Discovering Iran: Isfahan is half the world

Isfahan is half the world, they say. You’ll notice the people of Isfahan are full of exaggerations. So I too will say that I am the best guide in Isfahan” proclaimed our local guide Ehsan proudly.

Neither was in fact an exaggeration. Both he and the city are incredible.

An ancient metropolis lying across timeless trade routes, Isfahan became the Great Shah Abbas’s glittering Safavid capital during the 16th century and it was during this period that a well-known saying was coined. ‘’Isfahan nesf- e- jahan’’ – Isfahan is half the world –  for if you have seen Isfahan you have see half of the world’s beauty. Decadent use of hyperbole yes, however, after my recent time there I’d be inclined to agree.

You can see all the sites of Iran – Persepolis, Pasargad and all of its palaces but no visit to Iran is complete without experiencing the beauty of Isfahan. A glorious city rich in art, cultural wonders, and architecture lives on to this day. Below I’ve attempted to curate the must see’s of Isfahan, and no, they are not all mosques.

Where to stay in Isfahan – Abbasi Hotel

There is only one place that is worth staying at whilst in Isfahan – the grand Abbasi Hotel. Built around 300 years ago and once a caravanserai, now a palatial low-rise building around a beautiful garden courtyard with water courses, cypress trees and flowers, this is an opportunity for you to stay in a piece of historical grandeur.

Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan, Iran NSH (2)

Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan, Iran NSH

The central courtyard garden provides a magnificent setting for dining al- fresco, drinking chai or enjoying gelato whilst being serenaded by the local musicians playing the santour and setar. The garden wasn’t just a place for tourists, domestic and international staying at the hotel, but a popular place for the locals to come and socialise too.

Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan Iran, NSH (1)

Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan Iran, NSH (2)

Welcomed by the most majestic of chandeliers in the lobby (a feature I have become accustomed to whilst in Iran) and a delicate array of glass and tile work be sure to stay in the majestic suites of the old part of the hotel. The ‘new’ extension which is more a throwback to the 1970s than Safavid glamour is less impressive – all frills and no knickers as they say.

It’s location on the Chaharbagh-e-Abbasi Avenue, the most famous in all of Iran, lends itself to provide you easy access to all the main sites including the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, bazaars and Siosepol bridge.

Siosepol bridge, Isfahan, Iran NSH

Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan, Iran NSH (1)

The Armenian Quarter

Journey south of the Zayandeh river to the Armenian and Christian quarter of Jolfa; established in 1603 it quickly rose to be an affluent area as result of the trade from the passing caravans.  Shah Abbas had granted complete religious freedom for the Armenians living there as well as administrative autonomy.
Vank Cathedral, Armenian Quarter, Isfahan, Iran NSH

The best introduction to the area and its heritage is achieved by visiting the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour – Keli –saye Vank.  Though the cathedral is domed, much like the mosques, the interior is very different. Glazed tiles – not of the same kind as the usual tranquil coloured geometric designs of the mosques – and huge paintings of European inspiration depicting the life of Jesus, representations of Heaven, Earth and Hell as well as scenes of martyrdom from the Ottoman War (1603-18) can be seen.

Vank Cathedral, Armenian Quarter, Isfahan, Iran NSH (1)

Vank Cathedral, Armenian Quarter, Isfahan, Iran NSH (2)

A museum of Armenian culture just next door is also worth a visit. Not only does it house several edicts from Shah Abbas I giving the area its renowned status and freedoms but also remembers the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey.

A short stroll down Kelisa Street is Arca restaurant. Resembling a boujis bar of London’s Knightsbridge from the outside, with the token and unnecessary heavy set bouncer at the door, it provides a great atmosphere for dinner in the evening. Within its courtyard setting you’ll find an imaginative take on Isfahani and Armenian food and local young elites photographing their food and taking selfies for their Instagram accounts – not quite rich kids of Tehran but close enough.

