Obtaining a visa for Iran is a tortuous process that first involves filling in a complex form, and getting my photo taken in a headscarf. I then have to gamble on whether the consul in London will be open on the days it said it would be and try to second guess which days will be the most popular. It says it opens at two pm, three days a week. I turn up just after midday to find about thirty people already ensconced along the fence in Kensington Court. It’s a social affair as we gossip and share our travel plans. Just before two we are handed raffle tickets to maintain our order in line and we proceed indoors, the women all sheepishly sliding on headscarves, just in case.
There is a number count down display just like on the supermarket deli counter. But no one calls out any numbers and we are very British and organise ourselves into the correct order. Fingerprints and money are at one counter and then, finally money and form at another. It’s relatively straightforward, except for the whopping £150 fee, much higher than other nations I notice. An Irish girl in front of me pays about a quarter of that. My passport, with visa arrives safely a week later. Along with the information that I will now require a visa to enter the U. S.A. and this will also involve lengthy form filling and a day at the embassy in London.
Anxiety builds as I read the latest news bulletins on detained dual passport holders (not that I am one) and the instructions about what I must do and wear. I don’t want to get my ankle whipped by the morality police - or worse. My clothes must be loose and cover my bottom. I won’t be allowed into the country unless I’m wearing a headscarf. An entirely new wardrobe is called for.
The flight to Shiraz goes via Istanbul and the passengers adapt their attire as Iran grows nearer. All the women don their scarves, looking embarrassed, as the plane lands. The Iranians behind me apologise: “We’re so sorry you have to do this”.
Iran seemed very safe and calm to me (apart from the traffic in Tehran). But there are not insignificant restrictions for travellers to take into account (see below).
Iran is hardly an undiscovered destination. There are tour groups everywhere we go, each of them accompanied by the obligatory Iranian guide. Ours is called Pooran and she has been doing this a long time; she is extremely knowledgeable but talks interminably and in a monotone without, seemingly, drawing breath. She is also very controlling and our English (well Australian) tour leader is new to this trip. They bicker incessantly, mainly arguing about when and what we are going to do. Consequently, we are late to most places, and some of the drives, across unremitting desert are already very long indeed.
There are twelve of us, five couples/friends and an earnest young man who is half my age. Our reception by the locals is a little wary in Shiraz, even slightly hostile at times, in the markets, but grows warmer as we venture north towards Tehran. At times both men and woman attract our attention to quietly vent their frustration at the restrictions on their own behaviour. Wearing a headscarf is indeed very restricting. It’s hot and uncomfortable, as are the long clothes I’m swathed in. At the large mosques charming Imams affably promote their peaceful view of Islam. It is indisputably very calm everywhere. Maybe because there is no alcohol. The women look very elegant in beautifully tailored long coats and scarves that sit just so on the back of their heads, unlike mine. The men, on the other hand, seem to aspire to look like Mark Wright in skinny jeans and tight T shirts.
Other barriers to overcome:
• There is internet but it’s very limited. No BBC and no Facebook.
• The currency is difficult to understand. It's officially called a rial, and most of the notes printed are in rials but everyone talks and quotes toman, which are the same as rials but minus a nought – got it?
• Thronging groups of visitors at all the main sites - the tourist cafes are crammed. At one hotel there is chaos as all the wrong suitcases are loaded
I’m staying with my Iranian friend Azita (she used to live in London) and it’s a good opportunity to glimpse Iranian life more intimately.
There’s plenty to see in Tehran after touring the country to visit the main tourist sights and we make it to most of the main highlights here too. Though Tehran has a great deal of traffic and some of the worst air pollution in the world and Azita avoids driving when she can. There are tourist toy trains/buses running along some of the main city streets in the centre, the friendly driver lets us travel free.
The shah’s various palaces: the Golestan complex and the Sa'dabad Palace Complex. The former mirrored, gilded and entirely opulent, with its mosaics and pools - the infamous peacock throne sums it all up; peaceful and expensive cafes and up market bookshops to relax in. The Sa'dabad Palace Complex is set in more than 180 hectares of natural forest, streets, with qanats (Old irrigation channels), galleries, mansions/palaces and museums - there’s a lot of hilly walking involved.
The Treasury of National Jewels – not easy to find the way in, it’s actually inside the Central Bank of Iran, and you have to be frisked before you can come in, but here the display cases filled with gaudy gems are fascinating. It’s considered to be one of world's famous collections of diamonds and other jewels. According to Financial Tribune, "putting a price on the collection would not be possible." There are assorted crowns and coronation robes, 30 tiaras, extraordinary necklaces, encrusted swords, shields, the mace of Iran, gold plate and an emerald encrusted globe to gawp at.
