5 things to love about Iran

5 things to love about Iran

Impression from a trip to Persia

A few years ago I traveled to Iran with my boyfriend. When I told family and friends where we were going, many asked if we were crazy, to go to such a dangerous country. I guess it’s the media who give the impression that Iran is dangerous.

Well, a few years after we went, there was some politial turmoil, and for this reason I recommend to check the latest advice from your Country Foreign Affair Ministry for updates on how the political situation is, because it might change. But normally Iran is not dangerous at all. When we went, in 2015, it was one of the safest places I’ve traveled to, and it’s so charming it’s a shame it’s not more popular.

Here are the 5 things that I liked most about Iran.

Things to love about Iran: the urban architecture

There are some places in Iran like no others I’ve seen before.

Like Kashan, not far from Tehran, with its amazing traditional houses, many of which are open to public or have been converted to guesthouses or boutique hotels. They all have large courtyards surrounded by rooms, roofs everyone walks on, fountains and mosaics.

There’s an hammam in Kashan, a Turkish bath, maybe the most beautiful in the whole country, with peculiar little domes on the roof, made with majolica and tiles. The inside of the hammam is also beautiful, definitely worth a visit.

Another town that I particularly liked was Yazd. Its old town is made of clay and straw. Amazing. You could walk for days in its tiny alleys, framed by high walls that hide what is behind them, so it’s always a surprise when a door is open and you can see behind the wall a courtyard, a shop or a beautiful house.

Things to love about Iran: the mosques

Mosques could probably be included in the beautiful architecture of Iran, but they deserve a spot on their own because they are special.

First of all, most of them are open to no-muslims and to women, which is not allowed everywhere.

They are intricately decorated, imposing and fascinating. Every town has one or more important mosques. Maybe the best are in Isfahan, at Imam Square, one of the largest and most beautiful squares I’ve ever seen.

Things to love about Iran: the bazaar

The bazaar are huge shopping centers all developed at street level (or on two levels maximum), that follow one or more streets, usually covered by roofs or drapes, where locals go shopping and where you can find the most curious things.

Colorful spices, beautifully sewn carpets, dried fruit of all types, wedding dresses and tea houses.

Furthermore, they are like labyrinths, with streets crossing and leading you to a mosque or an hammam, where you can meet men coming out after their daily bath or doing their ablution before their prayers.

They are definitely one of the first places to visit when in a new town.

Things to love about Iran: the food

I guess not everyone is open to foreign food like I am. I love to taste different dishes, the strangest the best, and Iran is amazing in the kitchen.

The bread, that we were given at every meal, breakfast included, is amazing. Usually freshly baked, the most popular is a long, flat, soft bread.

We tried many dishes we don’t even know what they were. But one in particular we enjoyed and we try to replicate at home from time to time: the dizi. It’s a ram soup cooked with chickpeas and more stuff, and we had it every time we could. Eggplants were also particularly good in Iran, with tomato and I don’t know what else, they were a delicious vegan main dish.

We also ate a lot of fresh onion and cucumber, that we loved.

Most times we were offered tea when arriving at a new gueshouse. Nice tradition. Served with a lot of sugar and dates.

Best things about Iran: the hospitality

I kept this as last because it was what impressed us most: local people’s hospitality.

We are not used to something like this. Foreigners are truly welcome guests anywhere in Iran. We were invited to people’s houses many times.

We will always remember when we were in Shiraz, taking a picture of a door that I liked, and the owner of the house that was going back home in that moment invited us in. He offered us bread and cheese, everything he had at home, we sat on the floor and really enjoyed the food and the company, even though nor him or his son could speak English.

I miss that.

Iran is definitely a place to visit, it has a lot to offer, it is easy to travel to and around, you can get a visa at the airport if staying less than 15 days, so nothing is stopping you (unless you are a US or Israel citizen, or from a few other countries) and I encourage you to visit, you won’t regret it.

Christians and Coffee in Isfahan

Christians and Coffee in Isfahan

February 23, 2015

2.08pm We are at the Abbasi Tea House, where a coffee costs 80.000 Ril (2 euro) + 23% tax, while for lunch we paid 10.000 Ril (about 2.50 euro) for two delicious dizi and two chai in a tiny place at the bazaar.

The Abbasi Tea House is part of a luxury hotel, with a restroom that is continuosly kept clean. And there’s wifi. It’s one of the main reasons why we come here.

