Istanbul beyond the hard sell
"Good morning. How are you doing? Carpets are almost free today. " "Hello. Are you Italian? I have a nice leather jacket. " "Rolex! Rolex Rolex! " "Hello...
Seattle Times travel writer
Northwest travel guides
ISTANBUL, Turkey — "Good morning. How are you doing? Carpets are almost free today."
"Hello. Are you Italian? I have a nice leather jacket."
"Hello. I'm selling carpets ... Just tell me, 'yes or no.' "
Istanbul can sometimes feel like a giant shopping mall, especially in Sultanahmet, the heart of the old city, where the most famous Ottoman-era mosques, palaces and museums are within strolling distance of each other.
Named for Sultan Ahmet I, the builder of the Blue Mosque, the neighborhood is filled with parks and gardens, the scent of apple tobacco and the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer broadcast over loudspeakers.
You could settle in for days here, checking into an inexpensive little hotel with a rooftop view, and breaking up bouts of sightseeing with afternoons spent lounging around cafes, sipping tea and playing backgammon.
As Istanbul's most historic neighborhood, Sultanahmet charms most visitors. But it's also a tourist magnet, and it's not long before "Hello, how are you? Where are you from?" begins to sound like code language for "I'd like to sell you a carpet."
It's possible to buy a nice carpet in Istanbul, albeit at a high price. But bait and switch and other scams are common, and after my first visit five years ago, I was convinced that any man who approached me (it's mostly men who work in the restaurants and shops) had an ulterior motive.
A simple "Can I help you?" made me wary.
Sultanahmet is a safe area with lots of inexpensive boutique hotels, many in restored wooden houses. Most have rooftop gardens and breakfast rooms, and all are within walking distance of the major sites.
Well located is the Side Hotel and Pension, Utangac Solak, 20, across from the Four Seasons. Rooms on the hotel side have private bath, air conditioning and TV. Doubles, $63-$75 with breakfast. Best value are the newly renovated pension rooms (private bath but no A/C or TV). Doubles, $35-$43. See www.sidehotel.com or 011-90-212-517-22-82. Rooms are similar at the Hotel Spina across the street. Doubles, $90, including A/C, TV, private bath and breakfast. See www.hotelspina.com or call 011-90-212-638-1727.
Nearby is the 14-room Hotel Hippodrome on quiet Mimar Mehmetaga Caddesi, 38. Doubles, $88 with private bath, A/C, TV and breakfast. See www.hippodromehotel.com or call 011-90-212-517-68-89
The 16-room Kybele Hotel, Yerebatan Caddesi, 35, is in a busier area off Divan Yolu. The rooms and lobby are decorated with hundreds of colored antique lamps suspended from the ceilings. Cozy cafe and garden. Doubles, $100-$112, with A/C, private bath and breakfast. See www.kybelehotel.com or call 011-90-212-511-77-66.
The fixed-price tourist restaurants in the side streets off Divan Yolu are easy, but there are better options.
On the Asia side, the Kanaat is at Selmanipak Caddesi, 25 in Uskudar, up from the ferry terminal and across the main square. In Sultanahmet, the Baran 2, Divan Yolu, 54, is a casual lokanta, or cafeteria-style restaurant, similar to Kanaat, but with a beer and wine license. Next door, Ozsut, Divan Yolu, 48, specializes in traditional desserts and puddings served on a rooftop terrace with a view of the Blue Mosque. Magnaura Cafe, Akbiyik Caddesi, 27, behind the Side Hotel, offers Turkish and Spanish specialties in a restored house with tables on several floors.
Turkey uses the lira as its unit of currency. It recently dropped the zeros so that one million lira now equals one lira, about 74 cents at current exchange rates. The new currency is called New Turkish lira, but both new and old bills are in circulation and many merchants and hotels still quote prices in millions.
This time, unburdened by the pressure to see the major sites, I was determined to discover a different side to the city that under the rule of Roman Catholic Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 AD became Constantinople until it was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453 and renamed Istanbul.
Veering off the beaten tourist path, as it turned out, didn't require going very far before the atmosphere quickly changed.
A few blocks away from the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and other Ottoman-era monuments in Sultanahmet, a warren of narrow streets leads downhill to the Galata Bridge, the link between the old city and more modern Beyoglu and Eminonu, the transportation hub for buses and trams and the ferries crossing the Bosphorus.
Lying in between the touristy Grand Bazaar and 17th-century Spice Bazaar is a neighborhood where the salesmen culture is every bit as lively as in Sultanahmet, but the items for sale are more unusual and the sellers more sincere.
All that's needed to set up shop is a loud voice, a plastic garbage bag filled with rubber thongs or hairbrushes, a stool and a choice spot in the middle of a crowded street.
Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, so trade has always been a part of its history, but in areas like this, no one bothers much with tourists. The vendors save their energy for the locals.
