I love Oriental rugs, visions of Ali Baba and his magic flying carpet have always mesmerized me, so I was excited to visit Turkey; one of the best places in the world to buy a carpet.

But buying a rug in Turkey intimidated me.  I’d heard tales from other people visiting Turkey about negotiating the price of their purchases. A seller may start out at a thousand dollars for a product that he’ll be satisfied only getting $250 for.

grand bazaar istanbul carpet storeOther than cars, Americans are not used to negotiating for items. Which is one of the reason buying a new car ranks up there with going to the dentist among chores that we most dread. But now I was going to the scrum of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul to see how I could do.

The Grand Bazaar is massive, featuring  3,000 shops and over a quarter of a million visitors daily jostling through the crowded aisles. (You may remember the Bazaar from the opening scene of the latest James Bond film Skyfall, where our intrepid hero crashes a motorcycle into one of the clerestory windows.)

Like an NFL lineman, I made my way down the aisles teeming with window shoppers, waiters dashing back-and-forth with trays of thick Turkish coffee balanced precariously on their shoulders and vendors roaming assertively from their stalls, each of whom seemed to want to be my new BFF. I felt like a bull who had accidentally strolled into an abattoir.

A tug at my elbow led to one stand selling not Turkish rugs, but glittery Mexican sombreros. An odd souvenir for Turkey that I wouldn’t even buy in Mexico. Another impressed me with his assortment of shiny silver baubles. But I was only looking for one thing: a simple Turkish rug with a geometric pattern that would fit in my suitcase.

The Bazaar started filling up with visitors from a cruise shop docked in the Bosphorus. An army of camera wielding seniors clad in identical uniforms of khaki shorts, golf shirts and New Balance sneakers (because they come in widths, they told me) patrolled the aisles; creating a feeding frenzy among the vendors seeking a sale. I realized that the Bazaar is a great place for people watching but the wrong place for me to buy a rug.

istanbul rug store

So we explored the Chihangir section of Istanbul that is well off the tourist path and found a small shop selling antiques, which in Turkey usually means a wide selection of used carpets. A pile of them were stacked up outside the entrance as an enticement to passers-by. It worked and I was drawn into the shop like a moth to wool.

buying a rug in turkeyThe carpets were all decades old, many showing the evidence of hard use. But I figured these were designed for camels to walk on so they can take it. I leafed through the pile as the merchant pulled out one after the other; explaining to me the various qualities of each. I finally settled on a small brightly colored carpet that would fold up easily.

The merchant said, “You should buy this rug. It will make you happy and it will make me happy. Everyone will be happy.” How could I resist such sound logic?

When I asked the price I was startled when he replied “50 lira.” That was only 25 dollars for a beautiful work of art that I would cherish forever. It seemed like a fair price to me. But he stood there expectantly waiting for me to say something. Would he be insulted if I didn’t negotiate? I countered with 40 lira.  He shook my hand and said “Now we’re both happy.”

buying a carpet in istanbul

I had learned a good lesson. Usually it’s better to stray off the well-trod tourist path and explore where the locals live. They wouldn’t overpay for something and the experience is much more enjoyable.

Afterwards I rewarded myself with a kokorec sandwich, which we later declared to be the best sandwich in the world. We were in Istanbul for less than a week but it’s high on our list of places we’ll return.

turkish rug

 

To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

In Istanbul, visitors flock by the thousands to the most popular sights; the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. But mere steps away from these two icons is the Basilica Cistern, a lesser known attraction that is quite intriguing in its own right; one that can even boast of being a movie star. The Basilica Cistern was built under the streets of Constantinople, as it was called then, by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.D. to store drinking water for the city.

From a small street-level building, visitors descend a series of stairs to view the mammoth subterranean vault. More than a mere holding tank for water, the Basilica Cistern is an architectural wonder. It’s carved out of the earth as if it were a hidden cloister for some mysterious medieval religious order.

