The gift is in the journey

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Mr Grumpy hates shopping, specifically the Christmas shopping list and the New Year sales. I have always had to do all the gathering and face the crush of shoppers on Oxford Street alone. So this year I conceived of a plan that would provide us with an opportunity to spend time together while solving the problem of needing to buy presents. The plan was to get to the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, where the whole idea of purchase operates within a different set of parameters: prices are negotiable and time for tea and Turkish delight eclipses any sense of urgency.

Amused by my suggestion, he booked the tickets and left the rest up to me. In the spirit of escape I found a room at the recently opened Shangri-La Hotel on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul. Located in the Besiktas district, the hotel is within minutes of the magnificently opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, home to six sultans in the final era of the Ottoman Empire and then residence to Ata Turk who created the Turkish republic we know today. Everything depended on this choice, not in the lease because Mr Grumpy is very particular about pillows and space.

My first mistake was to stride enthusiastically up to a transfer desk and say we needed to get to the Shangri-La. If Istanbul presents the seasoned traveller with ample opportunity to drive a bargain, the reverse is also true. Anyone who displays the least bit of ignorance is fair game for a swindle, and we were duly taken for a 180 Lira ride that should have cost us 75. Happily the Shangri-La’s proximity to Istanbul’s central tram line, a funicular that goes up to Taxim square and a ferry that takes you across to the Asian coastline, means that this should be the only taxi you need to take. Something we discovered after our third costly error.

There is nothing Mr Grumpy hates more than being taken for a ride, so his mood was fairly acidic upon our arrival. However, walking into our generous room at the Shangri-La overlooking the Bosphorus I heard him catch his breath at the view, we were virtually over the water. The scene before us was epic: the Golden Horn Bridge stretched out across the strait connecting Europe with Asia whilst ferries and fishing boats interlaced the water’s surface. We instantly experienced the kind of tranquility that follows from seeing the horizon unfold in the distance. At this point someone arrived with a pot of welcome tea and Mr. Grumpy cracked his first smile of the day.

The room was so well appointed, and the bath grand enough for a Sultan set with great slabs of coal coloured Turkish marble veined with gold, we nearly settled in for the night. There seemed no end to the thoughtful additions and meaningful accents – such as a notepad and pen on a little ledge in the bathroom for those elusive insights. The bed being so inviting was too much for Mr Grumpy and he fell into a deep slumber so I left to explore the basement offerings of Hammams and Chi Massages by myself.

It is recommended to have your first Hammam on the evening of your arrival – so book in advance – as it is a popular luxury. Taking the glass elevator down to the Chi Spa they managed fit me in and gave me a disposable swimsuit so I could try the pool in the interim. The man mountain Ural gave me a brief tour and some goggles. Diving into the water the pearlescent mosaics rippled around me like a school of fish  – I was a mermaid. I stopped to catch my breath and coughed. When I finished my next lap there was a bottle of water at the edge of the pool. It was a Gatsby moment and I felt like Daisy for a fleeting second – until I remembered the appearance of my white limbs in a disposable swimsuit.

Returning to our room I found a very happy Mr Grumpy. He had heard about the Shang Palace, possibly the best Chinese cuisine in Turkey, and Mr Grumpy is a sucker for duck – especially after sampling the mini bar. There we feasted on twice-fried bean curd with three mushrooms, sea bass in a clay pot and one of the best Pinot Grigios I have had outside of Italy. By the evening’s end there was a delightful element of cultural confusion, eating with chopsticks in Istanbul, which heightened our sense of freedom and escape.

The next morning we opened our window onto Asia, and after a second Turkish coffee with the delightful Melinke from the Shangri-La, who gave us a map and a wonderful itinerary, we began our first walk through Istanbul. Our route went via the sensational Dolmabahçe Palace built to rival the finest palaces in Europe. From there you can take the funicular up to Taxim Square, which at first glance is disappointingly westernised, until you turn off into the back streets. Half way down the main shopping street off to the right is Mesrutiyet Cadesi (street), which takes you to the Avurpa Pasaji.

