I've been sent into Istanbul's Grand Bazaar on a simple mission: to drive a hard bargain. And I have failed on my first attempt, my heart softening like Turkish Delight while trying to buy a trinket from an old man. It seems I'll brave a lot of things in the name of journalism but bargaining does not seem to be one of them. To me, the stress of haggling over such a small prize is just not worth the savings, especially when I'm trying to be a gracious visitor in a strange land.
Before entering the maze of the covered market, its streets teeming with tourists who are all undoubtedly more ruthless, I enlist the help of my tour guide, Gunay Guc.
Say I find something for 100 Turkish lira (the conversion is easy: double the price for dirhams), I ask. Gunay explains: "You will say, '20'. He will say, '50'. You will say, '25'..."
This seems rather outrageous and time-consuming, but I'm willing to give it a shot - just once.
Already weary from touring Sultanahmet, my group has just over an hour before returning to the bus; the problem is how to begin. The sprawling bazaar, which has survived fires and earthquakes over its 550-year history, is a chaotic assembly of thousands of shops. The official online directory looks like a pirate's treasure map, lacking any information about specific stores. And if you heed the guidebooks' warnings about pickpockets and bag-slashers, it's advisable to look like you know where you're going.
Most overwhelming for the first-time visitor (and novice haggler) is the range of goods: from the low-end (fezes, belly-dancing costumes, painted ceramics, Turkish linens and knock-off bags) to the high-end (jewellery, carpets, Islamic art and antiques).
Entering through the Nuruosmaniye gate, clock ticking, I run the gauntlet of sellers at the cheaper souvenir stalls calling out: "Hello, lady, come into my store. Where are you from?"
My only stop is Cevahir Bedesten, a cluster of shops that sell antiques under the market's oldest dome, at the heart of what was once the Ottoman Empire's centre of trade. A neon "Old Bazaar" sign designates the oldest of the old. Unlike the rest of the market, the halls are quiet, and the shopkeepers sit like librarians in their stores, seemingly uninterested in making a deal.
Feeling more relaxed in the absence of touts, I browse windows full of old watches, revolvers, calligraphy, cameras, vases, subhas and jewellery boxes, none with listed prices. Then I stumble upon an open stall with copper lamps and other hardware hanging from floor to ceiling. "This is the best shop in the Grand Bazaar," Ali Guzeldemirel boasts. "I'm here 50 years."
Ali brings me an antique brass whistle with a compass that I'd been admiring, normally 300 lira, but for me, he says, 250. I tell him that's too much. (I've been told not to even try bargaining unless you're sure you want something. Even more stress.) So, Ali shows me my next choice, an old lock and key. "Normally 200, but for you, 150," he says.
"How about 100?" I ask meekly. (By Gunay's calculation, I should have started at 30.)
He holds one hand over his heart, explaining he can't bargain like the others. "I am an old man."
Now, for me, there are two kinds of people who are especially hard to bargain with: the elderly and children. This I learned at a bazaar in Goa, where a little girl I was haggling with over a bracelet clutched it to her chest and said, "Please, m'am, don't break my little heart." It was only after I parted with my rupees that I noticed her father smiling at me from a distance, as if to say: sucker.
Anxious to return to the bus with something, I buy the lock. My tour mates, some of them hauling bags full of hard-fought bargains, turn up their noses. I show it to Gunay and ask him if I got a deal.
"If your heart is OK, it's OK," he smiles, all too sympathetically. He has a point, though: why spend my time trying to save money by arguing with people, particularly if I'm not comfortable with the practice? Soft of heart, I need a different plan of attack.
Taking my inspiration from Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the bazaar's creator, I decide to return on my own time over the next two days in hopes of making a conquest. And even if I can't master the art of a deal, I vow to discover the best places to spend my money.
Back at my hotel, I pull out the coloured map I found online (www.grandbazaaristanbul.org). Searching the web, I discover the colours are codes: yellow for gold, pink for souvenirs, purple for fabric. While this isn't strictly the case, it's a good place to start. I mark down the "must see" stores, plotting my entry and exit gates.
The next afternoon I begin at the Old Book Bazaar, outside to the left of the Beyazit gate. An alley with shops full of books in English and Turkish, it's refreshing to browse in the open air before entering the market proper. This time, I make my way to Halicilar Caddesi, a street cutting through the middle of the bazaar. I find it to be a thoroughfare for more modern, hand-crafted goods, including: Iznik Art, for painted pottery and tiles; Cocoon, for felt hats and crafts; Cambaz, for woven jewellery; plus the funky Fes Cafe and its sister store, Abdulla Natural Products, where I pick up some stylish gifts including patterned Turkish towels, hand-made soaps and tealight holders with spinning whirling dervishes. I don't even bother bargaining because it seems like a proper store, but I'm delighted with my purchases anyway, wrapped up with natural string and packed in a net sack.
