PART 2: SHIRAZ and ISFAHAN
Enchanted by our two days in Tehran, we took a 60 minute flight to Shiraz in the south of the country. Shiraz is the city of nightingales and roses, the name well-known to us from the Shiraz grape which grows here and is responsible for the eponymous red wine, sadly, of course, not now available in Iran. Here we stayed at the impressive looking and equally impressive sounding Shiraz Grand Hotel. Erm, well yes….. let’s say it tries very hard to be a five star International hotel but it has a bit of a way to go yet, despite the plentiful marble and attempted glamour, though our room was perfectly comfortable. Similar to the previous hotel in Tehran, the breakfast buffet was just about okay but our typically Iranian lunchtime snack, Mirza Ghassemi, a kind of rough puree of aubergine, garlic, tomato and turmeric and Kashk-E-Bademjan, another aubergine based puree with kurd cheese in the restaurant, while not very nice looking, was in fact absolutely delicious.
Supper was a wonderful buffet at the trendy Haft Khan (www.haftkhanco.com) , which has different restaurants on four floors. There’s the all-you-can-eat buffet on the ground floor, a fast food court on the second floor, an a la carte restaurant on the third floor and a teahouse on the roof. Frankly, they all looked tempting and all were very attractively presented. We opted for the buffet which offered with a huge variety of tempting looking salads, fruit, hot dishes and deserts, all healthy, fresh and completely yummy. The ambience was smart and sophisticated and the meal in the company of our charming young guide Milad thoroughly enjoyable.
Shiraz, Iran’s sixth largest city, is a pleasant enough place and it certainly has some impressive history under its belt! The city was mentioned on Elamite clay tablets as far back as 2000 BC and is considered the cradle of Persian civilization and culture. The serenity of the Garden of Hafez, dedicated to Iran’s most beloved poet, gives off a strong sense of spirituality, especially at sunset with the calls to prayer reverberating around all four corners of Shiraz. Its highlight is the poet’s marble tomb inscribed with one of his enchanting poems which our guide, Milad from our tour company www.uppersia.com, read to us first in melodic Farsi, then translated.
“Open my grave when I am dead, and thou shalt see a cloud of smoke rising out from it; then shalt thou know that the fire still burns in my dead heart — yea, it has set my very winding-sheet alight.”
“If the scent of her hair were to blow across my dust when I had been dead a hundred years, my mouldering bones would rise and come dancing out of the tomb.”
“I have estimated the influence of Reason upon Love and found that it is like that of a raindrop upon the ocean, which makes one little mark upon the water’s face and disappears.”
Hafez, born in Shiraz in the 1320s, where he also lived for his entire life, is highly revered by Iranians and his book of poetry has the same status in most households as the Holy Qu’ran. Hafez was inspired by Sufism, loved wine and romance and composed many odes to the joys of both. Apparently, every Iranian will know at least one Hafez poem by heart. Along with Hafez, Rumi (1207 – 1273, America’s highest selling poet), and Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131) are the three best known Persian poets in the West but there have been many more throughout history.
Just outside Shiraz are the ancient sites of Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rustam Necropolis. Going back to 518BC, Persepolis was built by the King of Kings Darius I on a monumental and impressive scale. These days it is a UNESCO site, well presented and absolutely fascinating. The Necropolis, was almost even more interesting to me, with some of the relief carvings there believed to go back to 1000 BC. The grave chamber of the Achaemenid dynasty’s King Darius I, and those thought to be of his son Xerxes I and grandson Artaxerxes as well as Darius II and several later Sassanid kings too, were all sadly looted by the troops of Alexander the Great. They are embedded high up in the rocks, still displaying incredible half relief carvings, some more than 3000 years old. When we were there it was late afternoon, stiflingly hot at around 40 degrees Celsius and completely silent. Not another soul was in sight and the atmosphere was literally zinging with ancient history.
While in Europe we were all still split into tribes and just entering the Iron Age, the Persians at one point ruled over an astounding 44% of the world population and 8 million square kilometers. Their way of government influenced ancient Egypt and ancient Greece and to this day still bears influence on modern government internationally. And this was just the first Persian Empire, two more were to follow, all long lasting, successful and widely influential.
After mystical poetry, roses, nightingales, beautiful mosques and an awesome dose of history, we were taken back to reality on a long and, to be honest, very boring six and a half hour car journey north, to the city of Isfahan, passing endless desert landscapes and rocky mountains. Just outside Isfahan, a drab industrial area incongruously boasted a signpost to ‘Dreamland’. We gave Dreamland a miss and charged on to pretty, pretty Isfahan with its tree-lined streets, engaging architecture and the simply fabulous Abbasi Hotel, where we were set to stay two nights. This hotel was once a caravanserai, though not a caravanserai as I know it, it was positively palatial! We ate dinner in the fragrant large courtyard, so popular that, as Lonely Planet puts it, you need to start singing arias loudly to get any attention at all, but it’s fabulously atmospheric, particularly on a hot summer’s evening after a long and tedious drive. Never have I longed more for a glass of cold Sauvignon, I can tell you, but it’s amazing how you can manage to make do perfectly well with delicious Cardamom Tea.