I watched as women dressed in headscarves and long cloth coats crowded around a man with a cardboard box filled with men's underwear. The most attention I got was from an enthusiastic cucumber seller pushing a wooden cart. When I lifted my camera to take his picture, he picked out his longest, peeled it with a knife, split it down the middle, salted it and handed it to me like an ice cream on a stick. For 35 cents, how could I resist?
Crossing continents is one of the best ways to get off the beaten tourist track.
The 20-mile-long Bosphorus strait connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and separates the European side of Istanbul from the Asian shore. Tour boats ply the route, but public ferries and buses are better for exploring the villages on both sides.
The ride to Kadikoy or Uskudar, two of the main suburbs on the Asian side, costs 74 cents and takes about 20 minutes from Eminonu.
Both are traditional neighborhoods popular with locals for their waterside cafes, pedestrian streets and local markets.
My plan was to start the morning in Kadikoy, go from there by taxi to Beylerbeyi Palace, a waterside summer home of the sultans, and double back to Uskudar by bus for a late lunch at a local cafeteria-style restaurant called a lokanta.
"Cay, Cay!" a man in a black vest and white shirt called out as the ferry pulled away. On a Turkish ferry, this means tea, served not in paper cups but in tiny gold-rimmed glasses with two lumps of sugar and a silver spoon.
I drank mine on the upstairs deck while leaning over the railing and enjoying the postcard views of slender minarets rising above mosques, not a carpet shop in sight.
The merchants inside the Spice Bazaar had worn me down with their hard-sell tactics. On Kadikoy's Muvakkithane Street leading up the hill from the ferry dock, the atmosphere was more relaxed. Bins outside neighborhood herb and spice shops brimmed with dried apricots, olives and colorful mounds of saffron and paprika.
When I stopped to admire trays of Turkish sweets in the window of a pastry shop, three bakers in white coats motioned me inside for a slice of Kadayif, a gooey confection made with dough the texture of shredded wheat.
"Where are you from?" one of them asked. I almost didn't answer. Then I remembered, this was a bakery, not a carpet shop. He really wanted to know.
"The United States," I said. "America! Bush!" he said, smiling and rolling his eyes. Most Turks disagree with U.S. foreign policy, but the ones I met were polite about their feelings. We spent a few minutes chatting. "Clinton!" he shouted as I was leaving, smiling and giving me the thumbs up sign.
These kinds of encounters with locals continued the rest of the day.
On the way back to the ferry dock to catch the taxi to the palace, I spotted a little red tram that said "Moda," a hilltop neighborhood above Kadikoy known for its outdoor antique markets and ice cream. On impulse, I hopped on without a ticket. A rider saw my predicament and used his pass to pay my fare.
Later that afternoon in Uskudar, a shoeshine man noticed that I was looking at a map and asked me if he could help. He ended up walking me to Kanaat, a restaurant across from the ferry dock at Selmanipak Caddesi, 25, that's been in the same family since 1933.
Uskudar could be mini-San Francisco with its harborside cafes and steep streets lined with restored wooden Ottoman-style homes. Pictures of this area almost always include the 18th-century Maiden's Tower on a small island called Kiz Kulesi reached via water taxi.
The views are best at night when lights illuminate the mosques and palaces on the European side, but the trip is worthwhile anytime for a meal at Kanaat.
Like most lokantas, it keeps its prices down ($3-$4 a dish) by not serving alcohol. My waiter suggested a glass of Ayran, a liquid yogurt drink. Then came the fun part: walking up to the front counter and pointing to what I wanted from dozens of trays filled with stuffed vegetables, meatballs in lemon sauce and a whole row labeled "olive oil dishes." Dessert was a choice among a half-dozen puddings including what became my favorite, Asure or "Noah's pudding," a thick dessert made with dried fruit, nuts and sweet beans.
"Buy cheaper! Buy cheaper!"
"Do you want some carpets?"
"Yes, please. We can make you a good price."
Back in Sultanahmet, the carpet men swooped down as I walked from my hotel to dinner.
One man pointed a toy gun to his head.
"I'll shoot myself if you don't come into my store," he said.
How often do these hard-sell tactics pay off? Less and less, apparently.
One man told me he hadn't sold a carpet all week.
"This business. It's going to die," he predicted. Turkey is making a bid to join the European Union and is anxious to clean up its image.
Already the police are starting to crack down. Gone are the touts who used to lurk around the Blue Mosque, striking up conversations with unsuspecting prospects by showing them photos of their "relatives from New Jersey."
In the meantime, I considered this advice from a man who's been selling carpets for 30 years.
"Just tell them you're from New York, and they'll leave you alone."
I tried it, but no luck.
"You don't walk like you're from New York," said the man with the plastic gun. "I think you're from Minnesota."
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com