PART 1: TEHRAN
Who in their right mind would go to Iran during the hottest month of the year and right smack bang in the middle of Ramadan? Yes, you guessed it, we would and we did! And do you know what? All that fearful eye rolling and quiet gasping we witnessed from friends and family before setting off on our trip was completely, totally and utterly unfounded!
A trip to Iran is not remotely intimidating and, contrary to general perception, this lovely country is not crawling with bearded fundamentalists who are lurking around dark corners, ready to abduct you or subject you to lashings of punishment for being a Westerner. No siree, it’s quite the opposite, actually. Never ever, on all my travels, have I met such hospitable, warmhearted, open-minded, smiley and relaxed people as I did during my travels in Persia. Not to mention that virtually everybody is extremely easy on the eye, the women chic, the men handsome and all of them very engaging, cultured and fun.
Sure, all women are required to wear the hijab, a scarf on their heads, a long-sleeved, high necked and thigh length ‘manteau’ and trousers or a long skirt to cover legs to the ankles. Amazingly, this type of outfit is not only flattering in that it does wonders for the figure, cleverly disguising muffin tops, bingo wings and other unattractive lumps and bumps, but it is also surprisingly comfortable in the intense heat because it is loose and allows for circulation of cooling air. The headscarf, worn very casually often more like a hair decoration than a cover by most Iranian women, protects against sun stroke and is an absolute wizard wheeze solution to bad hair days. I am all for it and, now back in the UK, I rather miss the ease and elegance of this smart but casual outfit.
Shorts for men are a no-no, but neither are your eyes insulted by the red faced, overweight shirtless apparitions, so often encountered on UK streets during the summer. What a blessing! What you do see surprisingly often, are people, men and women, with white plasters covering their noses, indicating facial plastic surgery intervention. Iran is a nose job mecca for all who are dissatisfied with what nature has provided. At a cost of anything from $1000 to $6000, the bandage has become quite a status symbol and rumour has it, that some Iranians will have their face plastered up even without having had a procedure, just for show off value, the nose bandage clearly being the alternative to the designer handbag. Well, and why not? Who wants a massive fleshy hooter?
Organising a trip to Iran is not the easiest. For a start, almost all foreigners require an entry visa but most will get it on arrival. Brits, Americans and Canadians, however, need to apply in advance, and it can take a good few weeks for them to be granted one, and even then, this has to be collected from an Iranian Embassy which can be problematic if there is none in the country you live in. These nationalities also have to undertake all travel in Iran with an allocated tour guide, either on a private tour or a group tour. Luckily, we found www.uppersia.com, Iran tour specialists run by super professional Reza, who arranged everything most efficiently and fast for us. All our requirements were taken into account and the tour itinerary very much adapted to our preferences. His advice was invaluable, especially because initially we had contacted Iran Tours, who, in the end, did not manage to arrange our visa on time but then attempted to blackmail us into paying them anyway, by threatening to report us to the authorities in Iran and preventing our exit. Reza assured us that these were empty threats and just sharp business practice. We didn’t give in. Natch!
Just an hour’s flight from Baku, we arrived in Tehran late in the evening and checked into the Parsian Abadi Hotel, a five star hotel with comfortable rooms, large well appointed bathrooms and very helpful pleasant staff. However, the food in the restaurants left quite a lot to be desired. Breakfast was just about adequate but not particularly thrilling. Eggs were hardboiled and cold, pastries bland and chewy, the buffet selection quite limited. The coffee shop at lunchtime served great coffee and wonderful fresh juices but the club sandwich consisted of cold undertoasted bread with a processed Kraft cheese slice and a bit of chicken meat, the ‘panini’ a cold burger bun with lettuce, the same type of orange cheese slice, not melted, and also a bit of chicken. None of it remotely mouthwatering but when you’re hungry, anything will do!
