Tips before going to Iran

Books:

Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day by Michael Axworthy

A well documented history of the country

Land of the Turquoise Mountains: Journey Across Iran by Cyrus Massoudi

Autobiographical journey by a British-Iranian author travelling across the country upon which I could draw some parallels

Garden of the Brave in War: Recollections of Iran by Terence O’Donnell

This is a lovely book that gives a really touching insight on the Iranian soul and the people

By city: this list is not exhaustive but those are my personal recommendations based on my experience! It was difficult to choose but I wanted to keep it to the bare essentials if your travelling time is limited.

TEHRAN

Stay: Hannah Boutique Hotel

Visit: Treasury of National Jewels

Eat: Kubaba Restaurant

Buy: Tavazo Nuts and Spices (the best quality and value you will ever find! Worth the taxi ride)

KERMAN

Stay: Khorram Gardens

Visit: Lut Desert (booking of a guide is compulsory so plan ahead)

Eat: Keykhosro (drinks/lunch/dinner)

       Hamam-e Vakil Chaykhaneh (for tea)

Eat/Buy: Kolompeh (date-stuffed spiced biscuits)

SHIRAZ

Stay: Taha Hotel (but make sure to ask and double check that you are in the main original building

Visit: The Pink Mosque

    Persepolis (book a guide for the day beforehand, I highly recommend Key2Persia)

Eat/Buy: Balo Persian Cuisine (short menu but delicious fresh food and a rooftop)

 

YAZD

Visit: Old City then relax on the rooftop of the Art Centre to watch the sunset

          Chak-Chak (Fire Temple, on the outskirts, book a guide and driver beforehand)

Eat: Oriental Hotel (off the bazar, known for its camel meatballs and fantastic rooftop view across the city)

Buy: Zoroastrian related souvenirs

  Silk fabric (carpets or ‘termeh’ by the metre)

ISFAHAN

Stay: of course the world-renowned Abbasi Hotel!!

Visit: Ali Qapu Palace and Masjed-e Shah

  Jolfa, the Albanian quarter

Eat: Ghasr Monshi (delicious and varied buffet with friendly helpful staff)

        Ash-e Reshteh (Abbasi Hotel speciality)

Buy: Hossein Fallahi atelier (miniature painted boxes where you can see the Master of this traditional art working. Prices vary a lot depending on the details and colours but the work is exquisite. Worth going even just to have a look)

Gaz (nougat with pistachio and/or almonds). Go for the highest percentage of nuts as they are better quality. You can buy some with or without rose flavour depending on your personal taste.

KASHAN

Stay: Ehsan Historical Guesthouse (could not be more central)

Visit: Abyaneh (picturesque village in the mountains, you will need to book a driver)

  Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad and its complex of traditional houses

Eat: Manouchehri House (we only stopped for a drink)

    Negin Hotel (dinner)

Buy: Rose water

Recommended tourist agency: 

If you need an authorisation code for the VISA and other bookings (trains, taxis etc) and tours, I recommend to contact Ahmad at the Iran Tourism Center. He has been super super helpful!

Ahmad@irantourismcenter.com

What to be aware of:

  • Crossing the road can be tricky and slightly terrifying at first. Find some Iranians and cross the road with them. Even if you feel like you might get run over, you are safest crossing with locals as they have mastered the technique! There is no point waiting at a pedestrian crossing unless you feel like standing there all day. Be aware that motocycles often don’t respect red lights and drive on pavements or on the wrong side of traffic. However, I found that I quickly got used to it and by the end I could cross the road without the help of Iranians!
  • I felt that Iran was a very safe country, probably one of the safest places I’ve ever been to. However I was told to be a bit careful around Kerman but I suppose common sense should prevail wherever you are in the world!
  • If prices are not indicated on a menu, enquire beforehand. It has happened to me to be charged up to 40% more for a drink for being a foreigner as opposed to a local. However this only happened once or twice in more touristy areas but worth noting just in case. During the whole trip I always felt that everyone was very honest so perhaps I was just unlucky those two times!
  • Sun cream!! If your skin is as sensitive as mine plan to take some cream, especially in Kashan where it was scorching hot!
  • Change your money bit by bit as the exchange rate fluctuates a lot (usually in favour for us, unfortunately in disfavour for Iranians). Note that there are two exchange rates: the official international one (roughly 1€ = 50 000 toumans/500 000 rials) whereas the local rate (in May 2019) varied from 1€ = 150 – 165 000 toumans/ 1 500 000 – 1 650 000 rials) so change your money locally and gradually. Also note that you cannot take money out or pay with your card (Visa, MasterCard et) as they use American IT systems banned in Iran. So make sure you have enough cash for your whole journey.
  • Although the official currency is rials, because of inflation and devaluation most people will use toumans. For toumans divide rials by 10. It can be confusing at first when both currencies are alternatively used but you soon get your head round it! Iranians are very honest and have helped me when I accidentally gave them ten times more than expected and always gave me the correct change!

Back to Tehran

I left Kashan in the morning and checked in my super boutique hotel. It was situated next to all the embassies (French included, but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I got rather told off when trying to take the mega-building that is the Russian embassy. Trying to enter in there would be like trying to breaking into Fort Knox!).

