Back in December 2001 when I was stuck without a bed, amid a torrential downpour, in Cusco I'd have probably prayed for a service such as Trip Advisor to burst onto the internet scene. Instead, with all the hotels listed in the guidebooks full and the scribbled names of places passed on from other travellers booked solid as well, I trudged the back alleys of Cusco for five hours with my backpack trying to find a room.
Travelling days like this are now a thing of the past. Trip Advisor has given the traveller choice and the traveller has responded in kind by enthusiastically rating restaurants, hotels and sights in a free-for-all reviewing frenzy.
I've got no beef to grind with the internet's tourism giant. I don't think Trip Advisor is a guidebook replacement but due to page count restraints and publishing schedules I do think it can be a useful medium for travellers to use in conjunction with one. Unlike a guidebook, Trip Advisor has space for every hotel and restaurant in town so everyone gets a look-in and the right-up-to-the-minute efficiency of the Internet means that all those new hotels and restaurants manage to start building reputations long before the next guidebook author is due in town. It should be a win-win situation for all sides. But it's not.
Everyone knows hotels and restaurants often post fake reviews on their Trip Advisor sites but lately I've stumbled across something far more insidious, and damaging, in the Trip Advisor fake reviews game.
In Town A (which I know well), a person is making money by creating fake Trip Advisor reviews and forum posts for local hotels and restaurants. For the princely sum of US$165 this person will not only post fake positive reviews and forum posts for their clients but also nastily post fake negative reviews on the sites of three of their main competitors.
Now Town A is a small town which lives and breathes tourism. It's the main business there and competition between hotels and restaurants is already ridiculously high. So what happened when this Trip Advisor entrepreneur started selling their dirty service? Well Hotel A used this service and their Trip Advisor rating shot up thanks to the fake positive reviews. They also managed to make their main competition, Hotel B, have a lower ranking than them because of the fake negative reviews this person posted.
Now Hotel B and Hotel C, D, E and F then got wind of this new service and felt like they had no choice but to join in. Otherwise maybe Hotel G, H, I and J were going to use it and end up higher in the Trip Advisor ratings than them. So this person made (and is making) a killing feeding paranoia to Hotels A through to Z. Which explains how Hotel E has managed to get over 100 Trip Advisor reviews despite being open less than a year while Hotel X (currently not using this service) has fewer than 100 yet has been open for three years.
I guarantee that this isn't the only town across the world where this sort of thing is happening. You put a tool like Trip Advisor out into the world and then fail to police it properly and there's always going to be someone who successfully cheats the system. Anyone can create a few different user names, log in and begin writing a bunch of bullshit on Trip Advisor. And some people, with unscrupulous morals, are going to start charging for it.
The just plain dumb
On a funnier note there's another reason why travellers shouldn't take everything on Trip Advisor at face value. This is a REAL review for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Goreme National Park (another place I know well) by Trip Advisor Senior Reviewer Marcia58:
"This is disappointing to hike. What seems to be the best areas are closed to the public. There are some nice views if you have a car. I took one short hike and turned back due to flies and nothing much to see. I'd skip it."
Yeah Marcia58, I agree. It really is terribly disappointing:
Goreme National Park: Too many flies and nothing to see...just skip it.
Looking over the Suez Canal from downtown Port Said
Yes you heard that right. A new ferry route between Port Said in Egypt and Mersin in Turkey has recently opened.
Great news for Africa overlanders who don't want to drive their vehicle or ride their motorbike through the Middle East and for anyone who simply loves good old fashioned ferry travel.
The opening of the ferry route is part of the new Ro-Ro transportation agreement between Turkey and Egypt. So if you've ever fancied a bit of good, old fashioned Mediterranean ferry travel here are the details I've been able to gather on the service so far:
The fantastically named vessels, The Apollonia and Nicolay Konarev, make the voyage between Mersin and Port Said four times weekly in total.
The cost is US$300 per passenger
or, US$450 per passenger with motorbike
or, approx US$800 per passenger with car (depending on size of vehicle)
There are also customs and agency clearing fees on top of this which will mount up if you're travelling with a vehicle.
If you're on the Egypt side you need to contact A.K Naggar Shipping.
8 Palastin Street, Elmesageria Building 4th Floor
Port Said, Egypt
Tel: +20 (66) 333-3865 / 332-3820A good point of contact is Hend Shamsia (email@example.com) who speaks English and is quick to reply to emails.
The traveller website Horizons Unlimited also has a dedicated forum thread with up-to-date information on this ferry route.