Obviously there is no alcohol available, not during Ramadan, and not at any other time either. In fact, it is illegal to import alcohol into Iran, consequently the mini bar is stocked with juices and fizzy drinks. On those hot summer evenings with a temperature of almost 40 degrees, I missed a delicious cold glass of white wine but hey ho, that’s how it is. When in Tehran and all that. Some of the young people we got chatting to – and it’s very easy to fall into conversation with Iranians – told us “Iran is a country where everything is forbidden but everything is still possible”, They informed us, that if you wanted to drink alcohol or dance the night away, this could be done in private houses, so long as you knew where to go. Equally, while swimming pools are generally segregated, women in the mornings, men in the afternoons, there are, it seems, some that are mixed. “We too can get everything you get in your home countries.”we were told. The right connections and a brave heart are essential though; selling alcohol can result in 90 lashes for the seller. so perhaps staying teetotal is the better option here!
Frankly, Tehran is not a pretty city and it is apparently severely polluted, but the vibe is a nice one. Due to the sanctions, hopefully soon to be relaxed, everything looks a bit shabby and run down, a bit grey and crumbly, rather like the locally produced cars which all seem quite past their best, but the tree lined streets in the north of the city, in Darakeh and Darband at the foot of the Alborz Mountains, are certainly very pleasant to meander around and other parts have a whole interesting feeling of their own.
It being Ramadan while we were there, we couldn’t take advantage of the undoubtedly nice cafes and restaurants during day light hours, since they were all closed until sunset. Strolling around the spectacular museums and palaces and the peaceful park in Saadabad was lovely, and we hugely enjoyed our meander through the Tajrish Bazaar. The fruit and spices looked mouthwatering and watching the locals shop and barter was fascinating. Obviously, I loved the Jewels Museum with its outstanding pieces such as the legendary 182 carat (excuse me, how many carats??!!) pink diamond Darya-ye-Nur, partner stone to the British Queen’s Koh-ye-Nur diamond, and the spectacular Peacock Throne, in fact more of a day bed than a throne and perfect to recline on while eating halva and bakhlava,not to mention many other beautifully sparkly pieces I could easily have run off with in the dark of the night! Then, of course, there was Tehran’s main Bazaar, heavy with history at a purported 1000 years old. Fascinating here was to watch a bunch of men in one corner of a square busily trading US Dollars, a mini currency exchange with all the same characteristics as their larger more slick counterparts in London, Frankfurt or New York!
Talking of which, it was funny to see that although there were no Mc Donald’s outlets there were MaschDonald’s and instead of the KFC we are so used to seeing, there were SFC or Kentucky House outlets reminiscent of the Colonel’s typeface. And the Coca Cola signs were absolutely everywhere!
Fast food is not for us; instead we headed, just after sunset, to the leafy Darband area at the foot of the Alborz mountains in Northern Tehran for an Iranian vegetarian meal at Ananda Restaurant and Coffee Shop (Tel. 2255 67670). We’d randomly picked it out of our Lonely Planet guide, and what a fabulous choice it was! The food was absolutely delicious, the half indoor/ half outdoor ambience relaxed and mellow and the service excellent. We had a vegetable stew with rice, sesame crackers with hummous, an Ananda salad with iceberg and little gem lettuce, sundried tomatoes and date crisps and the absolutely to die for crispy, chewy cheesy filled Valaprata bread. Yes please, more please!
Hani (www.hanitarighat.com) was our dinner destination on our second night and another wonderful experience. Hani is a chain of eateries with long communal tables and a plentiful buffet selection of hot and cold food as well as desserts and fruit juices. This time we were joined by our young charming and extremely knowledgable guide, Milad, and our driver, who helped us choose our food. At Hani,all the food descriptions are in Farsi, so we just pointed and ordered. I can’t tell you exactly what we had but it was all very palatable. The atmosphere reminded me of a little of a university canteen and it was certainly heaving with diners who were happily tucking into their Iftar meal.
The next day was to take us further afield to fascinating Shiraz and pretty Isfahan, all that is yet to be reported on in my next blog, Part 2 of my Postcard from Iran, to follow in a few days time. Meanwhile, let me tell you that I fell in love with Iran, its people, its sights and everything it has to offer.This came as a big surprise, since like almost everyone else, I had been under the impression that I was going into a vaguely murky travel adventure where I would have to tread carefully to avoid vengeful ayatollahs, suspicious black clad, evil-eyed and heavily bearded fanatics and furtive unliberated burka wearing women. I could not have been further from the truth! The joie de vivre in Iran is palpable, the country bursting with history and beautiful artefacts, the people warm, funny, welcoming and clever and last but not least, the food absolutely wonderful!