Arca restaurant, Isfahan, Iran NSH

Food at Arca restaurant, Isfahan, Iran

ice cream desert at Arca restaurant, Iran

Steppes Travel May Iran Group Tour 2016 Arca Restaurant, Isfahan, NSH 2016

Jameh Mosque

The Jameh Mosque in Isfahan is one of the oldest in Iran. Despite its dome of undecorated brick and somewhat plain vaulted halls, it is far from unimpressive.Jameh Mosque, Isfahan Iran NSH (1)
Jameh Mosque Isfahan Iran NSHSuch a backdrop, in fact, allows one to appreciate all the more the intricacy of the tile work and the decoration of each of the four iwans. We walked in awe around the sunlit courtyard sheltering in each of the halls as birds fluttered around the marble fountain in the centre. As we entered the west iwan and our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the hall we set our gaze upon an exquisitely carved mihrab and mimbar of Mongol sultan Uljaitu. Built in 1310 and fantastically preserved they showcased beautiful floral motifs and stunning calligraphy in carved stucco.

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan Iran NSH (4)

Take some time to wander the vaulted rooms with intersecting arches; despite being built entirely of brick they could never be guilty of being dull or monotonous.

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan, Iran NSH (1)

Jameh Mosque, Isfahan, Iran NSH (2)

Khaju Bridge

Khaju, a functioning bridge and dam, is like no other piece of architecture in Iran and our arrival to see it was timely. Water, coloured turquoise in parts from the algae below, flowed for the last time today before they were about to close the dam and divert much needed water to the desert towns of Yazd.

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan, Iran, NSH (3)
Khaju Bridge, Isfahan, Iran, NSH (2)
Khaju Bridge, Isfahan, Iran, NSH (4)

Crossing a bridge in Iran is not just a passage from A to B. It is an experience. In Tehran, 26 year old Leila Araghian had been highly commended for her design of the Tabiat (nature) bridge. Connecting two parks with shops and cafes between she created what seems like never-ending journey due to it’s curved shape and the inability to see where it lead you to. Khaju in Isfahan – a beauty of the 17th century is similarly impressive in its purpose. It once hosted tea houses and still today is a space for public meetings and poetry readings.

A continual row of twenty four arches over two levels and tunnels between, set the scene for all kinds of activity. Families perch on the edge of the steps dipping their toes in the cooling water, school children gossip and group around their phones on the upper tier, old men sing songs about the old city of Isfahan and old women in chadors congregate in the shade of the tunnels. Seek solace from the heat and join the locals for the afternoon.

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan, Iran, NSH (7)

Khaju Bridge, Isfahan, Iran, NSH (5)

Chehel Sotun Palace

Literally meaning “forty columns” in Persian, the palace which was built by Shah Abbas II for entertaining dignitaries was inspired by the twenty narrow wooden columns supporting the entrance pavilion. When reflected in the waters of the long pool and fountain, forty columns appear.

Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH (2)

Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH (4)

It was here that Ehsan, our guide bought paintings of the Palace pavilion alive. He described details that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, from the eroticism of the private court to the humanity of the depictions of battle scenes and the portrayal of the victories of Nader Shah. Marvel at the moustache exhibition – great source of inspiration for Hoxton hipsters, the ornate honeycomb stalactites set with mirrors on the ceiling and relax in the manicured gardens of the palace.
Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH (7)

Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH (6)

Naqsh-e Jahan Square – lose yourself for a day.

Immerse yourself in the symbolic centre of the Safavid dynasty and its empire. What once was used for polo matches is now the stage for the coming together local artisans, antique sellers in the bazaars, street entertainers, locals with their picnic mats and flasks of chai with the soundtrack of the bells from the hooves of the horse and carriages circumnavigating and the laughter of the children running through the fountains. Just idyllic.

Royal Square, Isfahan, Iran NSH (4)

Ali Qapu Palace in the east

Ascend to the very top – the Music Hall – via a winding staircase and en route get a great view of the skyscape of Isfahan and in particular its encircling mountains.

Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH

Royal Square view, Isfahan, Iran NSH

The hall is a masterpiece which serves both aesthetic and acoustic purposes. Complete with fretwork panelling on the walls and vaults carved into niches shaped like vases it is lit by the daylight from the windows just below. Positioned high above, rulers would watch the polo matches and assess the troops in the square from the talar on the first floor of the palace.

Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH (1)

Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan, Iran NSH (2)

Ehsan, Isfhan Local guide, Iran NSH 2016

Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah in the west

Directly opposite the palace, on the other side of the fountain is a mosque named after a famous theologian of the 17th century.  The tile work is a masterpiece; blue and black flowers accompanied with arabesques and yellow floral motifs. After entering a long heavily decorated corridor you are taken in to a stunning chamber. Stand at the doorway to this chamber and look up to see a play of light through the windows create a peacock shape on the ceiling of the dome. Though small in size, the arches and squinches and inscriptions of this mosque will keep you mesmerised for some time.