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My first visit was the Treasury of National Jewels, owned by the Central Bank. The Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi monarchs adorned themselves and their belongings with an outstanding range of priceless gems and precious metals, making this collection of bling quite jaw-dropping. Star pieces include the Globe of Jewels and the Peacock Throne. The largest yellow diamond is kept there whereas the largest ruby belongs to the British Crown. I was shown around by an English-speaking guide and whilst I wasn’t allowed to take pictures I took some snaps of postcards to give you an idea of the jewels!

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As I left the building I was so thirsty but finding anywhere to sit down for a drink proved to be difficult because of Ramadan, even in hotels. I resorted to buying some cold drinks from a cafe where the owners were more than happy to sell them to me but I wasn’t allowed to sit down. He however told me I could sit in the park round the corner! The rules regarding Ramadan in Iran are quite lax despite it being an Islamic Republic – the vast majority of Iranians do not respect it and I did notice some people stuffing their faces with chips hidden in little alleys or in the few restaurants that served food! In addition, there is apparently an exception to the rule: if you are 50km away from your home town you are considered a traveller and you are therefore exempt from fasting. You can also compensate for not having done Ramadan by giving donations (financial or foods) to charity… I noticed that there are a lot of convenient ‘exceptions’!

I then headed over to the US Den of Espionage, the ex-US embassy that was one of the major focus points of the 1979 revolution. Students stormed the building and took 52 American personnel hostage for 444 days (non-American staff had been free to leave). The reason was that the Shah had left Iran to seek medical treatment abroad, including the USA. However revolutionaries wanted the Shah to come back to be trialled for various crimes ranging from corruption to torture. President Carter signed off a rescue mission which failed due to helicopters crashing after getting caught up in a sand storm.

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The siege finished over a year after when the Shah died and an agreement was drawn up in Algeria, a neutral negotiator. Under the Algeria Manifesto, the US were not to involve themselves in any manner in Iranian politics and Iran were to safely release the hostages. It is to be noted that no hostages or students were injured – the US marines used tear gas but no bullets, and the Americans were allowed to celebrate Christmas and Easter for instance. As much as this was undoubtedly a severe agression if not an act of war from the Iranians, I find it amazing that no one was injured during those 444 gruelling days.

During the hostage situation, American personnel tried to destroy as much information as they could as you can see from the picture below. However, dedicated revolutionaries painstakingly spent years reconstructing the shredded documents and some confidential information was brought to light about US involvement in Iran and in the Middle-East. For those who are interested, there is a film called Argo that recounts the events and according to our factual and neutral guide it is 90% accurate. I think I will watch it again when I am back!

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The building and its surrounding walls are plastered with anti-western graffitis and propaganda, specifically anti-American and anti-Israel. What I found fascinating when speaking to Iranians is the disconnection between the people we met and the politics and news we get in Europe . Undoubtedly Iran-US relations are complicated, but I did not meet a single Iranian that held a personal grudge against Americans, British or Israelis. The government propaganda and conservatism seem very much at odds with what I witnessed when travelling.

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I got the feeling that Iran is split: it is a mix of the past and the future, from conservatism to openness. There is undoubtedly some conservatives who support the government and this is reflected in their approach to Islam, from the strict dress code for women to how religiously they follow Ramadan. I expected those who are more conservative to be of an older generation, however that is not the case, perhaps it is a matter of background and education. Upholding traditions and history is partly what makes Iran a beautiful and interesting place to visit.

The government not only feeds the anti-western sentiment through state-sponsored street-art, but also through cinema for instance. One Iranian amused me when she described how western films were heavily edited – for example headscarfs are poorly added and photoshopped, including in scenes when they are sleeping! Scenes of unmarried couples holding hands are deleted, and any dialogue between a man and women will be changed so that the main topic is of a respectable marriage.

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The past if also very present in the mausoleums for the dead of the Iraq-Iran war, instigated by Iraq in 1980 and that lasted eight years. Indeed, there are photos of very young men plastered in every city. It is sad to see that some of those men were actually young boys, enticed by love, pride and duty for their country to become martyrs.

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On the other side of the spectrum are liberals, looking towards the future,  who wear a lose headscarf (Hejab) not covering much hair, manage to have access to Western news, who are welcoming to foreigners, wanting to end their country’s isolation, may it be political, financial and cultural. Many of the restaurants we went to were run by women whilst the waiters, cleaning staff and other employees were men. Women have a place in society and in that respect Iran is certainly a lot more advanced than their other Middle Eastern neighbours. Despite sanctions and embargoes, Iranians get on with their lives and are joyful and friendly.

I cannot recommend Iran more. I hope you have enjoyed my travels as much as I did! I have some fantastic memories and lots of souvenirs (so much so that I had had to buy another suitcase!) and I can say that this was the trip of a lifetime. I am looking forward to see you all in person to tell you more about it!

In the next post I have indicated some books, addresses and general tips that I recommend if you do (and I do hope you do!) one day visit this beautiful country.

Kashan

My next step was Kashan, however I did a brief detour via Natanz, on the lower slopes of Mount Karkwa. This tree-lined tree has two attractions: the central mosque Masjed-e Jameh, dating back from the 14th century. It was a lot more sober and simpler than previous mosques I had seen but it was beautiful nonetheless.

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The greater area of Natanz has a further claim to fame as the country’s infamous underground uranium enrichment plan. As we drove past it I could see the anti-missile rockets but of course did not take any pictures as this is strictly prohibited, as was reminded to me more than once and I didn’t want any problems with the authorities for thinking I was a spy!!