Port Said Customs House: This could be your last view of Egypt if you take the ferry.
A Pharaonic playground of the highest order, Luxor is a tale of two shores severed by the sinuous curves of the Nile. Bite into a slice of provincial Egypt among the east bank's frenetic sprawl of souqs before chewing your way through the ostentatious magnitude of Luxor and Karnak temple complexes. On the west bank the languid haze of adobe huts, donkeys and jagged desert cliffs is lorded over by the world's greatest open air museum. You'll walk among a roll-call of schoolbook-famous kings and queens as you explore this vast necropolis of tombs and temples.
The east bank is Luxor's downtown. Although the clutter of streets isn't pretty, it's a lively cram where horse-drawn carriages battle beeping-horn cars on the streets. At the centre, riverside, is Luxor Temple while Karnak is three kilometres north. Across the river (accessed by regular ferry service) the tombs and temples of the Theban Necropolis spread out over the desert. The authentically-local hotels here are a sedate alternative to staying on the east bank.
Known for their heartfelt hospitality, you'll be greeted with 'ahlan wa sahlan' (hello and welcome) everywhere you go. Pull up a pavement seat at an ahwa (coffee house) and you'll soon be chatting with the locals. As in the rest of Egypt, Luxor's population is mostly Muslim and although a major tourist destination, at its heart this is a conservative town. Dressing modestly (shoulders and knees covered) is greatly appreciated by locals and will win you a whole new group of friends.
Photo copyright of Flickr user Pierrelond
Old maps and prints
Old Constantinople was an artist’s dream of a city with its skyline of minarets and there are a fabulous range of original and reproduction old maps and prints that you can hang on your wall as a daily reminder of your travels. There are also plenty of reproductions of Ottoman miniatures and illuminated manuscript illustrations on sale. Prices for an original map or drawing can skyrocket into 500TL or beyond depending on rarity but the reproductions are much more wallet-friendly. If you buy frame-less you can easily pick up a small piece of art for around 20TL. It’s also much lighter and easier to carry if you purchase this way.
Look out for fine pencil drawings of the city’s panorama looking over the Bosporus and for Ottoman miniatures with scrolling calligraphy work and vibrant colours depicting traditional court scenes from the lives of the sultans. As well as reproductions and old prints there has been a revival in miniature as an art-form in recent years and there are some excellent original modern works being produced.
Where to buy old maps and prints
The Istanbul Handicrafts Market (Kabasakal Caddesi, next-door to the Yesil Ev Hotel, Sultanahmet) is a good place to look for reasonably priced miniatures. The best hunting grounds for quality art (both old original pieces and reproductions) are across the Galata Bridge in the Tunel and Cukurcuma districts.
Artrium (Tunel Square, Tunel; open Mon-Sat 0900-1900) has a wonderful range of miniatures, prints and maps to browse through.
Ottomania (Sofyali Sokak, Tunel; open Mon-Sat 0900-1800) has plenty of old maps and cheaper prints that would make stunning souvenirs for your walls.
Glinting copper pots and bowls and jugs are stacked up metres high outside merchant’s stores. Whether newly made or old, there’s a huge amount of copperware to choose from in Istanbul and all of it is handmade. Copper samovars and water jugs make great shelf decorations to jazz up your kitchen or living room with but be aware that if you actually want to utilise your copper for cooking or serving (rather than just have it looking pretty on a shelf) you need to purchase the more expensive internally tinned versions. It’s also possible to get your copperware purchases tinned yourself (the copper merchant you’re buying from can point you in the right direction or can organise this himself).
Prices depend on size, workmanship and age. There’s a vast amount of antique copperware to be bought as well as new. You could pick up a small piece for as low as 10TL-15TL but bigger old pieces with excellent workmanship can fetch well over 100TL.
Where to buy copperware
A copperware search should begin at the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900). The two best sections within the bazaar for copper are the Ic Bedestan (off Konlancilar Caddesi if coming from Kurkculer Gate) and the Cebeci Han (off Yaglikcilar Caddesi).
L’Orient Handicrafts (Ic Bedestan, Grand Bazaar; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) is one of the city’s most knowledgeable antique metal-ware dealers and his shop is a treasure-trove of teapots, pitchers, trays, bowls and bells.
Photo copyright of Flickr user Wayne Noffsinger
Felt making is alive and well once more in Turkey thanks to a revival of interest in the fuzzy fabric as a funky material to be used in the manufacture of slippers, accessories, clothing and toys. Totally quirky and original handmade gifts of dolls, shawls and outrageously cool hats as well as fun jewellery are just a few of the felt gifts that can be picked up in the city. A cute felt bangle will cost about 20TL while a one-off hat that will have heads turning, or a pair of colourful slippers, will cost about 60TL.