Inside of Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan, Iran NSH (7)

Inside of Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan, Iran NSH (6)

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Isfahan Iran NSH

Imperial Bazaar in the north

The bazaar continues all the way around the Royal Square selling everything from clothes, gaz or nougat, silverware, pottery, miniatures, Persian rugs and jewellery. It’s the perfect place to buy gifts and to talk to locals. The standard bazaar etiquette applies of course; shop around and barter hard. Venture further down through the gateway to the Great Bazaar on the north side to be led into the old town and to the Hakim Mosque.

Carpet warehouse, Isfahan Iran NSH

Iranian bread, Isfahan, Iran NSH

Imam Mosque in the south

Now if you’re ‘all mosque’d out’ you can bow out gracefully and continue reading our other Steppes blogs from around the world. However, if you’re just a little intrigued as to why this was such a special place click here to read about it. Visiting here and meeting the people that work to maintain it and protect it was a great privilege and served to round up my time in Iran quite beautifully.

Shah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran NSH 2016 (6)

Get in touch to learn more about how to discover the best of Iran with Steppes. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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10 reasons to travel to Iran

Nowruz, the Persian New Year began last weekend and has been celebrated in Greater Iran for over 3,000 years. It marks the first day of spring and a new beginning. So it is fitting that with restrictions now being lifted we shine a light on a country we have been championing for over 18 years. Also British Airways re-launch their direct service from London Heathrow (seventy years after being the first to offer scheduled flights into Tehran), so it really is a fantastic time to visit.

You can expect unparalleled Islamic architecture, romantic poets and a rich history but it is the warmth of the Persian people’s charming nature which will melt any preconceptions and your heart.

1. It is safe to travel to iran

Iran has been demonised for decades, but nearly all people who travel there come home with their stereotypes completely changed, replaced by fond memories of gracious hosts and beautiful scenery. The British government has amended its FCO advice and considers the vast majority of the country safe for travellers

2. Hot for 2016

It’s hitting the news all over the world – go soon before the crowds get too big.

3. Hospitality

In Iran, the government is more conservative and religious but the people are very open. The key to understanding Iran is to meet and talk to local people – and that is easier than in most Middle Eastern countries. In any bazaar, at any cafe, people will be keen to talk to you. Walking through the bazaar allows you to see everyday life as families go about their business.

4. A fascinating history

The National Museum in Tehran is the ideal introduction to Iran’s long history. There’s pottery dating back to 7000 BC and an extraordinary range of ceramics, painted, and sometimes carved, with scorpions, snakes and fish. Around the corner, on a Sumerian tablet from the fourth millennium BC, there’s some of the oldest writing in the world. And around another one, there’s one of the oldest wheels in the world.

5. Architecture

Persepolis which dates from 515 BC is one of the world’s finest examples of ancient architecture and was declare a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. There is also unrivalled Islamic architecture in the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz.

6. Handicrafts

Given the heavy sanctions on the country for many years’ imports were rare and so huge emphasis remains on handicraft skills. Of particular note are those produced through weaving, metal and woodwork and exceptional stone and mosaics.

7. Food

Persian cuisine is delicious, with a huge variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. For those who enjoy their food, you will not be disappointed. From tasty, fresh street food to excellent local restaurants.

8. Affordable

A holiday to Iran is still reasonably priced however due to the increasing demand this won’t last long.

9. An authentic experience

Due to years of sanctions and low tourism numbers, Iran has not been affected by excessive tourism or commercialisation. What you see is truly what you get.

10. Relaxed Atmosphere

Despite the propaganda in the west Iran can’t be pigeon-holed. It has a wonderful atmosphere and exotic blend of paradox and contradiction.  In the west we are blinded by stereotypes and view Iran as monochrome and fundamental. Yes there is a degree of segregation but there is more freedom than you think. Young couples sitting together in coffee houses and restaurants, women driving, women travelling alone in taxis with male drivers. People are more than happy to pose for a photo and most homes have satellite TV available to them.

Get in touch with us for more information on your Iran holiday, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.


An Iran Holiday – A Different Story

The American chef Anthony Bourdain recently travelled to Iran to shoot an episode for his CNN travel show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. The Islamic Republic surprised him in every way, and he describes the country as “extraordinary, heartbreaking, confusing, inspiring and very, very different than the Iran I expected. Iran is different, and Bourdain’s was my reaction too when I first visited about 8 years ago. And I now know that it is just about everyone’s reaction.