My taxi then took me to this little picturesque village in the mountains called Abyaneh. Situated nearly 4000 metres up, the ancient village is a warren of steep, twisting lanes and crumbling red mud brick-houses. It is a testament to both the age and isolation of the Abyaneh that the elderly residents still speak Middle Persian, an early incarnation of Farsi that largely disappeared some centuries ago. Many men still dress in the traditional wide-bottomed trousers and black waistcoats. Women’s clothing features Hejabs that cover the shoulders and beautiful colourful dresses printed or embroidered with flowers. They were kind enough to let me take a picture of them!

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I headed back to my taxi with my next destination being Kashan. Located between Isfahan and Tehran, Kashan is on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir. Shah Abbas I was so enamoured with Kashan that he insisted on being buried here rather than in Isfahan. Other historical figures of note who are associated with the town include Abu Musa al-Ashari, a soldier and companion of the Prophet Mohammed whose army took the town in the 7th century AD. Legend has it that his troops tossed thousands of scorpions from the surrounding desert over the city walls causing the terrified Kashanis to capitulate.

During the Seljuk period (1051 – 1220 AD), Kashan became famous for its textiles, pottery and tiles, reaching high levels of accomplishment in each of these cottage industries. Currently local textile artisans are enjoying something of a renaissance of interest in their work, but mechanisation has largely led to the decrease of this ancient craft. Today the town is more widely known as a major centre for the production of rose water, which is sold at dedicated outlets and in the bazaar. I had heard so much of the multiple benefits of rose water I was intrigued to try some! I had already tasted rose water desserts and teas but I didn’t know about other uses yet.

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After dropping my bags off at the hotel, I was desperate for something to drink as it was scorching – probably the hottest city since the beginning of my trip. Being Ramadan, not everything was open but I did find a hotel that served cold drinks. I stayed there for a while as I was waiting for the bazaar to reopen. I had noticed that quite a few shops close between 2 and 5pm, probably due to the heat! On my hunt for rose water, I found the seller who was recommended to me. Run by an elderly gentleman knowledgeable in the art of the production of rose water, he showed me the various types he had. The strength of the aroma depends on the point at which the distillation is captured. He was quite a character and had to mime for me the magical effects of rose water – for instance, if you put some on your face before going to bed, after sleeping and waking up everyone will want to kiss you! (All this being mimed!) He also must have thought I needed some refreshing as he kindly sprayed some rose water on me, my headscarf and in my wallet. After such a performance I couldn’t resist buying some rose water and test it to see the results!

I headed back to the hotel and went on the hunt to find a place to eat. Funnily enough I bumped into a french couple for the third time in the restaurant – I am starting to believe that they are following me!

I was up at 5.30 to be taken to the place where roses are picked up. My driver drove me up the mountains and explained that one of the reasons I had to go early was because the prime time for picking roses is between 6am and 10am where the smell is at it strongest. The views in the mountains were stunning and I couldn’t resist hiding in the rose bushes for a while! Our guide showed me the waterfall which irrigates the fields in such a dry environment – it is a little bit like an oasis in that sense. Then I was shown the production and distillation process – the amount of roses needed for rose water or oil is very impressive and it is still very much done in an artisanal manner.

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In the afternoon I went to visit a complex of traditional houses not far from where I was staying. I started off with Khan-e Boroujerdi. Legend has it that Sayyed Jafar Natanzi, a samovar merchant known as Boroujerdi, met with carpet merchant Sayyed Jafar Tabatabei to discuss taking his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mr Tabatabei set one condition: his daughter must be able to live in a home at least as lovely as his own. The result – finished 18 years late – was the Khan-e Boroujerdi. Made distinctive by its six-sided, domed ‘badgirs’, the house boasts frescoes painted by Kamal al-Molk, the foremost Iranian artist of the time. I had to say the house is huge and I don’t know how they didn’t get lost! It felt like houses within an even bigger house.

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Next I visited Mr Tabatabei’s house to compare if indeed Khan-e Boroujerdi’s was grander! I have to say they looked quite similar in style and were both grandiose. Tabatabei’s house is renowned for its intricate stone reliefs, delicate stucco, and striking mirror and window work. The house is arranged around four courtyards, the largest of which boasts a large pond with fountains, helping to keep the courtyard cool.

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My next stop was the renowned Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad. This 500 year old hammam is considered to be one of the most beautiful and best preserved bath house. A recent restauration has stripped away 17 layers of plaster to reveal the original ‘sarough’, a type of plaster made of milk, egg white, soy flour and lime that is said to be stronger than cement. I had a little sit down on the throne – not sure who would have sat there at the time but made me feel important!

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My last stop before going out for dinner was visiting the mosque that was more or less across the street, called Masjed-e Agha Borzog. Compromising four floors, including a large sunken courtyard, an austere dome, tiles minarets and unusual lofty ‘badgirs, this decommissioned 19th century mosque is said to have as many studs as there are verses in the Quran. The mud-brick walls are covered with Quranic inscriptions and mosaics. I found it amusing that there was volleyball net at the back, but sadly there wasn’t anyone to play with me.

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Off back to to the hotel as my last day is tomorrow in Tehran before flying back. I have an action packed day to visit the last attractions I didn’t last time and the loop will be complete. See you soon!

Jolfa

After having visited most of the attractions in central Isfahan I decided to go South of the river Zayandeh where the Armenian quarter is located.

