A Turkish trip

Smoking in Turkey - September 1996.

After working for the entire month of August, I finally board the Alitalia flight that is going to take me to Turkey. I am already dreaming of spiced tobaccos and minarets like those on my tin of Rattray's Red Raparee. I'm also dreaming of smoking some... but not on a plane, of course! I have to be content (or discontent?) with the fumes of my neighbours' cigarettes.
Istanbul. It wasn't easy finding a hotel. I finally sprawl out on the terrace of the Hotel Antique and light my Peterson. My first Turkish smoke. The minarets of the Blue Mosque loom behind me.
Every pipe smoker leaving for Turkey surely wants to buy a meerschaum pipe, but one must be careful. The country is overflowing with second quality and fake meerschaum pipes. As a matter of fact, many tourists buy these pipes simply as mantle top decorations. They can be found everywhere, from market stalls to carpet shops, but with a minimum of perseverance you can find specialized shops.
I bought my first meerschaum pipe at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Battling my way past hundreds of carpet, jewelry and ceramic shops, I finally reached the internal bazaar (a sort of square fortress that is closed up at night by gigantic wooden and iron portals) where the more prestigious shops are. There, besides beautiful shops selling antiquities and all types of collectibles (especially watches, coins and icons), there are a few shops that sell only meerschaum pipes. After having carefully examined various models, I bought a curious curved pipe covered in "golf ball indentations" which I paid about 40 dollars. Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about its quality as I gave it to a friend. (If you're interested, the shop is called Verliexport, Tel. (212) 526-2619; it also has a shop in Bodrum on the Aegean cost.)
The shop that I absolutely and unconditionally recommend, however, is in Ankara, the Asian capital of the Turkish Republic. Although the city deserves at least a quick trip to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, there are very few tourists roaming its busy streets. If you are a pipe smoker, though, Ankara holds another great attraction: the Sultan Pipe Shop (Resit Galip Caddesi 43, Tel. (312) 436-5871- with branches in Eskisehir and Antalya. Pipes can also be mail ordered. There is a nice catalog, but it only shows the classical models, sculpted and plain). The owner was extremely welcoming and happy to show me dozens and dozens of beautiful meerschaums pipes made by various craftsmen. The shop has everything: from classical models to sculpted pipes depicting animals, floral motifs, sultans, Vikings and historical figures from Twain to Lenin. He showed me examples of fake meerschaum which are often downloaded on tourists. Then, when I told him that I really intended to smoke the pipes I would buy, his eyes lit up. He had already offered us tea and tobacco and now while we had a smoke together, he made a further selection of the best pipes to smoke! I ended up buying three beautiful pipes, one of which is a true masterpiece. I became even more enthusiastic when I saw the final price: one hundred and seven dollars reduced to ninety "for smokers"!
I have only smoked one of the three, but the result is outstanding. The initial beeswax taste was very slight and vanished completely after the third or fourth pipeful; by the seventh pipe load the smoke was fresh and sweet.
Surely, a good portion of the merit also goes to the tobacco that I smoked in the pipe (the only Turkish pipe tobacco that seems to be available): Türk Pipo Tütünü. I highly recommend it. It's an extremely inexpensive natural tobacco flake that smokes well in a briar pipe, but which unleashes all of its sweetness when smoked in a meerschaum. There should actually be another brand of pipe tobacco available in Turkey, but neither I nor a friend of mine in Turkey at the same time, found any signs of it.
So far, I have written about pipes, but Turkey is the supreme reign of cigarettes. Smoking is permitted everywhere (often among the scandalized grunts of indignant Anglo-Saxon tourists) including trains and buses. Cigarettes are sold individually in the streets and you can run into miniature stalls selling loose shag and rolling papers, but there isn't the slightest hint of latakia or any other local pipe tobaccos. If you are planning a visit and don't smoke cigarettes, you had better prepare yourself! It is extremely tiring to continuously turn down the polite offers of cigarettes and rather easy to offend your host by not accepting one... I hadn't had so much pressure to smoke a cigarette since high school! There are hardly any pipes being smoked about and nearly all those that I saw were in the mouths of tourists. Actually, the street stall that I mentioned earlier also sold a few briar pipes, but they were very low quality products. In fact, if you are an avid briar pipe collector, take a good look around. Some can be found, but they certainly don't look very promising.
The pipe will save you, on the other hand, every time you are looking for a toilet. What does that have to do with pipes? Most toilets are indicated by a pipe and high-heeled shoe... Gents and Ladies. So the pipe exists in the Turkish imagination, but its uses are relegated to obscure duties.
As I could not find any local pipe tobacco, I decided to try smoking a narghilé (Turkish water pipe), but my luck was hardly any better. I looked everywhere, especially in cafes where plenty of older men passed their time away, but I could not find a narghilé anywhere. I had no intention of giving up, however, and finally found one in a carpet shop. Alas, it let me down. Nothing special. The tobacco that I smoked was too similar to regular cigarette shag. I finally decided that the only way to go about this was to buy my own narghilé and narghilé tobacco (a dark dry Persian tobacco called Tömbeki).
Once again, allow me to give you a word of advice: the best narghilés, made of crystal and silver-plated metal, are made in Ürgüp in Cappadochia. Every other narghilé that I saw throughout the entire country belonged to the massive production destined to tourist shops.
Finally back in Rome, I fill my narghilé, but (alas again!) trying to keep it lit without a glowing ember is more tiring than relaxing. The taste is nice and fresh, but does not compare with the luxury of a nice, greasy pipe tobacco. So, until I get to try my new fangled toy in front of a fireplace, I'll finish off my Türk Pipo Tütünü in my splendid new meerschaum pipe.