Felt making is an ancient textile practice and its earliest application as a fabric was in Anatolia. During the late Ottoman period the traditional turban was replaced by the felt-made fez as the male headgear of choice but the nation’s once bustling felt industry fell on hard times in the early days of the Republic when the fez was banned by Ataturk.
Where to buy felt
Cocoon (Kucuk Aya Sofya Caddesi, Cankurtaran, Sultanahmet; open daily 0900-1930) is a drop-dead gorgeous store full of sumptuous textiles including an excellent range of felt products.
Ak Gumus (Gani Celebi Sokak, Grand Bazaar; open Mon-Sat 0900-1830) is a cute little place stuffed to the brim with felt hats and delightful felt toys as well as stocking a range of jewellery.
Art.I.Choke (Faikpasa Sokak, Cukurkuma, Taksim; Mon-Sat 1000-1900) is a felt buyer’s delight with a huge array of slippers, accessories, clothing and homewares all in bright colourful designs.
This city’s architecture boasts many a fine example of sumptuous Arabic calligraphy work and despite the script no longer being used for the Turkish alphabet the art-form is far from dead. The arabesque scrolling motifs and stylised lettering of Arabic calligraphy made into swirling patterns make highly original and surprisingly contemporary works of art to take home and frame. You can pick up a small piece of calligraphy art for as little as 15TL but obviously, as with all artwork, some of the more original and detailed larger pieces will have much higher price-tags.
The Turkish language was written in Arabic script up to 1929 when Ataturk, the founder and first President of the new Republic of Turkey, introduced an entirely new Latin script as the basis for Turkish. As an art-form though, Arabic calligraphy has continued to flourish with Turkey producing some of the most revered names in Arabic calligraphy in modern times.
Where to shop for calligraphy
The Istanbul Handicrafts Market (Kabasakal Caddesi, next-door to the Yesil Ev Hotel, Sultanahmet) has a range of calligraphy on display and you can watch the artists as they work as well. You’ll also find lots of calligraphy work for sale in the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) and across the Galata Bridge in the Tunel and Cukurcuma districts.
Photo copyright of Flickr user Quinn.anya
Turkish preserves and foodstuffs
The taste of Turkey for me is pomegranate sauce – wickedly sour-sweet and layered over a Turkish salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumber and parsley or dribbled liberally over lahmacan. For others it’s a deliciously sweet cup of apple tea served piping hot in a delicate tulip glass, or the decadent ropes of dried figs and plump dried apricots eaten with walnuts, or the strangely addictive bowls of salty olives for breakfast.
Turkey is a foodie’s delight and plenty of the preserved goods can be brought back home so you can experience a little taste of Turkey every day. Turkish apple tea is always popular with visitors and won’t set you back more than 5TL which make it a budget-friendly gift as well. Dried fruit and the chewy sheets of flattened dried apricots are also good value. Most preserves (such as honey, pomegranate sauce etc) will only set you back between 3TL-10TL depending on size.
Where to buy Turkish preserves and foodstuffs
The Egyptian Spice Market (Eminonu Square, opposite Eminonu Quay, Eminonu; daily 0830-1830) is one of the best places to pick up dried fruits, jars of honey and other preserves. The hilly narrow streets of the Tahtakale district (behind the Egyptian Spice Market) are another area packed full of surprises for foodies. Products like apple tea can be bought in any supermarket or at any of the souvenir shops which line Alemdar Caddesi (from Sirkeci up to the Aya Sofya) and Divan Yolu Caddesi (from the Aya Sofya up to Beyazit tram stop).
Vefa Bozacisi (Katip Celebi Caddesi, behind Sarachane Park, open daily 0800-2400) may be a little out of the way but is the place to come to pick up bottles of pomegranate sauce and vinegars.
Backgammon (tavla) boards
The lovely wooden backgammon boards inlaid with mother-of-pearl that you’ll see everywhere in the city make a great souvenir for any difficult to buy for people in your life and the smaller boxes are also easy to pack away and light to carry. You can pick up small boxes for as little as 5TL but be aware that the cheaper models all use plastic for the inlay not mother-of-pearl. Real mother-of-pearl inlay work takes time and costs money so if you want the real deal expect to part with at least 30TL.