It dates back from the time of Shah Abbas I, who transported a colony of Christians from the town of Jolfa (now on Iran’s northern border) en masse in the early 17th century after the Ottoman Empire’s attack. The settlers subsequently named the village ‘New Jolfa’. Abbas sought their skills as merchants, entrepreneurs and artists, and this location became an important centre connecting the markets of Iran and Transcaucasia to those of eastern and western countries. Furthermore, Abbas ensured that their religious freedom was respected – albeit at a distance from the city’s Islamic centre. At one time 42,000 Armenians lived there, and now the various churches serve a Christian community of about 6000.

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Built between 1648 and 1655 with encouragement from the Safavid rulers, today Vank Cathedral (Kelisa-ye Vank) forms the centre of this settlement and more generally the historical focal point of the Armenian Church in Iran. In Armenian ‘Sourp Amenaprgich Vank’ means ‘All Saviours’ Cathedral’. It has been the centre of religious, cultural and social activities for the community for over 400 years. The architectural style of the church is influenced by Armenian, European and Iranian features and artistic skills. I was amazed by the murals from the Old and New Testament, such as gruesome depictions of martyrdom, heaven and hell, and demons, painted by what at the time would have been masters and famous painters. It was also so different to what I had previously seen! It was also nice to hear bells ringing – sounded a lot more familiar to me than the Islamic call for prayer!

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I had a little wonder through the narrow streets and found another church, The Nativity of Bethlehem. It was equally as beautiful as Vank Cathedral even if not more impressive! In the museum next to it were some artifacts and relics such as the right hand relic,  symbolising St Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint and first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Dating back to the 4th century, he is credited with converting Armenia from paganism to Christianity in 301. Armenia thus became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.

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My next stop was the Music Museum, a new museum in Jolfa that houses a fine collection of traditional Persian instruments, assembled by a private collector. I was accompanied by a French-speaking guide who explained each instrument and they were displayed in such a way to encourage visitors to play the cords and instruments and listen to their sound. We saw a Santour, considered to be the ancestor of piano and it looks incredibly fiddly to play! He also showed us two kinds of Tars and made us guess why one was rounded at the back whereas one was flat… we got it completely wrong as the reason the second was flat is it was designed for pregnant women! Next we were shown a Setar, meaning ‘three strings’, although later a fourth cord was added. Some were very small or flat so they could be hidden under clothes during a decade of the Qajar reign when music was banned. At the end of our tour, we were lucky to be treated to a private concert by four talented musicians. As I expected the Santour looked incredibly difficult to master and sounded beautiful.

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Time to head back to my hotel! I relaxed in the beautiful garden whilst looking for a place for dinner. I found this great restaurant called Ghasr Monshi (I definitely recommend) that served a copious buffet. The food was varied and I had lamb, chicken, aubergines, various vegetables and finished off with a saffron and pistachio ice-cream. Needless to say that I was not hungry at all by the end and I waddled back to the hotel. On the way I saw the man singing for the call for prayer as well as some kind of concert next to the mosque. I have to say I am happy my hotel room was not above the loud speakers!

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Off to bed as I am heading to Kashan tomorrow morning. You and I will both find out about it soon!

Isfahan

I checked in the very famous Abbasi Hotel – the interior is stunning and it has a beautiful large courtyard, with trees, roses and of course a water feature.

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I first went to visit the Hasht Behesht Palace, situated in a park round the corner from the hotel. Once the most luxuriously decorated palace is Esfahan, the interior of the small Hasht Behesht Palace has been extensively damaged over the years, but it remains some spectacular details, including a superb stalactite ceiling with delicate paintings. This changed from all the mirrors that I had seen so far! A popular meeting place for retired men to relax or play chess, the place offers peace and quietness in the centre of Isfahan.

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I walked through the park and decided to go to the Kakh-e Chechel Sotun complex. Built as a pleasure pavilion and reception hall, this palace is entered via an elegant terrace that bridges the transition between the Persian love of gardens and ornate interiors. The 20 wooden pillars on the palace support the main roof. Chehel Sotun means ’40 pillars’ and that is due to the number of pillars reflected in the long pool facing the palace. The original palace, dating back to 1614, was badly damaged in a devastating fire and the palace on the site today was rebuilt after 1706.

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The Great Hall is decorated with frescoes, miniatures and ceramics. The main fresco depicts one of the most important battles of the Safavid era, between Shah Ismail and the Uzbeks. The Persians were only equipped with bow and arrows on order of the Shah who believed that God would protect them, whilst the Uzbeks had firearms. Inevitably this ended up in a massacre and a defeat for the Shah. The other frescos depict more cheerful events such as Shah Abbas II welcoming King Nader Khan of Turkestan with musicians and dancing girls. These works survived the 18th century invasion by the Afghans, who whitewashed the paintings to show their disapproval of such extravagance.

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The palace’s garden is an excellent example of the classic Persian garden form and was recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is a very popular spot for a photograph of the garden’s perfect symmetry. I was impressed by the size and fragrance of the roses!

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I then headed over to the Bazaar, located around possibly the most famous square, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and stretching North over to the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. The bazaar’s arched passageways are topped by a series of small perforated domes, each shining shafts of light on the commerces below. Whilst the oldest part of the bazaar is over a thousand years old (those around the mosque), most of what can be see today was built during Shah Abbas’ ambitious expansions of the early 1600s. I was accosted several times by very persistent carpet sellers but resisted buying one. Instead I went on the hunt for an electric samovar – after asking in dozens of shops I quickly realised it would be a difficult purchase as the vast majority are gas. Added to this would be the slight issue of taking it back home…!