Masjed-e Jameh
Masjed-e Jameh

This morning we started the day off at the Masjed-e Jameh, the largest mosque in Iran. It’s amazing, with majolica and bricks perfectly mixed together. After that we walked through the bazaar, we bought some spices, and we ended at Imam Square; later we came here at the Abbasi for toilet and refurbishments. It’s a teahouse for foreigners and rich Iranians .

I love to walk through the bazaar. It’s a gallery with shops on both sides that develops along many tiny streets, it’s easy to get lost too; the main street basically connects Imam Square to Masjed-e Jameh.

Now we’re going to Jolfa, the Armen quarter, and to see the bridges on the Zayandeh, the river in Isfahan.

3pm We had a little snack made with hot corn with chips, mushrooms, majo, salt, pepper and spices. Not my favorite, the mix was too weird for me.

7pm We are at a restaurant opposite our hotel. We are having two chickens with rice. Coming here we stopped at the Abbasi again, to go to the toilet (without having drinks this time). It’s like a relaxing place for foreigners. The sofas along the corridor were occupied by us two and two Chinese guys, all busy checking emails and Instagram (the only Social Media currently allowed in this country).

I loved the bridges and the Armenian area, with churches, small squares, and coffee shops everywhere. Different from the usual Iran. All the coffee you want (not so easy to find), and made the Italian way!

Delizioso piatto iraniano
Delicious lunch at the Khan Gostar Restaurant, recommended by the Lonely Planet

During the three days we spent in Isfahan we visited a lot: Masjed-e Jameh, Zayandeh, Jolfa, Kakh-e Chehel Sotun, a palace with a beautiful garden where we met some female students on a school trip, that enjoyed talking to us for a bit. But at the end of the day we always went back to Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square, the huge main square in Isfahan, probably one of the most beautiful in the world. Truly impressive.

From Isfahan we took a night bus directly to Tehran airport, so we didn’t have to go back to the capital and then to the airport, that is not so well connected. It was a scary trip because the chauffer was driving like crazy, as usual, but we made it safe and sound.

5 things to love about Iran

Arriving in Isfahan

At the Totia Hotel in Isfahan

February 21, 2015

At 6 am we were in Isfahan, but at the highway, not in the town centre. So we had to pay 170,000 Ril more (about 4 euro) to get to town. Plus 300,000 for the early check-in. But it was nice to have the room straight away: I slept for one hour and half, had a shower and breakfast, and now I am feeling much better, even though I am still a bit sleepy. The good thing is that the room is only 900,000 Ril per night (about 22 euro, it’s the first time they don’t take euro at the hotel since we got to Iran). I was happy because in Isfahan the station for the long-distance coaches is not far from the town centre, and it’s well connected by local buses to the town, I already knew how to get to the hotel. But surprisingly our bus left us at the highway, half-dumb for the rush awakening, because it was heading to Tehran and didn’t come into town. In Shiraz I should have asked for a coach that ends in Isfahan.

The Totia is a modern hotel, like the one we had in Tehran. Probably there are no traditional houses here, or maybe they are too expensive for us. 

Ok, let’s go to discover one of the most visited sights in Iran! 

Imam Square in Isfahan

Imam Square

Imam Square is amazing. The second largest square in the world, after Tien-An-Men in Beijing. It’s so big that there are horse-carts that take you around the square. With a nice pool, trees, two sparkling mosques, a bazaar and a palace with a terrace from where you can have a beautiful view of the square, if it wasn’t closed due to restoration works. 

There are some guys walking around the square to attract the tourists to their shops where they sell carpets or printed cloths. I enjoyed listening to their explanations on the bright red and green colors used by the tribes of the North-West, the darker colors of the nomads of the desert in the East, or the city carpets, much finer. And I kept thinking how my cats would enjoy scratching their nails on these carpets that might cost between 200 and 1000 euro. But you don’t have the feeling you are forced to buy and they don’t insist too much. 

The square is a great place for people-watching. There are a lot tourists here, many Iranians, students on school trips, locals that take a stroll. A true agorà. 

Persepolis and a night bus to Isfahan

Persepolis and a night bus to Isfahan

February 20, 2015

On the 30th day of the 11th month of Persian year 1393 we were in PERSEPOLIS.

Amazing. You can still see those images carved in the stone 2,500 years ago, in 520 B.C. Those scenes of the foreign delegations that queue to visit the king, offering presents, give a clear idea of how it must have been. It’s moving to be there and see in person what I had previously only seen in pictures.