Backgammon as a board game originally spread to Turkey from Mesopotamia and its roots can be traced back to about 5000 years ago which makes it the oldest recorded board game in the world. In Turkey it is an extremely popular pastime and the clack of backgammon counters and the clatter of rolling dice is the soundtrack to an evening of cafe hopping.
Where to buy backgammon boards
You’ll find a huge variety of backgammon boards of all sizes and qualities for sale in the shops that line Alemdar Caddesi (from Sirkeci up to the Aya Sofya) and Divan Yolu Caddesi (from the Aya Sofya up to Beyazit tram stop) as well as in the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) and the Arasta Bazaar (behind the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet; open daily 0900-2100).
Photo copyright of Flickr user Quinn.anya
If you’ve whiled away a few hours, during your Turkey travels, relaxing in a cafe while puffing on a nargile (a hookah or water-pipe) you might want to take one home. There are several sizes to choose from ranging from tiny ornamental models to the larger, two foot tall, nargile such as the cafes use. Luckily all the components can be unscrewed and packed into a nifty bag so it’s not unwieldy to carry. Costs vary on size and workmanship. A small one for ornamental purposes will cost about 10TL. Larger models start at around 70TL. You can find some absolutely gorgeous nargile with hand-painted glass base, engraved bowl and windscreen and decorated hose which are real statement pieces.
Nargile smoking is thought to have its origins in Persia (modern-day Iran) and has a long history in Turkey. Today it continues to be a pastime for both young and old. The tobacco comes in plenty of fruit-flavours with apple (elma) being particularly popular.
Where to shop for nargile
Alemdar Caddesi (from Sirkeci up to the Aya Sofya) and Divan Yolu Caddesi (from the Aya Sofya up to Beyazit tram stop) as well as in the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) and the Arasta Bazaar (behind the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet; open daily 0900-2100) all host plenty of shops selling nargile.
I'm always being asked for shopping tips by first-time visitors to this fabulous city so I've put together this guide to help. Part II will follow shortly.
Hand-painted ceramics in Istanbul.
Famed for the Iznik tiles that adorn many of the city’s mosques and palaces (you can see gloriously preserved examples of original Ottoman era tiling at the Blue Mosque, Rustem Pasa Mosque and Topkapi Palace), Istanbul’s ceramic industry is booming. Tiles range from cheap and cheerful mass-produced pieces that are churned out in a variety of designs (costing from 2TL to 10TL depending on size) to stunning hand-painted original pieces that portray modern interpretations of old Ottoman designs. These vary in price (according to workmanship and size) from 30TL to around 100TL. The best are works of art in themselves.
In particular look out for the delicate hand-painted tiles which hail from the Central Anatolian town of Kutahya which has an illustrious history of tile-production which goes back to the 16th Century when Sultan Selim I resettled Iznik’s tile-makers in the town. Typical designs include stylised tulips, and a blend of geometric and swirling arabesque patterns in shades of lapis-blue and red.
Where to shop for tiles
Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900), and the smaller Arasta Bazaar (behind the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet; open daily 0900-2100), are both great places to hunt for tiles. If you’re budget-conscious you can pick up some bargain mass-produced pieces along Alemdar Caddesi (the tram-track street that winds up the hill from Sirkeci to the Aya Sofya in Sultanahmet) which also has a couple of specialist ceramic shops showing gorgeous hand-painted work.
Selvi El Sanatlari (Yaglikcilar Caddesi, Grand Bazaar; open Mon-Sat 0900-1800) is a wonderful shop displaying a range of Kutahya tiles as well as a myriad of other ceramics.
Iznik Classics & Tiles (Arasta Bazaar; open daily 0900-2000) has a huge range of pieces for all budgets but specialises in striking hand-painted originals.
Towels may seem like a strange purchase to bring back from your travels but Istanbul is a fabulous place to pick up luxury linens thanks to a revival of interest in quality handmade products. Think organic cotton, linen and silk in stylish designs which will turn your bathroom into a palace of pampering rather than run-of-the-mill boring towels and face cloths. The real top stuff on sale here, woven on old-fashioned shuttle looms, isn’t cheap. A large bath sheet will set you back around 100TL but these are statement piece towels which make a highly original gift that you’ll be able to utilise every day.
Turkey once had an extensive loom-weaving industry but with the onslaught of modern factory machine-weaving this craft has practically disappeared over the past decades. Today there are very few loom-weavers left and even less being apprenticed into the techniques of the trade. The elegantly chic handmade linens displayed in specialist shops in Istanbul are truly one-off products which help the small number of loom-weavers left keep this ancient skill alive.