There we found our first cavern of delights from hand-painted ceramics in classical designs to hand blown glass lights in blood orange, cherry and grape hanging from the ceiling like fantastical fruit. Mr Grumpy loves to haggle for a bargain. His basic technique is to estimate what he wants to pay for something, then ask how much it costs. He then takes the value of that difference and subtracts that from what he wants to pay and offers it back. Eventually, given enough time and patience, he arrives at a deal. So I left him to it, as the glimmer of a promise from a shop window opposite drew me across the way.

DNC Designs is a treasure trove of antique and contemporary jewels owned by two sisters – there is a second shop further along the arcade – and thankfully they have a well appointed chair for weary husbands who loose their wives completely amid the colour and burst of gems.  There I found every single girlie Christmas present including my own – Istanbul is famous for its beautiful and opulent jewels but most were completely out of our budget. This shop allowed me to indulge my inner magpie from starburst crystal and emerald drop earrings to the most delicate repeating pattern chain of gold, turquoise, and amethyst – a hand made classic I will wear for life. Thank you Mr Grumpy!

In total we spent just over £120 and completed all our Christmas shopping – including for each other – result! My only regret was not having pounds or dollars with me as you can really drive a hard bargain with foreign cash in the present economic climate. The pressure was now off and we ambled smugly through the music district that leads you winding down back to the Bosphorus.

Dropping our haul back at the Shangri-La we ventured out again to the Grand Bazaar on the other side of the Galata Bridge and thinking it would save us time hopped into a taxi. Our driver took us for such a proverbial ride that you could hear Mr. Grumpy grinding his teeth with repressed rage. We should have taken the tram – by far the quickest and most civilized way to travel – not to mention it is precisely 3 Lire.

The Grand Bazaar is a magical labyrinth not for the delicate of heart – you need both time and money neither of which we had in abundance. I could have gone berserk with shearlings and rugs and dazzling jewels; what a sensational shopping experience infinitely more rewarding than any generic mall with the added caveat that if you think something is too dear you can argue the price. This was once the case in London – long before the war – but I challenge anyone today walk up to the counter at one of Bond Street’ s stores and try their luck without being escorted out.

After a slightly mad detour looking at shearlings, we concluded we needed to get some lunch. Istanbul is famous for its fresh fish, avenues along the Bosphorus are lined with brightly lit fish stalls selling catch of the day and the Galata Bridge is awash with fishing lines from sunrise to sunset. We stopped in at a little restaurant in the Hotel Spectra opposite the Blue Mosque and had a plate of fresh sea bass washed down with and orange and pomegranate cocktail.

Unable to visit the Blue Mosque, we followed a sign for the Arasta Bazaar that took us down a cobbled street behind it. There we found the jewel in the crown of boutiques and reason enough to visit Istanbul in its own right. The Cetinkaya Gallery (  is both a gallery and a boutique that began with a project and has grown into one of Istanbul’s most successful cottage industry stories. In 2004, Cetinkaya employed 65 women to hand make silk embroideries using natural dyed threads and since then their number has grown to 350.  Prices reflect this and begin in dollars around the 200 mark, but anything you purchase from there is destined to be a family heirloom.

That evening we were invited by local friends Selchuk, Pusat, and Abdulla to have dinner in Facyo, a traditional family run restaurant over looking the Bosphorus. Over three hours we feasted on a constant stream of Mezze and fresh fish washed down with Raki, twice distilled grapes with aniseed. As the waiter filled up my glass with for the third time, Selchuk says ‘We have a saying in Istanbul that if you don’t drink Raki after eating fish then the fish will say “What fool has eaten me?”’ That seemed reason enough for us all to drink plenty.

One day I will return to Istanbul with a crate and a wad full of dollars and fill up my coffers with Turkish delights, beginning with a hammam at the Chi-Spa in Shangri-La to strip away any excess baggage.

by Nico Kos Earle

all images by Nico Kos Earle

A three-day itinerary to Istanbul staying at the Shangri-La Bosphorus costs from £775 per person based on two adults sharing a Deluxe room on a B&B basis including flights and transfers.

For more details about Shangri-La hotel visit Abercrombie & Kent or call 0845 485 1143

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Glass Online arts writer

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