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Time for some culture! I went to the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. This complex is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture while still functioning as a place of worship. Covering more than 20, 000 square metres, this is the biggest mosque in Iran. Religious activity on this site is believed to date back to the Sassanid Zoroastrians, with the first sizeable mosque being build over the temple in the 11th century. The two large domes have survived from this era but the rest of the mosque was destroyed in a fire in the 12th century and rebuilt in 1121.

In the centre of the main courtyard is an ablutions fountain designed to imitate the Kaaba at Mecca. Would-be pilgrims once used the fountain to practice the approximate rituals prior to undertaking the ‘hajj’. At the north the Taj al-Molk Dome is widely considered to be the finest brick dome in Persia. While relatively small, it is said to be mathematically perfect and has survived dozens of earthquakes without any damage for more than 900 years.

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I wondered back slowly in the narrow streets and eventually ended up back at the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It was late afternoon by then and I was hoping to catch the sunset on the Si-o-Seh Pol, a lovely Bridge on the Zayandeh Roud. Built by a favourite general of Shah Abbas I, between 1599 and 1602, it served both as a bridge and a dam, and is still used to hold water today. It is also a very popular spot to take photos with a great view! Unfortunately, it was a bit too cloudy for me to see the sunset but I still got to admire the bridge and the view of Isfahan.

Back to the hotel for supper! The Abbasi has a signature dish called ‘ash-e reshte’, a noodle soup with beans and vegetables. It was very fragrant and filling, probably why it is one of the most popular dishes during Ramadan after a day of fasting, and exactly what I needed after a long day! It is clearly very popular as the queue to order was getting longer and bowls of soup were flying out. Time for bed!

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The next morning I had breakfast at the hotel. The selection was huge and I decided to have a date and walnut omelette, some fruit and some bread and cheese. I needed to stock up as I wouldn’t be able to eat during the day because of most restaurants being closed for Ramadan! I then went back to the main square and went to visit the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, situated between the bazaar’s arcades. It is unusual because it has neither a minaret nor a courtyard, and because steps lead up to the entrance. This was probably because the mosque was never intended for public use, but rather as the worship place for the women of the shah’s harem.

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I crossed the square over to the Ali Qapu Palace. Built at the very end of the 16th century as a residence for the Shah Abbas I, this six-floor 38 metre tall palace was built to make an impression, and its elevated terrace not only dominates the square but also provides one of the best views over the Masjed-e Shah and the mountains beyond. Unfortunately, many of the paintings and mosaics were destroyed during the Qajar era and after the 1979 revolution, but there are extensive renovations taking place.

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I stopped for a cold drink in the Bastani tea house, located in the arcades. I was amused by their translation for ‘tip’ as ‘pourbpire’, Google translate must have let them down this time! I needed to refuel before my next stop: the Masjed-e Shah, the unmissable mosque at the head of the square. Unblemished since its construction 400 years ago, it stands as a monument to the vision of Shah Abbas I and the accomplishments of the Safavid dynasty. The positioning of the entrance portal is interesting as it as built to face the square (not Mecca), however the mosque is oriented towards Mecca, so a short angled corridor was built to connect the portal to the courtyard for realignment.

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On some of the tiles are inscribed decrees, for instance one stating the public baths were exempt from taxes, probably to encourage hygiene throughout the kingdom! Another one states that farmers were also exempt, again most likely with the aim to encourage food production and avoid a potential famine. Another interesting feature is the block of stone used to tell time: when the shadow is on the left it is before noon, and on the right after noon. This was essentially an ancient sundial.

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On the picture below you can see a set of staircase that seems to go nowhere – in fact it is a ‘minbar” where the Imam preaches and it represents the Fourteen Innocents: the Twelve Imams, Fatima and Mohammed.

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Time to drop off my bags at the hotel and think about a place for dinner! I found a traditional restaurant and on the way took some pictures of Isfahan by night. By then the square was packed will people having picnics and eating as the sun was down. Isfahan really is a beautiful city! Tomorrow I will visit the Armenian quarter and I will tell you about it in my next post!

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Toudeshk

I am off to Toudeshk, a 500 year old desert village  on the way to Estafan. The taxi picked me up in the morning and I arrived at the Tak-Taku guesthouse just after lunch. I was greeted by English-speaking Mohammad, who runs the place with his parents – it is very much a family home as well as a business and his brothers would pop by if they wanted.

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Mohammad was very welcoming and made me feel very comfortable. He had a little library and whilst I was waiting for my room to be ready I read about how Tak-Taku guesthouse started. It was quite a touching story actually! From an early age, Mohammad was amazed and curious about cyclists loaded with heavy bags, passing through his village and sometimes called out ‘hello’ to them. When an English teacher came to Toudeshk, he helped Mohammad with some English signs such as: ‘Are you thirsty?’, ‘Are you hungry?’. At 12 years old he would stand by the side of the road holding up those signs. By the time he was 15, the sign had evolved to ‘Do you need a place to stay?’.

The first traveller he hosted was a cyclist from Germany, and in this way Mohammad started his vocation of offering travellers a place to stay at his grandfather’s home in Toudeshk, and showing them the traditional and rural Iranian way of life. By 2008, Lonely Planet’s Andrew Burke had heard about Mohammad and cyclists around the world were encouraged to meet him and stay with him.

