Never did I experience such a mismatch between the way a country is portrayed and perceived in the West and how it really is. Maybe it is a good thing to keep this fantastic place a secret, a well hidden precious gem, still pure and not spoiled by mass tourism. You can really sense that Persia was once a great empire that gave rise to a magnificent civilisation. The historical sites, mosques, shrines and mausoleums are some of the most exquisite you will ever see. This country of amazingly hospitable and fascinating people living in an ancient and sophisticated culture will blow you away. It’s the country of the great poets Hafez, Ferdosi, Sa’adi, Rumi and Khayyam and poetry is still important today. Iranians say every home has 2 books: the Quran and Hafez, and not especially in that order. Receiving a red rose upon arrival at Imam Khomeni Airport was just a sneak preview of the Iranian hospitality. A warm welcome to Iran!
Cities we have visited: Teheran – Kashan- Niasar – Abyaneh – Natanz – Esfahan – Yazd – Persepolis- Shiraz – Kerman – Rayen – Mahan – Jolfa – Kandovan – Tabriz – Masuleh – Rasht – Mashad in 34 days (from 11 October till 13 November 2014).
What strikes you immediately: people people people! Incredibly friendly, warm, hospitable, sophisticated, well-educated and kings of picnic. So where there are open areas, you will find people gathered with family or friends sharing food and drinks together…and inviting you to join them.
Greatest encounter: we were lucky to meet two amazing students in their mid-twenties on our first day. We just finished lunch in the Art Gallery in the Artist Park when we bumped into each other. Leila and Behrad are friends forever. Behrad is the best guide you could ever imagine. A walking encyclopedia that guided us around and gave us the most detailed visit of Iran’s National Museum anyone ever had. Thanks to him we could attend a Zoroastrian ceremony at a fire temple. Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian religion, is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Whoever plans a visit to Teheran should meet Behrad.
Ali from Esfahan is another beautiful soul. A critical, dynamic young entrepreneur with whom we had a lovely time in Esfahan, Shiraz and Mashad. They were both looking after us during our entire trip to make sure everything was going well.
How to move around: in Teheran there is an excellent subway system with women only compartments. Out of respect for women, you can use it if you want, but don’t have to. To travel from one city to another, the bus is a very comfortable option. There are frequent departures, are luxurious and cheap. You get a snack box on top of that, with cakes, cookies and a drink. We even got pampered on bus journeys by other passengers offering us tea and food. Domestic flights are good too.
Must-See Places: as there are too many must-see places, I’ll try to cover some with pictures on my instagram @karimaarektoute.
Off the beaten track: Imam Khomeini’s house is a must-see. Not mentioned in the travel guides, and I seriously wonder why. If you want to understand the revoIution, this is one of the two places to look for in Teheran. You can have a glimpse of his modest lifestyle living in a small house, a huge contrast to the Shah’s palaces. Visit the mosque where he used to preach. A small museum with a great photo exhibition that will give you more insights in the revolution. Dr. Beheshti’s house is the second interesting place. That’s the one place where the ideas for the Iranian revolution were developed while Imam Khomeini was exiled in France. Dr.Beheshti was martyred with 71 other companions two years after the revolution. For the moment the info is only in Farsi, but we had our Iranian friends that could translate for us.
Funniest situation: asking for a bottle of water at room temperature in a restaurant in Mashad as the one I got was too cold. The waiter came back with a bottle heated in the microwave. Guess he didn’t know plastic bottles shouldn’t be put in the microwave.
Weirdest situation: ordering grilled fish, getting fried fish instead in 5* hotel. When we complained about it, the waiter started explaining that their way of grilling is different, more kebab style etc. They took away the plates, packed the fish in a doggy bag and put them back on our table. They really wanted us to pay for it, wishful thinking of course.
National cuisine: Iranian food is one delicious surprise after another. We tried several varieties of kebabs, khoreshts (or stews) and flat breads. Eggplant dishes and fesenjan (chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce) are very tasty too. Oh and don’t forget the amazing sweets. Every town has its own speciality.
Favourite restaurants: Hermes in Esfahan. Not to miss. Nice atmosphere in this trendy place with an amazing decor. Food and fresh juices are delicious. Joy already starts with their homemade appetizer. Haft Khan in Shiraz is my second favourite. Very elegant complex with four levels of restaurants, so plenty to choose from. All you can eat buffet on the ground floor is a great choice.
Favourite cafes and teahouses: that’s a difficult one as I’m a tea-addict and there are plenty of good places. I would go for a top 6: Teheran Café Gallery for fresh lemonade with mint, salads and chicken curry with eggplant. The Viuna café for coffees, delicious carrot and red velvet cake. Hamam-e Khan Teahouse in Kashan: A 300-year old hammam turned into a lovely teahouse. Esfahan: cosy Roozegar café for a great choice of teas and coffees. Stunning Abbasi Hotel Teahouse in the beautiful courtyard of an old caravanserai, turned into a luxury hotel, is a great place to enjoy an afternoon tea. Hezardestan Traditional Teahouse in Mashad is one of the most beautiful teahouses. Build underground and decorated with Iranian objects.
What left me speechless: Nasr al Molk mosque in Shiraz. It looks like a normal mosque from the outside. But what a fascinating place once you step in. If you come around 8 am you can experience how the hall lits up through the stained-glass windows. This stunning play of sunlight shining through the colourful glass is breathtaking and definitely worth the early wake up.
Will never forget: how an Iranian family adopted us as their daughters for almost a week. We were spoiled with delicious home cooked food, from their own farm. Had such a great time together going to the local hairdresser, exercising with our Iranian mom and attending the processions for Muharram. Experiencing the mourning for Muharram and Ashoura in their village was an unforgettable experience. Again nothing to do with what we get to see in the West, but a touching commemoration of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. It’s also a moment of sharing so we were treated with free food for Imam Hussein everywhere. We all cried when we had to leave this lovely family.
Good to know:
- take enough cash with you. No-one uses or accepts foreign credit cards.
- as a woman you’ll need to cover your hair. Just wear a scarf in the stylish Iranian way.
- Persians are not Arabs and speak Farsi. They are proud of their Aryan roots and don’t like Arabs that much as they are still considered as the invaders of the 7th century.
- Ta’arof: if a taxi driver tells you you don’t have to pay, don’t take it literally. Its their system of courtesy: Ta’arof. Same with food offered to you: refuse any offer 3 times, if they insist do accept it. It gives the one who offers something the possibility to save face when in reality they cannot provide a meal. If they insist, it means they an afford it so you can accept it. People are sensitive to the position of others. Also never turn your back to someone. If you do so, apologize to the people sitting behind you. They will reply that a flower looks beautiful from any angle, which you can answer with a nightingale always sits behind the flower. Aren’t these compliments poetic?
- open yourself to Iranian hospitality and just say yes when you are invited by Iranians at home or on a picnic. Iranians will embrace you like no one ever did.
See you at my next trip!