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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
Ah yes, the weird and wonderful world of being a tour leader. Inspired after reading this hilarious blog on Wanderlust Magazine's website, I got out my old diaries and compiled (out of mountains of the bizarre, stupid and inane tourist quotes I captured over four years) a list of my own favourite stupid questions.
1. Are the Muslims Christian?
2. Who is that Allah dude again?
(Asked on day number 20 of the tour...and even worse, it wasn't a tourist. She was a trainee tour leader.)
3. Where did they catch the fish?
(Asked while dining on a beach about three metres from the Red Sea.)
4. So there's no pork on the menu. Is there any bacon?
5. Will we need to have our passports handy?
(asked after being told that we were going to cross from Asian Istanbul to the European side of the city.)
6. But how will we breathe?
(Asked after having been told we were heading to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, 400m below sea level.)
7. Will there be a chocolate shop in the desert?
(Asked just before we headed into the vast and empty expanse of the Algerian Sahara for a six day camping safari.)
8. Should I go to the toilet now?
(I don't know. Do you want to?)
9. Is the desert always so sandy?
10. Where is that car going?
(Hold on. Let me use my psychic tour leader powers to find out)
If you're an ex-tour leader/guide add your favourite stupid tourist questions, below.
Al-Quseir is a town of skinny alleyways, hemmed in by houses washed in a rainbow of watercolours, slowly peeling and fading away.
Some places are more of an atmosphere than a set of mark-off-the-tick-list sights and Al-Quseir is one of these. Crumbling coral-block architecture complete with wooden balconies of delicate mashrabiya screens, hung with lines of washing flapping in the wind. Pastel-hued, creaky doors and proudly coloured hajj pilgrimage paintings beside doorways. And once you've untangled yourself from the laneway labyrinth; the surprise of finding the sea, spreading outwards from the empty beach, the quiet only broken by the yells and cries of the young boys, glistening on the pier, egging each other on in daredevil dives.
Once a major gateway to Arabia the grand Ottoman fort lies in ruins and the only sign of activity at the port are a few old fishermen, mending nets. This sleepy backwater is a little seen part of Egypt's Red Sea Riviera. Rag-tag Hurghada and glitzy El Gouna with their gaggles of tourists are only an hour up the coast but Al-Quseir has somehow missed the tourism boat.
With the peace only punctuated by the trilling of a bicycle's bell as it zigzags through the winding backstreets, this is a place apart from the rest of the Red Sea coast.
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.
Here's a sneaky peek at the soon-to-be-published Lonely Planet World's Best Street Food book:
Recipes for Lebanese sfiha and Egyptian fuul here.
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 (email@example.com), 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
Jordan is a country that manages to get a lot right when it comes to their tourism promotion. Just take a look at their tourism board's website
. User friendly and perfectly pretty it makes you want to jump on a plane to Amman straight away; which is the whole point. Thanks to a rather liberal scattering of ruins (which nod to the country's historic role as the 'sandy bit' every would-be emperor, trader and prophet had to walk across to get somewhere) and a surprisingly diverse topography Jordan has, for a tiny nation, managed to carve itself a niche in the tourism stakes that far exceeds its feather-weight size.
I've loved Jordan since I first stepped off the Nuweiba ferry in 2004. I like the genuinely helpful people; the fantastic ahwa
; the magnificent night skies of Wadi Rum which never cease to make me feel so insignificant. I even, unlike many visitors, like that rascal of a capital Amman with its taxi drivers who'll happily speechify on everything from Jordan's economic woes to the taste of New Zealand lamb on any journey longer than between 1st and 2nd circle. Jordan really is a hard country for visitors not to like. But there is a fly in the ointment.
I led tours through the Middle East for over four years and out of all the countries I used to take groups through the one I knew I wasn't going to have to work quite so hard to get my passengers to love, was Jordan. But although the their experience overall would most often rate highly in passenger feedback there would nearly always be negative comments about the Jordanian tour guides we used.
A recent conversation on twitter
about the standard of Jordanian guides has really got me thinking today about what is going on here. How can a country that gets so much right with their tourism promotion, get such an important component wrong?
An experience with one particular guide in Jordan highlights the case. A few years ago, while driving from Petra to Madaba along the King's Highway, our guide whipped out the microphone and proceeded to spend the next three hours (with his back to us, staring out the front windscreen) spouting a commentary that went something like this.
" Here are some tomato fields. We grow many tomatoes in Jordan. Here are some more tomato fields. Here are some olive trees. We have many olive trees in Jordan. On your right you'll see more olive trees. If you look to your left you'll see more tomato fields. Here is a taxi passing us. We have lots of taxis in Jordan..."