The one thing that keeps surprising travellers on an Iran holiday is the people. Wherever you go, Iranians are friendly, welcoming, educated and really happy to talk about everything. Even mullahs in mosques may want to know how you find Iran, or ask if they can help in making your stay easier. Taarof, a very Iranian form of civility for politeness and mutual respect, is still an important part of the culture.

I was and remain astonished to figure that so many things have come from Persia or Iran: the wind mill, the water wheel, the etymological origin of the word ‘paradise, the first banker’s cheque, the first international charter of human rights, the first postal service, Persian cats, the tulip, the three Magi, the algorithm, the idea of heaven and hell…to name but a few.

However most of all, it is the wealth of architecture, the perfection of proportions of the pre-Islamic and Islamic buildings, the patterned brickwork, the floral motifs or persianesques, and the variety of stunning calligraphy,that catches my eye and steals my heart. Iran ranks seventh in the world in terms of possessing historical and cultural monuments, and it is recognized by UNESCO as being one of the cradles of civilization. From 5000BC to the present, from garden pavilions and mosques to “some of the most majestic structures the world has ever seen, Iranian architecture has achieved a very individual style: a distinct feeling for simple form and grand scale; a structural inventiveness in vault and dome construction, and a genius for decoration.

Pasargadae set the standard for the grand style in which the Achaemenids built their garden cities, but it is in Persepolis that we get a true feel for Darius the Great’s ambitions. This was to be an earthly version of the ancient mythic City of Heaven. The Friday Mosque in Isfahan is no doubt one of the greatest buildings in the world, revealing more than 900 years of Persian Islamic architecture. Equally the Friday Mosque in Yazd, although Mongol Ilkhanid and built over a Sassanian fire temple, reveals all the Persian elements from the luscious mosaic decoration to the taut iwan. A grandeur of architecture that reflects Iran’s majestic landscapes. The culmination of it all is Safavid Isfahan, with the great Maydan (square) called Naqsh-i-Jahan (Reflection of the World). This wonderful square, unique in the world, contains a galaxy of splendid buildings: The Masjid-i-Shah (now Imam Mosque), the Shaykh Lutf’ Allah mosque, and the Ali Qapu Palace, one more superlative than the other. It is in the Lutf’ Allah Mosque that even Robert Byron in his Road to Oxiana, who was clearly not easily pleased, has to admit: “ I have never encountered splendor of this kind before. Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with: Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schönbrunn, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peter’s. All are rich; but none so rich.”

Get in touch with us for more information on your Iran holiday, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Written by Sylvie Franquet
Steppes Travel Expert Tour Leader


Unexpected Iran

“Only one thing is predictable on an Iran holiday – and that is that nothing is predictable,” quipped my guide. It was an offhand remark but one that was to ring true throughout my short stay in this wonderful land of the unexpected.

Nothing was to be as straightforward as it seemed. Given the natural resources of the country, I presumed petrol would be cheap; it was rationed. I had thought that Ayahtollah Khomeini’s mausoleum would be a place of hushed respect and reverence; it was a vast unsightly edifice with mobile phones ringing and children running around. There is a widespread notion that the late shah had established an active Western-style democracy in Iran before he was ousted; it was patina and veneer: his rule was autocratic.

Whilst I could not access the BBC website from my hotel room my guide reassured me that many at home would have filters to give them access to such sites and that furthermore they had satellite dishes at home granting them access and exposure to a multitude of TV channels. At lunch my guide ordered a Pepsi which surprised me given the US embargo (In Shiraz I watched proud parents trying to coax their little boy to smile for a photograph not with “smile” or “cheese” but “Pepsi”). Sanctions are inconvenient but not insurmountable, not least with UN Council members such as Russia and China having the veto and willing to do business with Iran. In spite of heavy import duties the number of foreign cars has increased hugely in the last few years; further evidence of change albeit little by little.

What doesn’t change is congestion. Tehran is much like any capital city: technology is mobile but the traffic is not. The gridlock of cars gives way to cavalier opportunism namely that when drivers get the slightest sniff of open space ahead of them they accelerate away with alarming alacrity.

At first I found myself wincing at near miss after near miss but quickly realised that Iranian drivers have a spacial awareness second to none. So much so that during my stay, I only saw one accident, which happened to be the only time that I saw tempers raised. Maybe the woman involved was having a bad hair day – I couldn’t tell.

