From a fashion point of view, Istanbul surprised me. I just didn’t see fashion conscious people walking around. It is a city that is certainly full of life, colour and movement, but the women were either old-school, dressed down like students, or over teasing the hair and lip liner. You certainly get the sense that women here have strong personalities though - and tend to find their fun with a bling, throwback look. I love people watching: I am fascinated by the way women dress, carry themselves or embody a city’s signature look. You can always put your finger on what makes a woman look like the part in Rome, London or Paris. But after 4 days I couldn’t pinpoint the modern Istanbul woman. But even though I couldn’t define what exactly the contemporary cutting edge or mainstream is, the age-old shopping culture here makes even spending money a cultural experience!
Any girl worth her salt knows how to get lost in retail therapy - but this centuries-old covered bazaar covers a huge span of 65 streets. Visitors can meander the alleys for hours and hours, getting lost in time, because so many of the shops sell objects from Turkey’s culturally rich past. The gorgeous old stone buildings, with lots of columns and old, fading ochre frescos on the archways, is full of exotic things to ogle in every corner: rugs, plates and brass genie lamps hang everywhere.
Specialist boutiques like MUHLIS GUNBATI have handwoven tapestries and Ottoman textiles. Because I love the history of fashion and was fascinated by the old Turkish sultan’s costumes I had seen on exhibition, it was lovely to see this store’s exquisite brocaded coats, tablecloths, bedspreads and wall hangings up close. These are rich, antique fabrics that are hundreds of years old: 16th century brocades that wouldn’t look out of place in the Vatican, flowing silks - all with stories attached. The wealthy Ottoman men certainly believed in display, even more than for women, belly dancers notwithstanding!
Right outside the gates, on the way into the Kapalicarsi (‘covered bazaar’) we had liked the look of KOSK café, but didn’t want to stay stuck eating there when there were so many shops and stalls to explore. Our guide assured us that it is quite common at the bazaar to combine shopping and eating so he ordered the food in advance to be sent on to Muhlis Gunbatti! We were welcomed in like long lost friends - the Turkish like to make a fuss - and the trays of sliced meats, stews and chips arrived. That was a first for us, which made the experience that bit more memorable.
I was actually on the search for light kaftans that I can wear over a bikini; the atmosphere of this city put me in the mood for that flamboyant, ethnic touch. But our guide, Maher misunderstood me and thought I meant the heavy antique kind. There were dazzling robes worth 1000 Euros a piece; this store is a collectors dream. They are so decorative, heavy and of historical interest, but too fragile or stiff to wear; you could only buy them to hang as works of art. Zoe sat wide eyed in the corner, taking in all the splashes of bold colour, piles and piles of fabrics, and flags with the crescent moon. The store is an Ali Baba’s cave that is well worth seeing.
There are also very expensive fine jewelry stores here, but you can come genie oil lamps and beaten old jugs. I loved the exotic glassware, particularly the tea sets with wire frames and golden rims.
Wherever you looked, in any direction, there were other alleyways beckoning and market locals everywhere washing their hands at the public taps on ceramic tiles. The majority of these women look stocky, like the Russian peasant dolls, and you can see the same Eastern European-influenced floral patterns on their shawls. But times have changed when a traditionally dressed woman works a Burberry pattern into her look!
Jonathan was a little taken aback by modern developments like neon signs and electronic cash registers. He is always seeking to recapture the grit and authenticity he loves so much at Jerusalem markets! But the age of the building and personality of the vendors certainly add a distinctive Turkish flavour to this shopping experience.
You can’t turn around in the markets without hitting a Persian carpet. Istanbul is actually considered one of the best places in the world for thick, velvety Oriental carpets. Maher guided us on a short walk through the little streets surrounding the Kapalicarsi Covered Bazaar - where thick vines grow over the cafes and old buildings - to take us to the carpet maker who was commissioned to provide all the hand-woven carpets at Les Ottomans hotel, so we knew the quality would be superb.
No matter what anyone sells in Turkey, they like to host you. We all stirred sugar into our strong coffees on a rooftop terrace with amazing views over the Dolmabahce Palace and Blue Mosque, while also being served baklava and lemonade with mint in it. Like the Arabs, the Turks prize hospitality.
Downstairs they unfurled every kind of kilim, rug and Turkish Hereke wool carpet in paisleys, patterns and grids while a lovely man, Melik Kocun worked his hypnotic magic. But we were really there to see the carpet making process, where the pattern is created one knot at a time: that’s how painstaking it is. The big coils of silky thread somehow made their way into the weave through the skill of the craftsmen.
Jonathan felt that the gentle hustle throughout the experience (the eternal “I make you special price”) took off the gloss, but I laughed and told him that these salesmen could no more hold back than Placido Domingo on stage at an opera house! It’s what they are born to do…
We loved finding this old arcade in the Beyoğlu district, where the ‘meyhane’ tavernas boomed in the nineteenth century. When we were strolling down modern Turkey’s most happening, busy street, ISTIKLAL we came upon this cluster of streets around GALATASARAY SQUARE.
When Zoe bought some fun trinkets and jewelry from the lovely, matronly assistants at PROTI at No 4 they gave her something for free because she has such a happy, cute face. If only that worked for me at Chanel!
I loved the ‘ANTIQUES / JEWELLERY’ store at Number 8. They had amazing old silver and interesting watches that go back 70 yrs. Noah also struck gold. He has a love and appreciation for older things that is almost eccentric in someone his age. He came across these amazing antique boxes in this kooky collectibles store CAN SHOP at No 7 that sells coins, paper, medallions and curios from many eras. Although he is still a typical teenager; I am sure that we will never find out what he stores in them!
Even though I am far less interested in global luxury shopping in historical destinations like Istanbul, this kind of shopping is available - especially since the bold and the beautiful of Istanbul now have their own, new, Western style mall. The only reason why we set foot here was to pick up some books in English for Zoe. Our guide, Maher knew it would be convenient - and was very proud and excited about this swanky new shopping mecca. Our headspace is different. If If we are on a quest to experience a 2 000yr old city, why would I blow time buying a Chloe bag?
It is a mega mall with all mod cons and that slightly surreal, faux Rodeo Drive style that is as sterile as a film set. Every car is a Porsche or Mercedes Benz - with all the big labels to match. The mall itself is immaculate, with that strange burkas /mini skirts mix of female styles.
Desperately looking for something, anything, that was even remotely Turkish we found some sticky ice-cream which you can turn upside down in the food court. Apparently they do this everywhere in Turkey.
If you do decide to have a break from the spices and brass lamps to dip into some home style convenience at this megaplex, don’t forget to have your dockets stamped so that you can get a full global tax refund.
I thought the BOUTIQUE, like everything at LES OTTOMANS, was way beyond the usual. They have marvelous kaftans, fun, oversized jewelry and strappy sandals. You could do a whole top to toe ethnic glam wardrobe here before you even walk out the door.