The Grand Bazaar of Tehran, filling kilometres of narrow winding streets in a giant labyrinth preceded by lunch in the Sharaf-ol-Eslami Restaurant, with its queues of shuffling locals, winding politely up the stairs. It’s traditional carbohydrate heavy Iranian food, stews and baked rice (the burnt bit at the bottom is a delicacy), eaten at communal trestle tables, alongside grinning Tehrani shoppers.
The Milad Tower, at 435 metres, is the tallest tower in Iran, and the sixth-tallest telecommunication tower in the world. It’s very quiet, but there’s a great view of the city illuminated at night and a nice restaurant at the bottom.
The Azadi Tower, a memorial in the middle of a roundabout , so not hugely easy to access, built in 1971 to mark the 2,500th year of the foundation of the Imperial State of Iran,
Taleghani Park and Abo-Atash Park joined by The Tabi'at Bridge a huge pedestrian overpass which spans Modarres Expressway. (The word Tabi’at means "nature”). Either side are numerous cafes, museums and other entertainments. It’s a popular evening choice for a stroll.
The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the idiosyncratic concert of buildings, sprawling up a hillside, with views alongside and across the city.
Chitgar Lake, dug as a reservoir, and also known as the Lake of the Martyrs of the Persian Gulf, with its esplanade, cafes and an amusement park.
The Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini also needs to be mentioned as it’s huge and you can’t miss it on the airport road. But I didn’t visit.
Some evenings, Azita is persuaded into the car though and we join the stream of traffic heading out of Tehran, towards the mountains. Darband is a wonderland - a suburb full of traditional fairy-tale cafes and restaurants beautifully decorated and illuminated, with gushing streams and fountains and stalls laden with sticky crystallized fruits. The canopied cafes have the usual charcoal braziers. Food is eaten from the korsi - central table. After dinner the standard amusement is to laze on the low carpeted settles and smoke the shisha. There’s a midnight curfew so the restaurants close quite early. Navigating the conversation is tricky at times. Not everyone, by any means, is unhappy with the current politics. Azita’s friend, an educated, thirty-year-old called Arash, asks me if I like Iran.
“It’s very beautiful and interesting”, I reply, “but I don’t like having to wear a headscarf”.
“Ah but women look better with them on,” he insists. I tell him that I would prefer him to wear a suit, as he would look better in that. He protests grumpily - they’re not comfortable and he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t get the point at all.
Finally, some of the Iranian food – kebabs of course, mezze style starters, pomegranates abound. Pomegranate and walnut stew is good. Vermicelli ice cream is interesting, but bastani - saffron ice cream with pistachios, rosewater and chunks of clotted cream - is addictively delicious. Fortunately, there's a bastani dairy just round the corner form Azita's flat.
Read more about Iran here.
It’s the month of mourning when I visit Iran and there are black flags and signs along the streets, draped across the souk alleys and on all the key buildings. No music is allowed during this month. I'm also visiting with some trepidation. See Iran-is it worth it?
I start my tour of Iran in Shiraz, the city of poets, literature, and flowers, famous for its grapes. But it also has the imposing Arg-e Karim Khan Fortress, with its 14-metre high circular towers, which dominate the city centre, the bazaar, famous gardens (most notably Eram with its palace and mirrored halls) and teahouses and the venerated tomb of the Persian poet Hafez, where there are readings. Very atmospheric, as the sun sets.
UNESCO declared the ruins of Persepolis, in Iran, a World Heritage Site in 1979 . It's a complex of five "palaces" or halls of varying size, and grand entrances, on a high walled platform, The earliest remains date back to 515 BC and it is thought to be the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire ( 550–330 BC). But, disappointingly, it seems that the actual purpose of Persepolis has still not been satisfactorily proven. No-one is quite sure what the functions of the rooms was or even where the king actually lived. Nevertheless, the carvings are incredible.
The amazing ruins and the magnificent Achaemenid tombs at Nagsh e Rostam are cut high into cliffs above the ground and face respectfully towards Persepolis. Four tombs belonging to Achaemenid kings are carved out of the rock face at a considerable height above the ground. The tombs are sometimes known as the Persian crosses, after the shape of the facades of the tombs. One of the tombs is believed to be the burial place of Darius the Great who founded Persepolis.