Basilica Cistern main view (575x431)

The arched ceiling is supported by over 300 Ionic and Corinthian marble columns as it covers the 100,000 square foot structure. At one time there were hundreds of cisterns below the city streets of Constantinople, but this was the grandest of them all.

When this was a working cistern, most of what the visitor sees would have been under water. Now the water is only a few feet deep, just enough to support a few fish swimming around. Wooden walkways provide easy access throughout the building.

istanbul cistern

The Cistern is cool and dank, the subterranean temperature providing relief on hot Turkish summer days. Beams of light illuminate the ceiling creating an eerie effect. This is compounded by visitor’s muffled voices bouncing off the walls and ceiling in all directions.

Make sure to stroll over to the far left corner to see the two Medusa columns. Two giant heads of Medusa, a monster from Greek mythology with writhing snakes instead of hair, support these columns. It’s incredible that these intricately carved heads were placed at the bottoms of these pillars, when the Cistern was full they would have been obscured. Today the lower water level reveals these works of art.

medusa column

Oh, and the Basilica Cistern’s movie star moment? The second James Bond film, From Russia With Love, takes place in Istanbul. In a key scene the structure is flooded with a few feet of water. Sean Connery glides through the columns in a small wooden boat to arrive below the Soviet Consulate. The current Bond film, Skyfall, paid homage to this scene when it featured the Cistern in the opening credits.

While the Basilica Cistern is literally one of the coolest sites in Istanbul, it’s also a highlight of a visit to this intriguing city.

If you’re interested in visiting, click here for VIP Basilica Cistern Tickets.

We’re always on the lookout for local delicacies, preferably ones that are tasty, quick and cheap. After leaving the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul a heady aroma of charcoal smoke, cooking meat and spices wafted over us.

We headed for the source and found a sandwich shop selling kokorec. We had no idea what that was but it sure smelled good. Eager customers huddled around a cook who was carving a round cylinder of meat about half the length of a baseball bat.  As the meat spun around on the rotisserie it was basted by its own melting fat which dripped onto the red-hot charcoal fire, creating the wonderful aroma.

kolorec zulfu Istanbul

As each person placed the order the counterman tossed a crusty baguette to the cook who stuck it on the spit so it would get toasty. He’d then chop up some meat and red roasted peppers, scoop it on the bread, toss on a mix of oregano, paprika and crushed hot peppers and hand it back to the counterman, who wrapped it in butcher paper and handed it to the by now delirious customer.

When it was our turn to be delirious we eagerly ripped into the sandwich, barely remembering to peel back the paper first. I’ve read descriptions of flavors exploding on taste buds but, other than the time my brother convinced me to eat a whole clove when I was ten, I had never experienced that sensation.

kokorec

Well this sandwich exploded. The combination of the meat, the fat, the charcoal smoke and spices created  an eruption of flavors I’ve never experienced. I said to Larissa that it might have been the best sandwich I’ve ever had and we should consider opening a sandwich shop with them back in Philly. She was too busy chewing to notice another one of my harebrained schemes.

Afterwards we wondered what we had just eaten. Given the part of the world we were in we assumed it was lamb, we were almost right.

kokorec

The next night we were out for a Turkish coffee with our friends Merve and Yaprak and relayed the story of our wonderful sandwich find. Yaprak made a tubular motion across her stomach and said “You ate kokorec. It’s sheep intestine. The long one.”

“Really?”

“Don’t worry, they clean it out first,” she replied.

That made me feel better. To make kokorec the cook takes all the parts of the animal that aren’t good for much else—offal, organs, lungs, kidneys, well, you get the idea—and wraps them in the intestine to hold them together over the fire. Come to think of it, it’s probably not much different from sausage.

Whatever was in that intestine, and I try not to think about it too hard, it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. If our travels take us back to Istanbul I’m sure we’ll be lining up again for a tasty serving of kokorec.

What’s your favorite sandwich?

Speaking of sheep, click the link for a video of our tasting lamb tongue in New Zealand.