Retail therapy: Istanbul ShoppingFest begins March 18

Istanbul shoppingfestEvery year, many people visit Istanbul to shop in the historic Grand Bazaar to haggle over carpets, Turkish tea glasses, and souvenir t-shirts. But most locals do their shopping in Istanbul’s many malls, markets, high streets like Istiklal near Taksim Square and Bağdat on the Asian side, and neighborhoods such as posh Nişantaşı and funky Çukurcuma. This year, from March 18 to April 26, travelers can take advantage of the best of all worlds with the first Istanbul ShoppingFest, also celebrating the 550th birthday of the Grand Bazaar. For 40 days, shoppers can get special discounts and win prizes, shop late into the night (with bigger discounts after 10pm), and be entertained with performances and events. Each Saturday, one mall each on the European and Asian sides will stay open until 2am, and all malls will be open until 11pm daily during the fest. In addition to sale prices, foreign travelers can get tax back on purchases at various malls around the city and enter raffles with each 40 TL (about $25 USD) spent.

Already established in India, Singapore, and Dubai in usual sale seasons, Istanbul’s promotion will hold a special draw as discounts will apply to new season merchandise and take place over several major holidays including Easter, Passover, and Iranian Nowruz. With this festival, Turkey hopes to carry over some of the momentum from last year’s European Capital of Culture designation, and become the destination of choice for travelers from nearby countries such as Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Rumania, Syria and Iraq.

Check out more details and events at www.istshopfest.com and follow their Facebook page and Twitter @istshopfest. See also the March issue of Time Out Istanbul in English for feature guides to the fest and the Grand Bazaar.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user antonystanley]

Harar tour: a walk around one of Africa’s most unique cities

Harar, harar, Ethiopia, ethiopiaAfter a few days in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and a long Ethiopian bus trip, I’ve made it to Harar, my home for the next two months. I’ll be exploring the culture and history of this unique city and making road trips to nearby points of interest.

Harar is a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia between the central highlands to the west and the Somali desert to the east. It’s been a center of trade for at least a thousand years. The majority of Hararis are Muslim (I’ve met only three Harari Christians) and Harar is laid out on Muslim lines. The are five old gates corresponding with the five pillars of Islam, and there used to be 99 mosques corresponding with the 99 names of God. Time has eroded the symbolism somewhat. The Emperor Haile Selassie created a sixth gate and made a wide avenue leading to a big square called Feres Magala (Horse Market). Also, some of the mosques have disappeared. I get different answers as to how many are left, but there seems to be a few more than 80. There’s talk about rebuilding the missing ones but that hasn’t happened yet.

Feres Megala is a good place to start a tour of Harar. It’s the main entryway into the walled city. This noisy square is filled with people and bejaj, the blue three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are everywhere in Ethiopia. Dominating the square is Medhanialem Church (“Savior of the World”) an Ethiopian Orthodox church erected after the Emperor Menelik II captured the city in 1887, ending its days as an independent city-state. A mosque used to stand on this spot but the Christian emperor destroyed it to show his power.

Streets head off to the left and right. The right slopes down Mekina Girgir (“Tailor’s Street”). “Girgir” is the sound sewing machines make. Tailors set up their machines on the street, doing piecework for the shops on either side. You can often find me here hanging out with Binyam, a tailor who speaks good English and looks a bit European thanks to his Greek grandfather. While the tailors and shopkeepers are Harari, many of their customers are Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. The Oromo own most of the farmland around the city. The land used to be Harari but was taken from them during the Communist Derg regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1991.

Continuing down the street you find out why so many Oromo are around. The street opens up into a large market filled with Oromo women selling fruit, firewood, colorful baskets, incense, and a thousand other things. The men work in the fields or as laborers. Not far off is the meat market offering everything from cow to camel. The market is in a long courtyard surrounded by high walls. Eagles line the ramparts looking to grab a freebie. Hararis don’t like sending their kids to do the meat shopping because if an eagle sees a child carrying meat it will get bold, swoop down, and take it out of the kid’s hands!

%Gallery-118876%From the market the way breaks into innumerable little alleys that twist and turn around gated compounds of two or more houses. The walls of the compounds create the alleys. Like the medieval cities of Europe, Harar has seen very little urban planning and grew spontaneously as the population grew. Many alleys are so narrow you can stretch out your arms and brush both sides with your fingertips. Wandering this maze you’ll inevitably get lost but don’t worry, Harar is too small to stay lost for long. Besides, what could be more fun than being lost in a foreign city? If you do need to find someplace, everyone will help you, especially the school kids who will tag along practicing their English.