We spent two hours there. Then we moved to Naqsh-e Rostam and Naqsh-e Rajab, two tombs of ancient emperors. And Pasargade, but if I had known it was so far (70 km – about 40 miles – North of Persepolis) and that there was so little to see (we actually didn’t see everything, but after Persepolis it seemed of little importance), I would have stayed at home. Well, I would have come back earlier.

Now we are very tired, back to Shiraz, and the bus is in more than 3 hours. We’ll soon go to the bus station, we’ve already had dinner, and we will wait there for the bus. We had Dizi and Zereshk Polo for dinner: chicken rice with pomegranate (the same as yesterday, but at the teahouse in the bazar it was better).

We went to Persepolis with Johanne (from Taiwan) and Bo-U (China), and paid 650 000 Ril, about 15 euro, per person; a big saving compared to the 100 dollars that the hotel wanted for the same tour!

Bo U is a teacher in China and now they have the Winter Holidays; she’s been traveling in the Middle East for about two months now. She was in Egypt (her favorite country of the area), Jordan, Lebanon and here. She doesn’t like Iran too much because she feels like she’s in an area of China where they are mainly muslims and you can only find mosques. And no need to talk about the food! Everywhere she goes she brings a camp stove, so she can warm up the water (she always needs to have warm water to drink), cook her eggs and noodle or instant soups. Johanne is visiting only Iran, and she’s not excited neither; a bit for the food, and also because she finds it similar everywhere; two years ago she was in Turkey and she loved it, food included. Anyway, in Iran her favorite town is Isfahan. We had met her in Kashan too, she was complaining about the food with a German couple (she’s vegetarian and finds it difficult to find good food here). About Italian food she doesn’t know what to say, because she hasn’t tried it in Italy yet. I invited her to come to visit, so she’ll be able to taste it.

10 pm. A bit longer for the bus.

In Shiraz, the town that gives the name to the world-famous wine, after the revolution in 1979 vineyards have been burnt or converted into cultivations of sultana. A shame, I would say.

The separation between the two genders is everywhere: at school, at the mosque, on the buses! (men stay in the front, women in the back). I wonder how they meet and get to know one each other in order to get married.

In Shiraz it rained both nights and mornings while we were here. That was good for Iran: if it doesn’t rain in Winter, Summer is unbearable. For us it was a bit of a bummer to visit Persepolis with the rain.

It’s 10.30 of a Friday night, even the bazaar was closed today (Friday is their holy day of the week), but here at the station there’s a barber working.

In Iran there are banks and ATMs everywhere, at every corner, in the shops, in the stations, I even saw a “mobile” one, on a truck. But they only accept Iranian cards. We can only use cash. There are a few exceptions, some carpet shops for example accept international cards.

Walking in Shiraz

Walking in Shiraz

February 19, 2015

It’s raining in Shiraz. Cats and dogs. I hope it will quiet down, otherwise we won’t be able to see anything of this town. It rained all night. In the guesthouse, there’s a sheet covering the courtyard where we have breakfast, and from time to time a drop falls into your head while you’re eating.

13h20 Seray-e Mehr Teahouse & Restaurant

Luckily the rain slowed down a bit and we made it to the bazaar and we are now having lunch at this beautiful teahouse hidden in the maze of the bazaar.

My eggplant dish was less tasty than usual; Luca’s chicken with rice and pomegranate was delicious.

We met some lovely people here in Shiraz. We were walking in the street and I stopped to photograph a door at the end of the alley, when the owner of the house I was photographing walked by; he had gone to buy some bread and invited us for a chai. It was a bit embarrassing, because neither him nor his son could speak English. But we did manage to communicate, somehow. Bread and cheese, oranges, fruits similar to jujube. The room where we were sitting on the floor, displayed a fridge, some mattresses piled along a wall, a wardrobe and a carpet that covered the concrete floor. At one point they showed us the rest of the house. There was a room where they were weaving a carpet (finally we understood what earlier they tried to explain to us) and a beautiful mirrors room. Everything was falling apart, but it was stunning in its decadence. I hope they’ll find the money to refurbish, so they can make some money with tourism.