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After some years, Mohammad decided to buy an unoccupied traditional mud house, wanting to renovate what essentially were ruins as authentically as possible to restore it to its original state. This raised a few eyebrows from his parents who perceive this purchase as a unrealistic and impractical dream. In 2012 Mohammad started to restore the house using traditionally skilled tradesmen, locally and across the country. The restoration took a total of three years. All the hard work was worth it as it is a beautiful place to stay and in 2015 Tak-Taku Guesthouse received official heritage listing from The Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Office in Tehran.

After relaxing for a while with tea and chatting to Mohammad, I went for a little wonder around the village and up the hill to watch the sunset under his recommendation. It was getting a bit chilly by then so I was very happy when dinner was announced after! Mohammad’s mother had cooked a delicious aubergine stew and rice and we all sat on the floor in kitchen with the family as per Iranian custom. I need to mention that Ramadan had started, however it wasn’t an issue for me as I was getting in the habit of having a big breakfast, skipping lunch and having a late dinner instead! Mohammad also had a fairly relaxed approach and in fact he told us that behind closed doors the majority of Iranians don’t follow Ramadan strictly. The general rule is not to eat in front of others out of respect for those who are fasting.

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I spent the rest of the evening chatting to Mohammad who told me about the guests he has hosted, his passion for meeting new people and travelling, and also various things about the current situation in Iran.

The following day, I was driven by his brother to the Salt Lake. It is 60km wide, 80km long and 10cm deep and it looks endless in the horizon! The concentration of salt is such that all I could see was kilometres of white. We reached some areas where the salt had been piled up ready for collection and the views were spectacular. I also tasted a Safron ice-cream, very popular here. I didn’t know what to expect but it tasted pretty good!

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Following this outing, I decided I wanted to have another experience of sleeping in the desert. I am an expert now! Ali picked me up and Mohammad joined us later with a friend. We watched the sunset and the stars in front of a roaring fire that also heated dinner up. Ali then barbecued the kebabs and it was all delicious and magical in this surrounding. I did keep an eye on the sand though as this desert is known for it scorpions and tarantulas! I was advised to keep away from bushes for that reason. Luckily my tent was hermetically zipped so I didn’t have any unwelcome visitors although I could hear some suspicious noises just outside my tent…. perhaps it was a desert fox?

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The following morning I had a traditional Iranian breakfast of bread, cheese, cucumber, tomato and of course lots of tea. After we all had eaten we headed back through the rocky desert and stopped along the way at an old castle surrounded by an oasis. It is incredible to drive through hundreds of kilometres of arid land with essentially no life and suddenly a green and vibrant garden pops up out of nowhere! The owner of the castle is abroad in the US and so it has been taken over by locals who live there and take care of it.

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Time to plan my journey to Esfahan! Once back in the guesthouse and showered, a taxi picked me up and it was about an hour and half drive to my next destination. I will tell you all about it soon!

Outskirts of Yazd

I had booked a tour to visit the areas surrounding Yazd with a guide called Ali. We were accompanied by two fellow frenchies who were very friendly. They were staying in a hostel called Sunny Hostel but ironically they were given a basement room with no window!

Ali first drove us 70km North of Yazd to Kharanaq, a deserted mud-brick village overlooking the valley that emerged over a thousand years ago. The small agricultural settlement would have been encircled by fragrant apple, pomegranate and mulberry trees. What now remains of this ghost town is a Qajar-era mosque, a cylindrical 17th century shaking minaret and a caravanserai near the entrance of the village. A caravanserai was used to load and unload camels and give them time to rest and rehydrate before undertaking long journeys in the desert carrying goods across the land. Traditional mud walls are restored once every few years so as to withstand the elements, but since this part of the village has long been abandoned, the majority of the walls are left to crumble away. I had to be careful when walking around as there were some huge holes in the ground and some of the stairs had seen better days! I then walked through some wheat fields and the view of the mountains was beautiful.

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Our next stop was Chak-Chak, one of the most important of five Zoroastrian holy sites known as the Five Pirs, nestled into the steep face of an isolated mountainside. Legend has it that after the Arab invasion in AD 637, the Sassanian princess Nikbanuh (the second daughter of the last Sassanid King, Yazdgerd III) and her family fled. The princess became separated from them, and  short of water and desperate for safety, she turned to Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord of the Zoroastrians, for salvation. As she knelt in prayer, the mountain miraculously opened and sheltered her from the invaders. Inside, she heard  the unmistakeable noise: ‘chak, chak’, meaning ‘drip, drip’. This, so the myth goes, is how the site got its name.

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The Pir-e Sabz Fire Temple forms the main focus of interest. Reached by 230 steps (I took a few breaks along the way to admire the view and catch my breath!), you can really appreciate the isolation that marks this spot. I was exempt from taking my shoes off as I don’t wear any, and then went inside the cave where an eternal flame is kept alight as per the Zoroastrian religion. It felt peaceful and calm and I can understand why it is a place of worship and indeed from the ceiling was a constant ‘chak’ of water.

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We then headed over to Meybod Yakhchal, a 400 year old structure opposite the former caravanserai. It is one of the most impressive ice houses in Iran. The enormous, meticulously built mud and brick building consists of two shallow icing ponds where water freezes in the winter, tall 2m-thick walls that prevent the sun reaching the icing ponds, a pit for storing the ice from those ponds and a dome to shelter from the summer heat.