Where to shop for towels
Jennifer’s Hamam (Arasta Bazaar, Sultanahmet; open daily 0900-1930) is an Aladdin’s cave of bath linens all made from certified organic materials and using traditional loom-weaving techniques. This should be your first-stop for sumptuous towels and bathrobes (as well as other household linens such as tablecloths and bedspreads). There’s an enormous range of styles from traditional classics to very funky and original modern designs that will turn your bathroom into a talking-point.
Dervis (Keseciler Caddesi, Grand Bazaar; open Mon-Sat 0900-1900) has a huge range of fluffy cotton towels to choose from as well as many other Turkish textiles for the home.
Abdulla Natural Products (Halicilar Caddesi, Grand Bazaar; open Mon-Sat 0900-1900) sells high quality home linens with an emphasis on handmade products.
Spices and preserves displayed in the market.
Follow your nose to the Egyptian Spice Market and browse the vast barrels of various spices to purchase an easy, practically weightless, and useful gift which foodies will appreciate. To recreate the flavours of your Turkish journey at home look out for the Middle Eastern sumac (large pinkie-red flakes) which adds the kick to many Turkish dishes. There are also bucket-loads of more familiar flavours which you can package and take home and they’re generally better value in Istanbul than in Europe or North America.
Spices are usually sold by weight with the price clearly marked on the barrel. None of the vendors have a problem with selling small amounts. Spice prices for common flavours such as cumin and chilli are about 25TL per kilo. The Egyptian Spice Market has been the centre for the city’s spice trade since the 17th Century and gets its name from the theory that it was built from money made by taxing Egyptian imports. It’s a bustling and vibrant hub and the streets behind the market itself are also great for searching out spice bargains.
Where to shop for spice
Your first stop on a spice-hunt should be the Egyptian Spice Market (Eminonu Square, opposite Eminonu Quay Eminonu; daily 0830-1830) but don’t limit your search just to the building. The surrounding streets behind the building in the district known as Tahtakale are also packed full of spice shops. From the market’s back entry turn right into Hasircilar Caddesi (which leads to Rustem Pasa Mosque) to continue your spice shopping.
Turkish delight (lokum)
Sinfully soft and chewy Turkish delight (or lokum) is the country’s world-famous sweet and what better place to purchase some than in the city of its birth. There are a myriad of different flavours to choose from. Select plain and rose-water for the traditional taste or branch out into the tempting rows of lemon, orange and mint flavoured or the pistachio and walnut versions stuffed full of nuts. Whichever you choose this is definitely Istanbul’s most delectably tasty gift to bring home. You can buy it in either pre-packaged cartons or by weight. The smallest cartons cost about 5TL but prepare to pay more for the really high-quality stuff. Don’t forget to sample all the free tasters while you make your selection.
Turkish delight was first invented in the Ottoman period and its name in Turkish (lokum) means ‘soft morsel’. There are several different local legends of how it first came to be made. The most famous is that it was the creation of the confectioner Ali Muhiddin who enthralled the sweet-toothed Sultan with his remarkable sugary creations.
Where to buy Turkish delight
You’ll find a whole swag of Turkish delight purveyors in the Egyptian Spice Market (Eminonu Square, opposite Eminonu Quay, Eminonu; daily 0830-1830) and it is lots of fun to go from shop to shop sampling all the wares.
Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir (Hamidiye Caddesi, Eminonu; daily0900-2000) is the most famous Turkish delight specialist store in Istanbul. This is where, it’s said, the sweet was first invented and Ali Muhiddin’s descendents haven’t let that fame go to their head. This place is paradise for Turkish delight connoisseurs with an amazing variety of tooth-achingly sweet treats to try.
You can't buy this carpet. It's in Istanbul's Museum of Islamic Art.
Carpets and kilims
NOTE: I personally would never buy a carpet in Istanbul. Shop rents here are much higher than in other parts of Turkey which means, obviously, that prices of carpets are higher. If you're planning to visit other places in Turkey save your carpet buying until you've checked prices elsewhere.
There’s good reason why great tomes of books have been written, and continue to be wrote, about Turkish carpets. Their bold geometric designs and dazzling colours have captured the hearts of textile addicts for centuries. By far the ultimate Turkish souvenir, Istanbul is a centre for carpet trading and the problem will not be sourcing one but deciding which to buy. There’s a mind-boggling variety of designs, sizes and techniques to choose from let alone the decision of whether to buy a dowry (old) piece or go for new. It’s best to take your time and really browse around before making a final decision. In the end, your choice should always come down to which carpet you love the most.