As before in Tehran and Shiraz, we visited the most spellbinding mosques, interesting museums, bustling bazaars and various other quite stunning buildings and museums. Despite my degree in art history, I am not a great museum trotter, nor am I one of life’s big sightseeers. I am more the type that hangs out in cafes for hours on end, munching on pastries and watching the world go by, but here in Iran there were such captivating sights to see and wonderfully interesting, highly cultured people so keen to talk to us. When I say talk, I mean so much more than small talk, they were intent on real proper conversations. whether in shops or just sitting on a wall or bench, subject matters delved deep and included politics, art, history and carburettors.
Fascinating, for instance, the Armenian Christian church and museum in Isfahan with some beautiful paintings and quite some history to go with it. Shah Abbas, recognising the Armenians dexterity with finance, invited 500.000 from Armenia to Isfahan in the early 17th century and set up a quarter, New Julfa, to meet all their needs and make them feel comfortable and at home. Nowadays, this quarter purportedly has the best coffee shops in Isfahan but as we were there during Ramadan, they were, of course, shut. Despite the Armenian community in Iran (about 300.000) being Christian, they have to abide by the local Muslim rules. Still, apparently the Armenian Club in Tehran is one of the only public places where women can enjoy a meal without wearing a head scarf.
Our final meal in Isfahan and indeed in Iran, was at Bastani Traditional Restaurant at the Chaharsogh Maghsod Bazar. I was a little anxious because in our guide book (Lonely Planet, what else?!), it was described as a favourite with tour groups, but I need not have worried. Although it was busy, the clientele was predominantly local with just one small group of South East Asian young men and ourselves the only tourists. We sat on carpet covered day beds, cross legged, and had our meal served on a plastic table cloth printed with suspicious looking green leaves which, however, turned out to be fig leaves and not of the whacky baccy variety. The food at Bastani was absolutely to die for. I’m afraid I stuck with my favourite Persian food which, I have to admit, is so good that I ate it on an almost daily basis, Mirza Ghasemi and Kashk-E-Bademjan as mentioned above, and, my absolute all time favourite, Chicken Fesenjan which I first tasted at the Sahil Restaurant in Baku and fell in love with there and then. It’s a chicken stew with pomegranate molasses and toasted walnut sauce and I swear to God, it transports you straight to heaven! The lovely husband went for Dizi, a dish very similar to Azerbaijan’s Piti, a lump of soft boiled mutton in a kind of clear bouillon, mashed into a tasty mush. Persian cuisine has many delicacies to offer, kebab is very popular, as is khoresht, a meaty stew with vegetables and chopped nuts, dolme, of course, and many delicious chicken dishes with interesting ingredients, rose water flavoured desserts and so much more.
In green and leafy Isfahan we wandered around the town centre, bought a beautiful scarf for very little money and dug around several antique shops. Once again, we got chatting to the delightful owner of one, who like almost everyone else we encountered, spoke fluent English and told us about the Pre Revolution days.
We decided we needed another tedious six hour drive back to Tehran like a hole in the head, so even though we had a very good driver who looked like my idea of Perseus, we caught a $25 dollar flight to the capital at some unearthly morning hour on the anniversary of Imam Ali’s death. Imam Ali was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and ruled the Islamic Caliphate from 656 to 661. As I understand it, and to be honest, I get completely confused as to the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, he is the reason why they don’t see eye to eye. Apparently, quoting Wikipedia, Sunnis consider him to be fourth and final of the Rashidun (rightly guided Caliphs), while Shia Muslims consider him and his descendants to be the rightful successors to Muhammad. He is said to be the only person to have been born in the holy sanctuary of Mecca and the first male to convert to Islam. He died a martyr’s death as a result of being attacked by enemies. He is highly revered in Shi’a Islam and the Martyrdom of Imam Ali is a day of mourning throughout Iran. Everything is closed on this day, all museums and public places, to allow for religious contemplation.
After our busy schedule over the previous five days, we were grateful to take it easy on this, our final day in Iran. We took ourselves off to the lovely Art Garden (Iranshahr Avenue, Central Tehran), a beautifully designed art, leisure and community space with some rather good sculptures dotted around the green spaces, large pools with fountains, benches with chess tables, a basket ball court, ping pong tables, play areas concealed behind flowering shrubs and various small buildings with a museum, a cafe, a vegetarian restaurant and community spaces gently blending into the environment. After strolling through this oasis of tranquility, we were ready to board our Iran Air flight (very comfortable it was, too, with great food and excellent service!) and wing our way home to London.
We learnt and saw so much during our short trip to Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan that it’s quite impossible to compress all our impressions into this blog. Even though regulations forced us to go on a kind of organised tour, normally my worst travel nightmare, having young, fun, knowledgable and discreet Milad with us, and always at times and to a schedule dictated completely by us, offered an invaluable introduction to this surprising country of greatness and sages and beauty, so safe and welcoming to all who respect its customs. I would encourage anyone to defy all the nay sayers and take the opportunity to enjoy this multifaceted precious shiny jewel.