When leaving Lizard, I bid my farewell to the locals.At Helston, I drank my daily dose of caffeine with some delicious scones.In Redruth, I ventured into some antique shops before boarding the train.
Dha weles skon!
When leaving Lizard, I bid my farewell to the locals.At Helston, I drank my daily dose of caffeine with some delicious scones.In Redruth, I ventured into some antique shops before boarding the train.
Dha weles skon!
Had my morning coffee before taking the boat to St Michael’s mount ☕It turns out that St Michael was owned by the French Mont-St-Michel abbey for over 3 centuries.The garden was closed…… so I walked up the steps to the castle.View of the garden from above:On the way back, the tide had lowered just enough for some to attempt to cross by foot.I then took the bus to Helston. Bus rides are quite fun in Cornwall and some even have USB chargers.After having lunch in Helston, I took bus to Lizard and walked to Kynance cove to reach the coastal path.
My travel arrangements:Perfect hiking weather ☀️Kynance cove:The coastal path passes by Lizard point, the most southern point in England.I’m staying at a youth hostel not too far from that point.I continued the trail recommended by the National Trust. I bought some jam, before heading back to Lizard point for the sunset.Some confusing signs:Sunset:I then hurried to the housel bay hotel, where I had dinner at the Fallowfield restaurant.(No pictures but the food was really good) On the way back, there was a starry sky and I could just about see the milky way.
Over breakfast I realised that the day before I had gone past the most southwesterly point of England. It was hidden in the fog somewhere.
I headed north along the coast. There is several ambitious paths that head all the way to a village north of Scotland.
Met a few oxes.
Eventually I reached Cape Cornwall.
Here I had a snack before walking up the Tin coast.
The Tin coast features many abondoned copperhouse foundries.
At this point, I had had enough of walking and took the bus back to Penzance.
Passing through St Just’s.
The buses in Cornwall do a special detour to pick up students from school. Taxis are also involved in the “school run”, making it hard to find them between 3 and 4pm.
From Penzance, I took the coastal path to Marazion, which features the English version of the Mont St Michel.
I had a short nap before dinner. When I headed out for dinner, I realised I’d missed the sunset.
I part ways with my dear friend, Paddington…… before heading off on a long train ride to the far westerly point of England.From Penzance, I took a taxi to the Minack theatre in Porthcurno.The Minack theatre is a beautiful open-air theatre that overlooks the Atlantic ocean.It is a peaceful place to visit and has a beautiful gardenThe cafe there has a beautiful view of the bay. They serve good coffee and the vegan apricot and coconut flapjack was delicious.I then took the south western coast path all the way to Land’s End.Perfectly placed robin The water was clear and beautiful.The weather forecast was positive the week before but today was decidedly going to be rainy and foggy.Ednys Dodnan arch: Greeb cottage – with ponies, sheep and rabbitsFinally arrived at the Land’s End hotel. Time to give my paws a break.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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!
What to be aware of:
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!).
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Off to bed as I am heading to Kashan tomorrow morning. You and I will both find out about it soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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!