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By this stage it was getting very warm and Ali drove us to an ice cream shop. I had blackberry and mango ice cream and it was delicious and refreshing! We then drove back to Yazd as the french couple had a bus to catch. This left me most of the afternoon free to finish visiting what I hadn’t done the previous day. I wondered around the little streets and admired the various handmade fabrics. The sewing skills, passed from generation to generation, is impressive in its details, and the Yazd silk pattern is called ‘termeh’, using gold and silver thread.

Late afternoon I went to Bagh-e Dolat Abad, once a residence of the Persian regent Karim Khan Zand. This small pavilion, built around 1750, is set amongst UNESCO-listed gardens. It is clearly a picturesque place as I saw some students getting their graduation pictures taken there! The pavilion also boasts Iran’s highest ‘bagdir” (wind tower) standing at 33m tall, rebuilt in the 1960s. The gardens, built on the traditional Persian principle of symmetrical design, is planted with evergreens and dotted with sour orange and pomegranate trees.

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I was told that the first gardens in history were called ‘pardis’ in the early Iranian language of Pahlavi – it is translated as ‘around the house’ and it is the root of the Indo-European word ‘paradise’. The Greek word ‘paradeisos’ was first used by Xenophon to describe an enclosed park, orchard or hunting preserve in Persia. There are several features to a Persian garden: it is divided in four quarters, there is always a water feature in the centre, the trees are symmetrically aligned and the garden is a enclosed by walls. Therefore, using the expression ‘gardens of paradise’ is in fact a pleonasm!

Time for a refreshment! I found yet another rooftop with a view on Masjed-e Jameh and I had a mint and lemon drink. The weather started to change and soon I saw lightning and a thunderstorm started. Luckily I was sheltered but I did get bitten by a few hungry mosquitoes!

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Off to bed as I am being picked up in the morning to go to Toudeshk, a small village en route to Esfahan. I will be staying in a traditional Iranian guesthouse and will tell you all about it in my next post!

Yazd

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I survived the six hour journey in my VIP bus – I have to say it was quite comfortable and I had my Kindle with me to keep me busy. What I noticed was the change in scenery en route – from green trees to dry land. I met a nice Iranian man who wanted to have a chat and obviously was very impressed by what Pasteur and Napoleon had achieved. Conversation was a bit difficult because he didn’t use any verbs and they were replaced by ‘OK’ but he was kind enough to point out some features during our journey.

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With its winding lanes, mud-brick houses and rooftops, Yazd has its own charm. On a flat plain ringed by mountains, the city is lodged between Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut, a true city of the desert. Originally settled 5000 years ago, Yazd has an interesting mix of people, 10% of whom are Zoroastrian and is very much the centre of this ancient religion.

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I decided to have a walk towards the centre and the bazaar which only opened on Saturday. The first monument that caught my eye was the Amir Chakmaq Mosque Complex but I wasn’t able to visit it, however I did take a picture!

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I continued heading north and went to visit the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. Soaring above the old city, this building is decorated with a tiled entrance portal (one of the tallest in Iran), flanked by two 48m-high minarets and adorned with 15th century inscriptions. Built during that time, the mosque is built on 12th century foundations over a former fire temple. You might notice on some of the tiles the ‘gardoneh mehr’ (swastika symbol) which in this context represents infinity, timelessness, birth and death, and can be found on Iranian buildings dating back as 5000 BC.

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After I went to the Old City, which according to UNESCO is one of the most ancient settlements on earth. The 2000 or so Qajar-era houses, made from sun-dried mud brick are dominated by ‘badgirs’ (windtowers) on almost every rooftop, essentially an ancient form of air conditioning and a reminder of the extreme heat of summer. On recommendation of the guide, I decided to wonder around the narrow streets and ended up visiting a traditional house. By that stage I was very thirsty and went to the rooftop of the Art Centre which provided a fantastic view on the rooftops and the sunset. It was relaxing and I was encouraged not to use Wifi as per the the sign the owners had put up!

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I went to the Orient Hotel roof-top restaurant for dinner that evening, with a super nighttime view on the Masjed-e Jameh mosque. I had aubergines, camel, a vegetarian curry and of course… rice. The food was delicious and I walked home for a relaxing evening.

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In the morning I went to the Bazaar as it wasn’t open on Friday. I got lost in the streets and took the opportunity to take pictures of the doors. In Yazd doors have two different knockers on each door – one for women and one for men. It is important to know who is knocking on the door so the appropriate gender can open the door, and each knocker gives a different sound, thereby knowing whether a man or woman is knocking. I wouldn’t know which one to knock on as being a Teddy Bear I was raised gender neutral!

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Another interesting feature that is local only to Yazd are the ‘Nakhl’ which you can stumble upon across the city. It is linked to a Shia religious ritual, Nakhl Gardani, carried out on the day of Assura for commemorating the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad and third Shia Imam. The Nakhl wooden structure is used as a symbol of the Imam’s coffin and Nakhl Gardani is the act of carrying the former from one place to another, resembling an Imam’s funeral.

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The bazaar wasn’t as busy as the one I had previously seen but they had the usual stands of spices, kitchenware, gold jewellery and carpets. I had a look at a carpet shop and it must be difficult to chose due to the choice and wide range in budget! I was however told that carpets that are folded tend to be better quality than those that are rolled – something to keep in mind when buying. Also worth noting that the international exchange rate used is not the local Iranian one!