(To get the full experience of what this monologue was actually like you have to imagine that it is delivered in a completely flat monotone with every statement coming about two minutes after the last and being non-stop for three hours.)
Now I know how funny this sounds (my re-enactment of this scenario is particularly popular at tour leader reunions) but how would you feel, seriously, if you'd paid good money to have professional guides on your trip and this is what you end up with. Cue unhappy tourists and complaints.
So was this a one-off? Am I making a big song and dance about one lazy guide?
I really wish that was the case but it isn't; far from it. In Wadi Rum a tour guide went on a tangent about TE Lawrence's homosexual tendencies and how he was burning in hell (cringe-worthy at the best of times but especially when two of your passengers happen to be a lovely gay couple). In Petra I overheard a guide telling my group that the Treasury was most definitely not built by the Nabataeans. On a Jerash tour a guide decided to not include the Temple of Artemis as he was hungry and wanted to go to the restaurant to have his free lunch. And although I have never had to sit through another 'tour bus monologue' quite as bad as the one above (or for such a long time) this lazy, front-of-the-bus guiding is considered good practice among most Jordanian guides. As one of my group once commented to me after a particularly boring one hour speech pointing out every feature outside our windows, "we're tourists, not blind people."
But it goes beyond just standout bad experiences (although I have plenty more tales I could tell). It gets right down to the fundamentals of good guiding. As a whole, Jordanian guides seem poorly trained in much of their history. The majority are able to fill in the basics behind each sight but little else and the information that is delivered usually comes in a dry, monotone package making it difficult for many to understand (let alone get excited about) what they're seeing. There seems to be no awareness of crowd control - of being able to herd your group to a quiet spot, of making eye contact, of waiting to begin your talk until everyone in the group has arrived. Much more shocking though is that even though the tour groups I led were always small (12 people or under) and the guide would be assigned to my group for five full days I cannot remember one instance where a guide ever learnt all the group's names.
So why is this? Some in the aforementioned twitter conversation wondered if this lackadaisical approach was due to a dearth of incentives for guides but the truth is Jordan actually pays their guides extremely well. The ones I worked with earned around 80 JD per day. That's much more than my Australian-based travel company employer paid me per day even after four years of tour leading (and I was on the highest tour leader rate they gave). It's also a huge amount more than guides in Egypt and Syria make and even a little more than many guides in Turkey take home (and all three of these countries produce guides that put the Jordanians to shame).
On top of the daily rate Jordanian guides earn there are the tips (and woe betide the group that doesn't tip a Jordanian guide enough. I've experienced three incidents at the end of a particularly badly guided tour when my group hasn't tipped well and the guide has thrown the money on the ground in front of us) AND then there are the commissions. Now I'm not going to get into the commission factor in this post as it's a more complicated issue than most believe but let's just say compared to the majority of take-home salaries in Jordan, the guides don't do too bad at all.
What may be a major part of the cause is the lack of a proper guiding qualification. Both Egypt and Turkey have rigorous degrees which would-be guides have to get through before they earn their official guide status. The Turkish guiding degree is particularly tough and it shows in the overall quality of knowledge, presentation of information and professionalism guides have in that country. On the other hand to become a guide in Jordan (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong) all you have to do is take a three month course. On top of this I have heard numerous stories from guides in Jordan about rich kids bribing their way to the guide-badge rather than actually even taking the course which is a separate problem altogether.
The main issue seems to be that if, as a nation, you're not going to invest in your guides and treat this as a professional career with a proper qualification to go with it you're never going to end up with great guides. If you make a guiding licence a paint-by-numbers option which anyone who wants to cash in on the tourist buck can breeze in and get even good guides will be extremely few and far between.
Being a good guide is not easy and not everyone can do it. It takes boundless amounts of enthusiasm for your subject, incredible knowledge of history, geography and culture (to name just a few), endless patience, a decent understanding of group dynamics and the ability to answer the same question 50 times without rolling your eyes. A great guide (those rare species that anyone going into guiding should aspire to) won't just impart facts. They'll weave stories, cater information to individual tourist's interests and infuse such enthusiasm for their subject that you'll end up loving it too. Not every tour guide (in any country) will be great but that's the level a country should aspire to when training their guides.
At the moment when friends of friends and acquaintances email me seeking advice about travelling in Jordan and ask if they should use a guide my answer is always no. I look forward to the day when my answer will be yes.