Carpets and kilims can seem like a bulky purchase but apart from the really huge room-sized pieces most can be expertly folded into hand-luggage sized bags for your trip home. There are also some delightful smaller pieces. Look out for yastiks (the woven front-pieces taken from the traditional seating cushions), sofras (traditional eating blankets) and opened-up donkey bags if you really want a more lightweight piece. Expect to part with at least 300TL for a good quality very small piece at the very least.
Where to shop for carpets
The Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) is a good place to begin your carpet hunt. Inside the bazaar the streets around Keseciler Caddesi and the streets around Kavaflar Sokak are prime carpet shop territory. There are also plenty of carpet shops in Cankurtaran district (behind the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, in Sultanahmet).
One of the easiest products to pack, Turkish silk has a reputation for high quality and original design. Most of Turkey’s silk industry is centred in and around Bursa (in the Marmara region to the south of Istanbul) and much of the silk on sale is hand-painted or marbled in a variety of different colours so you’re bound to find something to your taste. Prices vary considerably but prepare to part with at least 40TL.
The Turkish silk industry had its beginnings in the Byzantine era when the Emperor Justinian convinced two Persian monks to smuggle two silk worms out of China. In the Ottoman period the industry became a state monopoly with Turkish silk famed throughout Europe. Since then though, silk production in the country has suffered many ups and downs; completely grinding to a halt in the 18th Century before witnessing a revival and then being near devastated as an industry due to the effects of the 1999 earthquake.
Where to shop for silk
There are plenty of shops inside the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) which deal in silk.
Ipek (Istiklal Caddesi, Taksim; open daily 0900-1800) is a fabulous place packed with silk products in different colours and designs. Their ties and scarves make exceptionally lightweight souvenirs. Some of their designs feature modern interpretations of Ottoman designs and swirling calligraphy.
I don't have any photos of leather so here's a pretty picture of Istanbul instead.
Istanbul may no longer be the leather-hunter’s bargain bonanza that it was a few decades ago but due to reasonable price-tags it still remains a great city to source clothing, bags and accessories made from leather. Cheap leather stalls abound but the workmanship is often shoddy reflecting the low attached prices. What you should instead search out are the high quality leather merchants where you can still pick up a leather jacket or bag for less than you’d pay at home.
A particular trend has been the production of high quality designer knock-offs. Turkish leather manufacturers have become adept at producing fantastic copies of designer bags at a fraction of the cost of the original. High quality leather handbags can be bought for around 100TL-400TL but if that’s out of your price-range you’ll find a lot of cheaper options as well. Another great buy are leather Ottoman-puffs for your living room. You can usually pick one up for around 30TL. It pays to shop around before making your final decision.
Where to shop for leather products
You’ll find plenty of leather merchants in the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900). The three main leather sections inside the bazaar are around the Kurkculer Gate entrance; on Parcacilar Sokak; and in and around Fesciler Caddesi.
Koc Deri (Kurkculer Gate, Grand Bazaar; Mon-Sat 0830-1900) is a long established leather merchant with a good reputation for quality.
Byzantine and Ottoman inspired jewellery
Locally made gold and silver jewellery always makes a fantastic gift and in Istanbul there’s a whole plethora to choose from. Faithfully replicated reproductions and modern interpretations of old designs are both represented in the shops here which makes for a quirky and original piece of wearable art. Prices depend on workmanship, weight (for gold and silver) and quality as well as factors such as the use of semi-precious stones in the piece.
The gold sold in Istanbul mostly caters for the local market and so can be a little too garishly yellow for some tastes but the multitude of silver on display more than makes up for it. Look out for pendants and earrings in swirling calligraphy designs and chunky bracelets that incorporate old coins. Other popular motifs include the ‘hand of Fatima’, the ‘nazar boncuk’ (evil eye protector) and stylised ‘trees of life’. Turkish semi-precious stones such as turquoise, onyx and chalcedony are also commonly used.
Where to shop for jewellery
The best place in the Grand Bazaar (off Cadircilar Caddesi, Beyazit; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) to source jewellery is right in the heart of the bazaar in the area known as Ic Bedestan (off Konlancilar Caddesi if coming from Kurkculer Gate). Sultanahmet’s main street, Divan Yolu Caddesi, is studded with jewellery shops in the section between the Aya Sofya and Beyazit Tram Stop, as is the Cankurtaran district (behind the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, in Sultanahmet) and the Arasta Bazaar (behind the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet; open daily 0900-2100).