Somehow, I end up back at the Old Bazaar, where Ali Guzeldemirel remembers me. Having changed my mind about the lock, I ask if I can trade it in for the whistle and compass for the 250 lira he offered, and he makes the exchange without argument.
As the prayer call sounds from one of the bazaar's mosques, I walk down the hall to Bagus, a store I've read about that carries hand-crafted jewellery and beads from far-flung places. The owner, Faruk Kasik, sits at a desk inside. I admire his pieces, displayed in the nooks of his old stone walls. I'm just looking, I tell him, and he's fine with that. He invites me to sit and have some tea, and we get lost in conversation about the bazaar's history.
At the end of the day, I exit through the Nuruosmaniye gate to visit a shop just outside, where I spotted a carpet bag hanging from a tree the previous day. At Pirlanta, I begin chatting with Rami, who tells me the bag is made from an antique kilim; he holds a lighter to it to prove how durable it is. It's 450 lira, he says, but for me, 390. Still determined to cut a deal, I get him to settle on 350, and he helps me pack my belongings in it. (I later spot one like it in the bazaar for 550 lira, so this might be my first real deal.)
On my third day, I'm starting to feel in the rhythm, more comfortable taking my time, more interested in having tea with the storekeepers than doing business. I begin by having lunch at the Fes Cafe's other location, a stylish diner that's a short walk from the bazaar. Zeynep Balaban, who runs the place, picks my bag off the ground and puts it in a chair. "We have a saying in Turkey that if you put your bag on the floor, no money will come," she says, smiling. Maybe that's my problem.
I'm feeling sleepy from my lunch of chicken rolled with tirpasi and cheese (like a Turkish Cordon Bleu), but I've still got half of the bazaar left to cover. I enter through the eastern Kiliccilar gate and head north, past the alley of currency traders on their mobile phones and stopping by just to get a look at Zincirli Han, an old courtyard that houses the well-known carpet shop of Sisko Osman. Resisting the invites to step inside, I make my way to Perdahcilar Sokagi, to the shop of Muhlis Gunbatti, who specializes in antique Ottoman fabrics. By this time, it's no surprise that the friendly man inside is Muhlis Gunbatti himself.
"Sit here, princess," he says, patting a bench. He tells me he's been there 56 years, pointing out the old vaulted ceilings. A tea seller enters swinging a tray of tulip glasses and Muhlis asks him to serve me. "She is my guest."
He introduces me to his son Murat, who picks some vintage kaftans for me to try on. Near the end of the third day, I'm not in the mood to make a big purchase, but they're happy to pass the time showing them off. Instead, I ask about a pomegranate vase on the shelf, ubiquitous in the market but these ones are hand-crafted. "If you get this, you will have good luck all of your life," Muhlis tells me with relish. Already, I can feel another potential "sucker" episode coming on ...
In vain, I ask about the price. It's normally 60 lira, he says, but for me, 40. "What about a deal?" I ask. His son smiles, "You already have a deal."
He's right, of course, but not in the way he thinks. This occurs to me after I leave the store's peaceful shelter. Murat has walked me out into the bazaar so he can show me the exit. He even gave me the coins to take the tram - a cynic would no doubt attribute his generosity to my paying way over-the-odds for the vase.
Walking past a stall of pomegranate vases that look more mass-produced than the one I just bought, a seller tells me they're 30 lira, and as I walk away, he calls out 25, then 20.
But here's the deal: I wouldn't trade the vase I have thanks to the experience - the memory of the conversation and the hospitality - that is now attached to it.
Go to the bazaar only in search of a bargain and you might miss the point: the steady rhythm of tea servers selling from store to store, balancing little glasses on hanging trays; men playing backgammon on folding tables in the alleys; workers weaving through the crowds with piles of carpets and trays stacked with simik; cats stealing naps on its paths. Just then I realise that I've lost my map, but it doesn't matter to me. Now, I can truly say that I've conquered the bazaar.
If You Go
The flight Return flights with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul cost from €276 (Dh1,385), including taxes
The stay Double rooms at the Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul (www.ritz-carlton.com; 00 90 212 334 44 44) cost from €275 (Dh1,385) per night, including taxes