Pasargadae was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC), who ordered its construction and the location of his tomb. The word "Pasargadae" means "protective club". Today, it is one of Iran's UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the main atrcation is Cyrus's fascinating six-tiered tomb. There's also the fortress of Toll-e Takht sitting on top of a nearby hill, and the remains of two royal palaces and gardens.
Next along the road, a yakhchāl, or ice tower, cunningly designed to to keep food cold.
The historical city of Yazd is also recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The word Yazd means God and Yazd is a centre for the Zoroastrian religion. The atmospheric mud-built Zoroastrian towers of silence, fire towers and temples in and around the city are fascinating. After the Arab conquest of Iran, Yazd was allowed to remain Zoroastrian by paying a levy. Islam only gradually became the dominant religion in the city.
Yazd, surrounded by desert, is nicknamed the "City of Windcatchers" because of its unique Persian architecture. The many towers are designed with special ventilation systems to combat the desert heat . Also, in Yazd: the carefully laid out and manicured e Bagh-e-Doulat Abad Gardens, once a residence of the former ruler Karim Khan Zand. They consist of small pavilions set in peaceful gardens and the tallest Badgir (wind-tower) - in town. There's an informative (is the best adjective I can do here) Water Museum. This celebrates and explains the city's many anbars (cisterns), qanats (underground channels) and yakhchals (coolers).There's also the magnificent Jameh (Friday) Mosque, the winding old city streets, the bazaar (silk and hand weaving) and Persian cotton candy and sweet shops.
Apparently Yazd has yet another name. It's also known as the City of Bicycles, because of its old history of bike riders, and the highest number of bicycles per capita in Iran.
The highlight is the Zurkhaneh - House of Strength - for a Sufi gymnastics performance.
Just on the outskirts of Yadz is the ultra quiet village of Cham. Here, live 5 families beneath the scenic remains of ritual buildings and windtowers. The site invites much strolling and peeping out of windows.
And best of all, Esfahan. It's the third largest city in Iran after Tehran and Mashhad, but it was once one of the largest cities in the world. It's located at the intersection of the two principal north–south and east–west routes that traverse Iran. Esfahan's origins date back to Paleolithic times so it definitely qualifies as ancient. It was the capital of Persia twice. There's a Persian proverb "Esfahān nesf-e-jahān ast": Esfahan is half (of) the world. It is renowned for its Perso–Islamic architecture, grand boulevards and covered bridges.
The spectacular Safavid era Naqsh-e Jahan Square is one of the largest city squares in the world. This is yet another Iranian UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. It's a green stretch with fountains and other monuments lined with miniature booths and arched windows and some building works. Around it, to the south, the Shah Abbas Mosque (more renovation and the dome covered in scaffolding). On the west side is the musical themed Ali Qapu Palace. The palace was actually just designed as an entrance to an even larger palace. Though it's 48 metres high and has six floors. You have to climb up a spiral staircase to reach each of them. This is where Shah Abbas entertained his important guests, in the Music Hall. I'm wondering if they had to struggle up all those stairs. Though there's a great view across the square from up here.
There's another mosque, the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque to the east of the square and directly opposite the palace. The mosques are exquisitely decorated, old and wooden or renovated blue, yellow and green ceramic. The domes are gorgeously patterned, the walls have more latticed tracery and the arches are incredible. The vaulting features muqarnas, first used in the Abbasid empire. These are small cuboid forms strung together in a honeycomb pattern. The purpose is to create a zone of transition to fill a bare space. The elaborate form is said to be a symbolic representation of God's universal creation.
The Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque was created for the women of the Shah's court and is considered to be the masterpiece, with the finest decoration. To the north a gate opens into the Grand Bazaar. And it really is a grand bazaar, an exotic and winding labyrinth heaped with goodies, to literally, get lost in.
There's also the Armenian quarter, New Julfa, lining the river bank. The Armenians were permitted refuge by Shah Abbas from 1606, partly out of compassion and partly because it was thought that their knowledge of the silk trade would be beneficial. The people still live here harmoniously. There are numerous intricately carved and colourful churches, most notably the Vank (Holy Saviour) Cathedral, which has an extraordinary multi coloured and frescoed interior. And a museum containing ancient bibles and other artefacts.
Last stop on this part of visit is Kashan, which has the Royal Gardens of Fin and the 18th century, Agha Bozorg Mosque. The mosque is famous for its imposing dome and large sunken Madrassah. The huge wooden door that guards the entrance is said to have as many studs as there are verses of the Quran. Kashan is also famed for its restored merchant houses and I wander idly round one of those. The courtyard is quiet and restful.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.