Necef (Ic Bedestan, Grand Bazaar; open Mon-Sat 0830-1900) has drool-worthy displays of jewellery which you’ll have a hard time choosing between.
I am feeling slightly misty-eyed.
There's a new dawn over transport options in the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and it's enough to make veteran overlanders of the Nuweiba to Aqaba route choke on their shisha.
Having to suffer the infamously tardy schedule of the two public ferries that ply the waters between Egypt and Jordan is now a thing of the past; relegated to the back drawer of backpacker history. Yes folks, there's a new rival ferry working this route, offering all kinds of wonderful which I can only gasp in awe at.
Speedy immigration formalities!
No longer will travellers have to navigate the crazed disorder of the Nuweiba immigration building. Known (nearly) affectionately as the Bangkok Hilton* among those of us who journeyed this route at least once a month; the immigration facilities at Nuweiba are the nearest bovine experience a human can have. Imagine being trapped inside what is best described as a vast herding shed and then being crushed within a mad stampede, when the ferry is called, and you get the picture.
This no longer needs to be your last memory of Egypt though. Passengers on the new ferry bypass this chaos completely. Instead they are whisked down to the end of the port, to that rather strange glass pyramid structure (I always wondered what they'd end up using that useless building for), and complete immigration facilities there.
No more queues for miles. No more wooden-slat benches which are always missing their middle-slat. No more crowds squatting on the dirt encrusted floor. No more flies. No more sudden, mad, panicked rush to the gate. I once saw a child get trampled in the crush and while trying to help the mother get her off the floor was belted by a policeman's baton on my back as he tried to control the crowd. Sadly he was more upset about having hit me than about the child getting knocked over.
A definite departure time!
The public 'fast ferry' leaves at 3pm. Supposedly. In reality it leaves at 5.30pm if you're lucky but as luck has never been my strongpoint when travelling for me it usually leaves at 7.30pm, or 9.30pm and once, in a mammoth immigration shed marathon ordeal it left at 12.30am. For a long time I proudly held the record among my friends of 'Longest Wait In The Nuweiba Immigration Shed, Ever!' But then I was beaten by a friend who was left waiting till 4am at the port and then made the huge mistake of deciding to take the 'slow ferry' which was then leaving, only to see the 'fast ferry' merrily overtake her boat at 6am while she was left with another two hours of sailing time in front of her.
The new ferry is guaranteed to leave at 6.30am and takes about 1.5 hours to reach Jordan meaning travellers who don't want to stop in Aqaba (it's actually a very nice town and does deserve a night of your time) will actually be able to catch the morning public transport buses and minibuses to Wadi Rum, Petra and Amman. Why the guaranteed departure? Because this ferry also transports all the one-day Petra tour groups from Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab.
At the moment, most independent travellers don't even realise they can take this ferry and believe it's reserved for tour group tourists only doing a one-day-return trip but I am assured by the nice people who operate this ferry service that independent travellers are very welcome to use their service as well.
And what's the price difference you ask?
A one-way ticket for the new 'Babil' ferry costs US$85. That's including the Egyptian departure tax of US$10.
Tickets for the public 'fast ferry' costs US$75 plus departure tax.
Yes, that's right. It's the same price.
I know which one I'll be choosing in the future.
How to get a ticket on the new 'Babil' ferry
In the future it's likely that plenty of the tour operators in Dahab will begin selling tickets for this ferry but right at the moment there is nowhere in Egypt for independent travellers to purchase one. Instead email the helpful staff at Meenagate, who operate this ferry service (firstname.lastname@example.org), to make a pre-booking at least 48 hours in advance. You can then collect your ticket and pay on arrival at Nuweiba Port.
*NOTE (for non-Antipodean readers): Bangkok Hilton is the nickname of Thailand's notorious Bangkwang Jail which should give you a decent idea of the overall atmosphere of the Nuweiba immigration building
To the west, streaked with slices of maroon mud-rock, rose the craggy peaks of the Sinai, their jagged teeth slicing into the blue sky. The road cut through a beige swatch of a land adorned only by drooping flat-topped acacias and pitted rock. On the other side of the highway I looked across to the shore of the Red Sea, mirror flat and sparkling blue. That same shore has served as one of Egypt’s biggest tourism draw cards for the past couple of decades but the area I was heading to was far removed from the beach resorts where most tourists head.
