pleased with our intense interest in dairy desserts!

Chicken breast pudding for dessert. Sublime!

For dinner, we again followed one of Katie Parla’s suggestions and tried Asmalı Cavit in Beyoğlu. This restaurant is what is known as a meyhane: a casual restaurant serving raki (the Turkish national drink of anise-flavored brandy that both Seth and Jenny ended up loving) and mezes (starters). The mezzes were displayed like a dim sum restaurant: they are wheeled from table to table on a multi-decker tray, and are simple and deliciously fresh dishes. We tried watercress in yogurt, fava beans, aubergine spread, hummus, roasted peppers, kale, grilled shrimp, patlıcan salatası (smoked eggplant with a touch of bechamel), and beyaz peynir (white cheese), among others and fantastic bread.

A few of our other favorites over the week:

Eli loved the kebaps, perfectly grilled over charcoal, especially the chicken wing ones.

At the Grand Bazaar we tried sahlep, a hot drink made from orchid roots and served hot with cinnamon. We also ate at a fantastic restaurant hidden away in the enormous bazaar, Havuzlu. There, and also at the wonderful Ciya restaurant on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, you order by going up to the counter, overviewing the dishes of food, and just pointing to the ones you want to try.

Seth enjoyed a cold drink called ayran, a mixture of water, yogurt and salt.

We all loved the fresh juices sold everywhere, especially the orange and winter pomegranate that is fresh squeezed on the street (winter pomegranate is uglier and yellower than the pomegranate we usually see in the US- but also much sweeter).

Nell’s favorite dessert was found on the Asian side: a stall in the food market selling cups of thick yogurt that were drizzled with honey direct;y from huge honeycombs.

Jenny could happily live on the pistachio and walnut baklava.

Food Coordinates Below–>

Eating at the Grand Bazaar:

Havuzlu, Gani Celebi Sokak No. 3

Eating on the Asian Side:

Ciya, Guneslibahce Sk, No. 43

Filled with tourists, but decent vegetarian and kabop option near Ayasofya:

Khorasani, Divanyolu caddesi Ticarethane sokak No. 39/41

Meyhane in downtown (near the pedestrian street):

Asmali Cavit Saatci, Asmalimescit Cad., No. 16 D

Pudding!:

Ozkonak, Akarsu Cad., No. 46/B

The best fish restaurant ever (in Karakoy):

Tarihi Karaköy Balikcisi Lokantasi, Tersane Cad. Kardesim Sok No. 45/A

The real-deal for boza:

Vefa Bozacisi, Celebi Caddesi, 102

Amazing yogurt at the Asian side food market:

Etabal Merkez

The Sultan’s candy maker (and the best Turkish Delight):

Altan Sekerleme, Kantarcilar, Kiblecesme Cad., No. 96

Baklavaci Extraordinaire:

Bilgeoglu, Muvakkithane Cad., No. 56

Inside the Aya Sofya: originally built by Justinian and then captured for the Ottomans by Mehmet the Conqueror, and now a museum.

Istanbul is a destination that we had planned to visit during our sabbatical year. The children had a week off from school for Settimana Bianca, or “White Week.” This is a winter holiday when Italian families head to the ski slopes. Since we don’t ski, we headed off to Turkey.

Our much-anticipated vacation started with a few stressors. On the flight from Rome we found lice in Nell’s hair and when we arrived at our hotel, Eli started running a fever. But thanks to what we like to think of as good parental intuitions, we had packed all of the appropriate pharmaceuticals and 24 hours later, everyone was fixed, feeling good, and ready to explore.

This trip was also a big developmental milestone for our family. For the first time, the kids had their own hotel room—not connected to ours, but down the hall. So at the end of a day we were able to say goodnight and make a plan to have everyone meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast at an appointed hour the next day (the kids always beat us there!). It was definitely a bittersweet transition for the parents, but a singularly positive one for the kids that left them feeling very independent and excited about their own hotel room!

Domes of the Blue Mosque.

Istanbul exceeded our high expectations. But explaining why is a challenge because the city defies easy categorization.

The Turks are known for their hospitality—and every person we met lived up to that reputation. The country’s rich history—so intertwined with Rome’s that in addition to Constantinople and Byzantium, Istanbul was also called “New Rome”—was captivating. The culinary culture left us planning entire days around our meals. Aspects of westernization made parts of the city feel very familiar and comfortable. At the same time, the country has a nasty government, increasing religious fundamentalism, human rights abuses, and laws that allow journalists to be imprisoned for writing things critical of the government.

In part, we were won over by the people, who were warm and funny, and may have even outdone the Italians with their overt affection for children. On numerous occasions strangers came up to the children to tell them how beautiful they were and hug them; as we waited for subway cars to empty, disembarking passengers would stop—one by one—to pinch the children’s cheeks and tousle their hair. People hurrying off to work would stop when they saw us consulting a map to ask if we needed any help or direction.

Tea overlooking the Bosphorus, on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace.

But it wasn’t just the people. The skylines of domes and minarets, the decorative tiles both inside and outside of the buildings, the smells of the food wafting from restaurants, the view of the gorgeous Bosphorus river winding through the city, the activity of the bazaars, and even the musical calls to prayer from the mosques ringing through the city. . . this all felt magical.

In some ways the city felt European, in other ways Asian. Sometimes it seemed Western, sometimes Eastern. It was Islamic but also secular. There were high-end cocktail lounges and avant-garde architecture, with most women wearing head coverings. The city felt both very old and very contemporary. Turkey has a grand and rich history from even before the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, but not the grand modern history, literature, and art of other western European countries. So it’s a bit too eastern for the tastes of the other NATO allies and a bit too western to be in the fold of its Arab neighbors. And that seems to leave it in a marvelous place of its own, where traditional values clash with modernization, and secularism attempts to balance alongside political Islam.

Asia lies on the other side of the Bosphorus, a 10 minute ferry ride away. The kids are enjoying fresh-pressed orange-pompegranate juice on the Asian side.

One thing that really captured our attention was the city’s cleanliness. The streets and sidewalks were always tidy and whenever we purchased museum tickets, we were also presented with a packet of hand wipes (with the design of the particular museum imprinted on them). It was also striking to us how happy people seemed, which was surprising because it is certainly not a wealthy city. One guide told us that Istanbulers give a great deal of respect to people who do their jobs well, regardless of whether you run a huge business or shine shoes. These shows of overt respect for each other seemed to result in a collective sense of high self-esteem and satisfaction. We felt that instantly and a bit of it rubbed off.

Some of the things we noticed were funny. In Istanbul, you go to particular places to buy specific items. We first noticed this when we entered the street where you can buy burlap sacks. If you need a sack, you don’t go to a general hardware store or run around town trying to find which general store has what you need. There is one street where all of the merchants selling burlap sacks can be found. And each merchant sells a different kind of sack, so the merchants don’t compete with each other. Later that afternoon, we walked down the street where all of the shops selling scales could be found. The street where one goes to buy sink faucets looked really cool, and the street where shop after shop sold only SCUBA equipment was hysterical.

On our drive to the airport for our flight back to Rome, our conversation was all about when we could next return, where in the city we want to stay next time, and what we wanted to do on our subsequent visits. Eli wants us to find a weekend when we can get back there  immediately, even this spring. Nell wants to experience it in a different season. Jenny wants to stay in a neighborhood just beyond the city center. Seth wants to spend a day at the Archeology Museum. And we all have specific food items that we are already longing for.

With all of the places in the world that we still want to visit, we feel certain that we’ll be returning to Istanbul.

View of the Golden Horn, with the Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofya in the distance.