21h14 We are at the hotel. Luca is exchanging glances with two girls behind his shoulders, both having dinner with their partner, but it looks like this is not a problem. After the afternoon nap we went back to the street. We visited the castle, the Hammam, another mosque, a bazaar, the bus station to buy the bus ticket to Isfahan for tomorrow night. A Taiwan girl we met at the hotel found a taxi driver that can take us to Persepolis and Pesargade for 8 euro each. Great! We leave tomorrow 8.30 am. At the hotel they asked for 55 USD each for a similar tour. Yeek!

A day of travel to Shiraz

A day of travel to Shiraz

February 18, 2015

Maybe it was better if we took a private car from Yazd to Shiraz, with a stop to visit Pesargade and Persepolis, that would have cost 110 USD, but would have saved us a day of travel. If we had met someone else to share the car with, we would have done it; but we didn’t, so we are here waiting for the bus.

This morning we took a bus from Fahraj to Yazd, where we had to ask to two bus drivers how to get to the main bus station; one of the drivers got off the bus under the rain to stop another one that was leaving and explained the other driver where we needed to go. In any other country, we would probably have been told “Get a taxi if you don’t know how to get there”.

Breakfast, bus Fahraj-Yazd, two buses to the Terminal (the long-run bus station), half an hour wait, and at 10.40am we leave. VIP bus with wide seats and a TV just in front of us. Nice to watch a super-romantic movie where you can imagine kisses and hugs (just imagine, in Iran public display of affection is not allowed, not even on TV). Finally in Shiraz, at about 5pm.

I have seen few smartphones here in Iran, less than in the Dominican Republic or Tanzania. Probably because it’s not easy to find an Internet connection. Anyway, I’ve found out that a sim card with no Internet costs about 3 dollars, with internet 10; maybe it’s a bit expensive for the local wages, but the service is available.

road in Iran
“Pit-stop” along Iran’s roads

9.20 pm Niayesh Boutique Hotel. We got the last available room at the Niayesh, so maybe if we came by car and arrived at 7 pm (because you need at least 2 hours to visit Persepolis, plus Pesargade and the necropolis) we would have to look for another place. And it would have been a shame because the Niayesh is the only hotel in a traditional house here in Shiraz, a house with an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms. It’s a meeting point for tourists, so hopefully we’ll meet someone to go to Persepolis with, otherwise we’ll have to take the bus and it’s not easy, especially for Pesargade.

We had dinner at the restaurant of the hotel and it was delicious.

So we arrived in Shiraz at about 5 pm; the last hour on the bus from Yazd was cherished by the only person of mixed race seen so far, a 7 year old boy. When we arrived in Shiraz, we took bus 79 from the Terminal to the hotel. And the people on the bus started talking to us; they wanted to know where we come from and if we like Iran. It felt very different from other towns, you can tell this town is more open-minded, metropolitan. They suggested we went to hotel Shiraz, 5 stars. Maybe when we’ll be rich. An elder man got off the bus with us, payed for our fares and walked us to the hotel, stopping every 5 minutes to ask the direction to passers-by to make sure we were on the right way. Even when we saw the first signs of the hotel, he didn’t let us alone until we found the entrance. Crazy. Never witnessed a welcome like this.

As soon as we put our bags in the room and went to the toilet, we went to see the AMRAGH-E SHAH-E CHERAGH, a shrine where two brothers of Mir Ahmad are buried (or maybe it was the Boghe-ye Sanyed Mir Mohammad… never mind the name). It was a bit complicated to wear the chador, but the ladies at the entrance were very kind. We were taken to the “international relations” office, where we were offered tea. Then we were accompanied to the two tombs. Walls and ceilings were covered with mosaics of mirrors. Separate entries for man and women, so Luca went in with his escort. Inside people were praying and crying to get rid of the pain caused by illnesses and concerns. Very touching. Other people were looking at their phone and making balls with their chewing gum. I had to leave my camera at the entrance, while Luca could take pictures with his phone. The girl that was my escort is a student at the Sociology University that once a week volunteers here. She explained that to pray you should take a small stone that you can find along the walls and put it on the floor; you should then try to touch it with your forehead, so the negative energies can exit your body and flow into the floor, while the positive ones go in. Allah has 1,000 and one name, all written in the Koran. Green is the color of Islam because Mohammed dressed in green, plus heaven will be all green, full of trees; gold is the other color of Islam, can’t remember why; blue is also its color because it links don’t know what. A lady asked my young escort if she was married; she answered that no. She wants to finish uni first, but she is often asked that question; probably they’ve got a son of marriage age and she looks like she is a very good girl.