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Following the bazaar, I went to the Water Museum. Yazd is famous for it ‘qanats’ (underground aqueducts), and one does wonder how the settlers had access to water in such an arid region. The museum is devoted to the brave men who dug those underground waterways that enabled life to flourish in the desert. Their uniform was padded cotton hats and white-coloured clothing. This not only was luminous in the dark, but would also act as a shroud in the event of a fatal accident. Indeed Muslims wrap their dead in white cloth before burying them, and the workers were therefore ready for paradise.

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The museum charts the 2000 years that Iran’s irrigation system has been in operation  and still is nowadays. ‘Qanats’ run through many wealthy houses, collecting in pools at the basement, which provided much needed cool, and are the reason why the more affluent districts are always closest to the mountains – to be closest to the freshest water.

Talking about water, time for a refreshing drink in this 33C degree! I found another rooftop and had an iced tea with mint and lemon, perfect for this heat. I rested for a little while before heading back to the hotel.

Off to bed as I am going on an excursion tomorrow morning!

Persepolis

I was up to an early start as the guide taking us to Persepolis arrived at 7.30. As it was a shared group tour the coach picked some others on the way – from Finland, Japan and Argentina.

Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the great wonders of the ancient world, embodies not just a grand architectural scheme but also a great idea. It was conceived by Darius the Great who, in 520 BC, inherited the responsibility for ruling the world’s first known empire founded by his predecessor Cyrus the Great who wrote what is considered to the the first charter of Human Rights, nowadays found in the British Museum. Indeed, he considered that workers should have insurance, should be paid according to their skills and amount of work, and he freed the enslaved Jews from the Babylonians. He considered that everyone should be free to practice their faith and that no one should be coerced into converting to another religion. Darius went further and installed equal pay for women, if not more if they were more skilled than men. Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest empire in human history up to that point, based on a model of tolerance and respect.

Persepolis was embellished with the succession of Kings and by the 4th century BC it was an elaborate project of palaces and treasuries. Inevitably the city attracted the envy of powerful rivals and in 330 BC it was burnt down by Alexander the Great.

The guide first showed us Xerxes’ gateway, also called Gate of all Nations, that once heralded the important of important dignitaries. Unfortunately, some have signed their names on the stone – but now some are part of the history, such as Henry Morton Stanley or McDonalds! On top of the columns, unfortunately not in its past glory, were griffins who were a support to the roof.

We then headed to the Apadana Palace which would have be used to receive foreign delegations and was the venue for big parties. The engravings by the side of the staircase are particularly revealing. We can see the cypress and the lotus flower, symbols of Iran, and then a lion and a bull. The lotus flower is probably a Zoroastrian sign representing the calendar: one centre (one year) surrounded by twelve petals (twelve months). Contrary to what it looks like at a first glance, this isn’t a fight or hunt. Indeed if it were the lion would have attacked the bull by the neck. Instead, it is pushing the bull out of the way – it is an astrological sign and the bull represents winter and the lion summer. Effectively Summer is pushing Winter out and this corresponds to the New Year, celebrated on the 21st of March, which dates back to the Zoroastrians, so perhaps they were Zoroastrian at that time, as indicated by some engravings.. On the left side are bas-reliefs of what would have been visitors from the empire visiting and offering gifts – in the below photo you can identify the Greeks by their hairstyles.

During our free time I clambered up a steep stone ‘staircase’ to the Tomb of Artaxerxes II. It also provides a great view over Persepolis and a greater appreciation of its scale! By that stage I was getting very warm so I decided to climb down – being made of wool is not ideal in those temperatures!

I re-joined the party and we stopped at the cliffs neighbouring Persepolis featuring four rock-hewn tombs called Naqsh-e Rostam, a necropolis. It is believed that Darius II (the most important tomb), Artaxerxes I, Darius I and Xerxes I were buried there. Their bodies would have been deposited here but contrary to popular belief they were not mummified like in Egypt. Instead they would be lathered with some sort of honey, then wrapped in fabric and placed in the coffin, surrounded by gold and silver for the afterlife. The door was to be sealed for ever, however Alexander the Great and his soldiers opened the tombs to loot the goods and it is unknown where those precious offerings now are. Facing the cliffs is Bun Khanak, thought to be a fire temple, although this is disputed by historians who think it could also have been a Treasury.

We all headed back to the van and after a short drive stopped for lunch in a very pleasant guest house. Lunch was a rice and meat dish which reminded me a little bit of a ‘plov’, an Uzbek dish, along a rice omelette, some pickled vegetables, yoghurt and some dates. It was delicious and what I needed as I had had breakfast quite early this morning! We were treated to local music and singing by the owner who agreed to take pictures with me and the group.

Our next stop was Pasargadae where Cyrus the Great was buried, about an hour drive away. The ruins are a lot smaller than Persepolis and the tomb consists of a modest rectangular burial chamber perched on six plinths. It is believed that Cyrus started building a city there during his lifetimes but the site was abandoned after his death by Darius who went to build Persepolis. In the future centuries, to avoid the tomb being looted, the villages invented a story stating that in fact it held the remains of Solomon’s mother, a story that protected the tomb.

By the end of the afternoon I was very tired, probably because of the stifling heat. The driver dropped us back to my hostel where I decided to go out for dinner in a local restaurant called Balo. It was a rooftop with comfortable tables and blankets if you get chilly! I was a bit greedy and ordered a kind of aubergine dip, a cold soup made of yoghurt, cucumber and spices, as well as aubergine frittatas.

Off to bed for an early bus to Yadz!

In the meantime, I can say that I had a lovely time in Shiraz. The city is beautiful and welcoming and I felt less likely to get run over!

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