In Search of The Perfect Dress

The Perfect Dress (TPD) is not currently in Baku.  We know because we spent Sunday visiting every decent shop in the city looking for it.

Thankfully the superstition about bad luck befalling the couple should the groom see the bride in her wedding dress prior to the ceremony does not appear to apply here.  We started our search during the trip to Istanbul and came across a couple nearly-but-not-quite gowns in the process.  After such a warm-up, we dispatched Baku’s boutiques with military precision.

In addition to local-, Turkish- and Russian-made clothing, Baku actually has a presentable slice of western designer action going on.  While the provenances of some of the businesses might not appear wholly transparent, names such as Versace, Armani and Escada do have dedicated shops here and the latter certainly features in the company’s list of boutiques on its official website.  There are also a few shops where one can find a range of different design houses represented under the same roof.

The only bit we are not to sure about is how fresh the fashions are.  The aforementioned pukka Escada had Autumn/Winter 07 on half price sale and Spring/Summer 08 on show.  With the other, less certain shops it is a possibility that back-of-beyond Baku is being used as a last stop offloading point for whatever is left from assorted previous seasons.  That would help explain how the majority of places could only offer us something in black when we asked for a dress in light colours for a summer event (and TPD can not be LBD).

Amongst others, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen all found their way into the dressing room that afternoon and we discovered that none had quite managed to produce TPD.  We had some fun finding out though.  The shop assistants in such establishments clearly have light duties and in each shop without fail they managed to congregate nearby once the dresses were being tried.  Some groups actively participated, others feigned disinterest while clearly angling for the best views of the dress being worn.  All rather amusing.

For those who have not already guessed, we are not looking for a ‘traditional’ wedding dress (and certainly not a white meringue job) but a rather gorgeous frock that would suit a formal do on a summer’s evening.  All this label stuff may sound a bit grand but to be honest, there is nothing offered between that and very low budget clothing that has neither the design nor the build quality to meet the purpose.

Our last stop of the afternoon; as much for my education as anything else; was at a restrained version of the type of shop that specialises in traditional/meringue dresses.  The one vaguely attractive gown we saw looked like it could easily be made of nylon.  The premises being a rental as well as purchase shop, the garment might well have been used rather than new.  The clincher: it would actually have cost more to buy than a far finer dress that we had tried in Escada earlier.  I never thought I would find myself saying this (let alone writing it) but let’s stick to the labels.

Some of the shops we visited are expecting their new collections imminently.  There is also the opening of a – hopefully authentic – Karen Millen due some time soon.  If TPD still eludes us after that, we may have to cast our net a little wider.  Either that or cross fingers and seek a good enough seamstress to make a bespoke gown for the occasion.  More news is sure to follow.

A Taste of Turkey

Thank you very much to everybody who has been in touch to say congratulations since I last wrote: the smile keeps growing.  Plans for the wedding have become a large part of life outside the office: we are keeping busy and we should have a date or two to confirm soon.  In the meantime I can report that one small pre-marital courtesy has been happily paid.

Leyla has an uncle who lives in Istanbul and we agreed some time ago that we would pay him a visit so that he could meet me.  Last weekend we booked the Friday and Monday as leave and flew to Turkey.  Having heard many things about the city that straddles two continents, I was more than happy to go and see it for myself, however brief that first encounter might be.

We landed late morning, passed effortlessly through the well-tended airport and reached Taksim Square with time in hand to check in at our hotel (Golden Age II: small rooms but scrupulously clean) and be out in time for lunch.

Rather than dine immediately, we took a cab to the Sultanahmed district and did our main bit of tourism for the trip.  Here one finds Topkapi Palace, Ayia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, the Roman cisterns and numerous other significant sites all within moments of each other and all on a headland with commanding views towards the Sea of Marmaris and the Golden Horn.

We circumnavigated Ayia Sofia, strolled through some of the palace gardens and entered the Blue Mosque (most impressive, the photo does not do it justice), pausing only for a late lunch on a café’s fourth floor where we admired the marvellous view.  Seeing all the ancient buildings interspersed with modern almost Dutch-looking wooden houses and a brand new tram service running though the middle of it all was an intriguing sight.  It was one of many moments where Istanbul looked like the cultural melting pot that it is often described as being.

Inside the Blue Mosque and outside at the Grand Bazaar

Next was a stroll up the road to get lost in the expanse of the Grand Bazaar.  This maze of streets – some open, many under high arched ceilings – blazes with colour and still manages to reek of olde-worlde atmosphere, in spite of the majority of the wares on sale now seeming to be tourist tat and cheap imports.  Look around a while though and there are still little shops tucked away selling all sorts of curios and authentic wares, be it old gramophones or freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.

After a few wrong turns we found a northern exit and worked our way up some hunched and narrow streets towards the Spice Bazaar (formerly Egyptian Bazaar).  As the names suggest, this is where Egyptian traders came in times of yore to sell spices from afar and while the products and their sources are more varied now, the aromas remain as you walk past stall after stall of spices, herbs, coffees, delicatessens and more.  We had come specifically to buy saffron and in the course of visiting several stalls, sniffed out some stems of suitable quality and cut a good deal (haggling is still very much alive and well in Istanbul).

With the sun now very much set, it was time to head back to Taksim Square and we did so using a combination of tram and an underground funicular railway (I never knew such a thing existed).  The latter was an inventive solution to the problem posed by having busy city centre built on numerous steep hills.

Taksim Square is referred to as the heart of Istanbul and even the heart of Turkey.  It is certainly large enough to carry such grand names, criss-crossed by numerous roads and the end of an old tram line that runs up and down the essentially pedestrianised main street, ‘Freedom Street’, leading off it.  Even in the cold and the persistent rain, there is never a shortage of crowds, life and energy on that street.  Buskers playing everything from acoustic guitars to zithers compete for your aural attention while numerous chestnut braziers waft winter scents under your nose.

Leyla’s uncle and aunt met us at the hotel and took us to a charming little restaurant for dinner.  It seems that hidden just behind many of the main streets in the area are little streets where many similar restaurants, cafés, bars and shops can be found, with enough variety on offer to cater for most tastes.

We dined together on all three nights and each was a pleasure.  The visit was a great success, as an introduction both to family and to a city which is well worth lengthier exploration during the warmer seasons.  We will return.

Niece, uncle and soon-to-be nephew: a happy trio

Ring out the bells!

February already; looks like 2008 is going to be an other fast one.  It feels like there has barely been time to pause for breath since returning from London.  There has been much to enjoy during all the rushing around though.

Last weekend my parents came to visit, landing on the Thursday night and departing Tuesday morning.  Weather-wise, late January is possibly the worst time of year to visit Baku; as you may have gathered from the last couple of postings; and given the choice I am sure Mum and Dad would far rather have come to enjoy some spring or autumn sun but choice was not on the menu.  Warmth was in the air though and not just because I was finally able to show them some of what I have spent the last two years trying to write about.  They rushed to Baku at my request to join me in observing an important tradition.

Regular readers may have observed that several of the photographs on this ‘blog are “courtesy of Leyla Alakbarova”.  Well, that should be changing soon as I am most happy to announce that Leyla and I are now engaged to be married.

It has been over two weeks since I proposed and Leyla graciously accepted but the engagement could not be considered official until both families had met and my father had asked for her hand on by behalf.  That meeting took place last Saturday and everything went swimmingly.  Suffice to say I currently spend most of my time walking around with a very large smile on my face.

We plan to wed in June with ceremonies in both Baku and London.  More news will follow; watch this space.

Meet the family (photograph used with permission)