The Arab-Vegas of Sharm el-Sheikh, complete with plastic camels and more tinsel than you could shake from a Christmas tree, has been looking rather empty of late though the fly-and-flop package tourists are now returning with a vengeance - lured by all-inclusive deals being sold for little more than peanuts. Just up the road Sharm's hippy sister-resort of Dahab (a kind of Koh Samui with falafel) hasn’t seen the usual crowds of backpackers lounging in the shore-side restaurants and cafes either this year. Tourism in the Sinai is struggling to regain its bounce since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian Revolution.
Both of these usually popular tourist towns lay a couple of hours drive to my south. My destination was a stretch of coastline that meanders for 70 km from Nuweiba all the way up to the Israeli border point at Taba where another side of Sinai lays. A section of coastline that has, so far, been one of Egypt’s best kept beach secrets and has escaped the concrete folly caused by development frenzy which riddles the coastline further south.
It doesn’t look like much at first. Half an hour north of Nuweiba I turned off the highway and juddered down the rocky makeshift path that leads to Sawa Camp
. At the water’s edge sit a line of simple hoosha
huts, knitted together from palm and bamboo. There is no pumping techno beats at night, there’s not even a TV. There’s no internet either. For entertainment it’s just a slightly wonky pool table and the beach, the sun and the sea.
While the more famous stretch of coastline to the south is now experiencing a downward spiral in tourist numbers, this section of South Sinai has been struggling for years. I had driven towards Sawa through a beach wasteland where half-hung signs along the highway advertised the turn-offs, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, to what look like a series of abandoned camps. One after the other strung along the shore were rotting palm frond huts, slumping inwards, rooms gawping open to the sky. This part of the coast had been a popular holiday retreat for Israeli tourists, the beach camps a substitute and close-to-home little Goa, until the spate of terrorist attacks that marked 2004 up to 2006 scared most of the Israelis away. Few other nationalities venture north of Nuweiba, most holiday-makers wouldn’t even know this part of the coast exists and it hardly rates a mention in the main Egypt guidebooks. With their Israeli income gone many of the beach camps have yet to recover and stand as desolate markers beside the sea.
I swung on my hammock on the porch of my hut and looked out to sea. Far out where the water turned from turquoise green to deep blue, marking the drop-off to a reef where clown fish parade among the coral, a little boat sat rocking in time to the rippling waves. Beyond it, the dusky pink cliffs of Saudi Arabia rose up from the water, semi-veiled in dust haze. Time moved slowly punctuated only by the course of the sun as it crept across the sky. A breakfast of fuul
(mashed fava beans) and shakshuka
(Egyptian scrambled eggs). A drowsy morning on the sun loungers then lunch. A few hours in the hammock then the beginning of every evening marked by the staff dragging a huge rake across the beach, scrubbing away the day’s footprints to leave a virgin stretch of white sand. A dinner of fresh calamari and some star-gazing before bed.
At dusk, I watched an enormous moon slink over the silhouette of Saudi’s cliffs and rise, bloated and pregnant, into the sky. A soft glow of yellow lamplight cosseted the camp. Sharm will soon recover its cheap beach holiday crown and Dahab will buzz with backpackers once again. The enticing package of sun, sea and scuba diving has brought flocks of blue sky-starved Europeans to the Red Sea for years.
For those searching for a simpler alternative to the gregarious strip though, all they have to do is look north.
The crossing-the-road Cairo waltz is a battle of wits between driver and pedestrian. The bloke (or woman) behind the steering wheel doesn’t really want to kill you - that would involve way too much bureaucracy and headaches to be worth it for the average motorist - but that can be difficult for new arrivals to fathom when witnessing cars seemingly speeding up and swerving towards you when attempting to cross the road.
The secret to mastering the art of road crossings comes down to three points.
1. Eye contact. Always stare directly at the drivers heading towards you at breakneck speed. This lets them know you are actually concentrating on what is happening.
2. Perseverance. Don’t slink on the street corner willing yourself to run in an ‘I think I can, I think I can’ mantra only to get halfway across the street and decide to retreat in a scuttle. Or change your pace to a frazzled sprint, or - even worse - freeze. You need to cross at a steady pace. That’s what the drivers are depending on and judging their timing on.
3. Astena. Nothing throws a Cairene driver more than a foreigner using this Arabic hand signal. Astena simply means ‘wait’ in Arabic and is often used as a gesture rather than verbally. To make the signal cup your hand so that the tips of your fingers meet the tip of your thumb (and yes, that IS the same gesture that means something completely different in Italy and would probably get you beat up if you tried it out on the roads there). Show this hand signal to the drivers heading straight towards you as you cross the road and be amazed how everyone automatically slows down.
Believe me, it does get easier with practice.