My favorite alley is Meger Wa Wiger Uga, “the Street of Peace and Quarrel”. It’s Harar’s narrowest, and if you pass by someone you’re arguing with here, you have to speak nicely to them!

At the heart of Harari identity are the more than 300 shrines to Muslim saints, including about 40 female saints. Some are sizable monuments while others are simply special areas known only to the people of that neighborhood. Each neighborhood makes sure the shrines are properly cared for and the proper rituals are conducted. One of the most important shrines is for Emir Nur, Harar’s ruler from 1551-1568. He led a long war against the Oromo and decided to build a wall around the city. Not knowing how to go about it, he prayed for help. Two expert masons in Mecca heard his prayers and crossed the Red Sea and Somali Desert to build the wall that preserves Harari identity to this day.

Harar is alive with tradition and change, a meeting place for a half dozen ethnic groups and an increasing number of foreigners drawn to its deep heritage. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO also awarded it a commendation for religious tolerance. Harar is small, you can walk around it in an hour, but there’s enough here to explore for a lifetime. To learn more, check out Harar: A Cultural Guide, and follow me as I learn more about my temporary home in Ethiopia.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: The Arab revolution: the reaction of one Muslim town

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk – Thailand Part 5: Morning Shopping

Gadling TV’s Travel Talk, episode 35 – Click above to watch video after the jump

Travel Talk is back! After our fall hiatus we are excited to bring you our greatest adventure yet: Thailand.

From the vibrant heart of Bangkok to the remote countryside, we traveled by foot, car, boat, motorbike, ox cart and elephant to savor the the splendor of ancient temples, the energy of the muay thai ring, the serenity of rural life, and every single spicy bite of Thai cuisine. We’ll be bringing it all to you in the coming weeks as part of our special 12-part feature: Travel Talk Thailand.

In part five of our adventure, we finally make our escape from Bangkok and head out into the country, stopping on the way to do a little morning shopping- Thai style. Join us as we explore exotic markets, meet Thailand’s most reckless boat driver and see goods delivered to (or should we say “through”?) market in a whole new way.

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.


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Hosts: Stephen Greenwood & Aaron Murphy-Crews
Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Stephen Greenwood & Aaron Murphy-Crews
Special thanks: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Trikaya Tours

Travel Talk took Thailand by storm on invitation from the Tourism Authority of Thailand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Aaron & Stephen were free to openly share all adventures that they embarked upon.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to undergo $100 million renovation


One of Istanbul‘s most popular tourist destinations is getting a long-overdue makeover. The 550-year old Grand Bazaar is about to be infused with 140 million Turkish Lira (about $100 million USD) to renovate and update the covered market. Once plans are approved next month, work will begin at night to avoid disrupting day trade. The Grand Bazaar is over 45,000 square meters with nearly 3,600 shops selling everything from handmade rugs to gold jewelry to Turkish water pipes and was last renovated in 1894 after a major earthquake.

In addition to restoring the original features of the market, modernizing electrical work, the refurbishment aims to bring in more high-end Turkish and international brands to appeal to more local shoppers. While the bazaar currently sees about 500,000 visitors daily, only about 30% are local and name brands may attract more locals than tourist souvenir stalls. According to local newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, interested retailers include luxury goods label Vakko and supermarket chain Migros. With the Council of Monuments reviewing and approving plans, it is hoped that the Grand Bazaar will retain its heritage and avoid becoming another generic shopping mall. Regardless of new additions, locals and visitors can agree that cutting down on the large amount of stalls selling Made-in-China swag and “genuine” fake Gucci bags to make room for more traditional artisans could help preserve the unique landmark.

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk – Torontonian Exploration!

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk, episode 30 – Click above to watch video after the jump

For those of you that attended this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, you may already know just how cosmopolitan Canada’s largest city is. Upon arriving, it’s safe to say that we completely underestimated the fifth most populous municipality in North America, but quickly realized its vast cultural offerings upon exploration.

There’s more than meets the eye in Toronto, so watch as we shake off the Virgin America party from the night before and explore the exciting neighborhoods of the world’s ‘most diverse city’!

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.

Subscribe via iTunes:
[iTunes] Subscribe to the Show directly in iTunes (M4V).
[RSS M4V] Add the Travel Talk feed (M4V) to your RSS aggregator and have it delivered automatically.

Links
Check out Gadling’s own guide to budget travel in Toronto!
Visit the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere! The CN Tower.
And whatever you do, don’t miss out on Kensington Market – full guide available here.

All images used under a Creative Commons license. All music used courtesy of Nonstop Music.