This is one of the dilemmas of Iran in that it is difficult to take things at face value. Iran is not a country that despite the propaganda in the west can be easily pigeon-holed. It is instead a wonderful atmospheric and exotic blend of paradox and contradiction.

In the west we are blinded by stereotypes and view Iran as monochrome and fundamental. Yes there is a certain amount of segregation – men sit at the front of buses, women at the back – but there is much more freedom than I had thought. Young couples sitting together in coffee houses and restaurants, women driving, women travelling alone in taxis with male drivers. Segregation dissolves into thin air in the air.

Women in chardors are a stereotypical image of Iran. I saw these stereotypes gossiping with each other outside shop windows weighing up the respective merits of revealing dresses that they can wear in the security of their own homes. The outfits women wear on the street are different but underneath they bare the same as they have always been. This duality presents no problem to Iranian women, whose natures easily encompass the two seemingly opposed desires – to party and to pray. “We used to do our praying in private and our partying in public” said our guide, “but now it’s the other way round”.

Persepolis detail, Iran (Justin)

The other curiosity is a Vulcan-like fascination with eyebrows and fashioning them into shapes that Spock would be proud of.Perhaps most surprising of all was seeing women with plasters on their noses – the badges of cosmetic surgery which is blooming. Thousands of Iranians have nose jobs. Some of the people sporting bandages hadn’t even had them. A nose job was a status symbol, and a bandage was better than nothing. I was beginning to get the message. This is a complicated culture in which all is not as it seems.

It is not the present that one travels to Iran for – it is one of the serendipities of travel – but rather its history. The National Museum in Tehran is the ideal introduction to Iran’s long history. Here you get a dizzying sense of the layers of civilisation and history that make most countries in the world feel like gawky adolescents. There’s pottery dating back to 7000 BC and an extraordinary range of ceramics, painted, and sometimes carved, with scorpions, snakes and fish.

Around the corner, on a Sumerian tablet from the fourth millennium BC, there’s some of the oldest writing in the world. And around another one, there’s one of the oldest wheels in the world. This litany of cultural milestones almost gets boring, but then, among the luxuriant beards on the stone statues from the first Persian empire, you stumble upon a mass of curly, real hair. A real beard, on a real head, with real eyebrows. This is Saltman, discovered by Iranian miners in 1993 and apparently 1,700 years old.

Although it does not possess the royal monuments of Persepolis, Isfahan and Shiraz, Yazd is fascinating for the history and unique use of some of its buildings – the bagdirs, wind towers, in particular.

The dokhmas (Towers of Silence) are stark reminder of the way in which Zoroastrians used to deal with their dead. Due to their sanctity of earth, fire, air and water the Zoroastrians exposed their dead to the elements (and vultures) on these towers not unlike Tibetan sky burials. Like the dokhmas, the Zoroastrain fire temple is worth a brief visit but does little to give you any better understanding of this once great religion.

The fourteenth century mosque of Masjid-i-Jami is impressive for its disproportionately high minarets but it is perhaps the splendid ceramic patterning in the main prayer hall that is most eye-catching. From here, I walked through the narrow streets and alleys of the old town catching glimpses of everyday life whether it be a small bakery or people going about their daily chores. Wonderfully warped old wooden doors with different knockers – one for men and the other for women – so that residents know the sex of the person calling on them. At every turn seeing the bagdirs, wind towers, that were so fundamental to giving the people of Yazd a quality of life.

As the sun sets the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. An everyday occurrence in a Muslim country but what is not so commonplace is that for a fit few an hour long gym session follows evening prayers. This is no ordinary gym session – in a circular depression to the beat of drums and the plaintive singing of old poetry men in paisley pyjama bottoms do press-up thrusts, gyrate, twirl weights and whirl themselves around the small ring. Nothing is predictable in Iran.

Persepolis is impressive in its scale and grandeur however it lacks a knock out punch. Whilst Lord Curzon is unfair to have commented so wearily, “It is all the same, and the same again, and yet again…there is no variation in their steady, ceremonious tramp.” I can understand his jaded response. The late afternoon light softened and made up for some of the frustrations of the protective glass and canopy which cast infuriating shadows just over where you would like to photograph. Perhaps I am being unfair to a site which is over 2,500 years old, was destroyed by Alexander –according to Plutarch 10,000 mules and 5,000 camels were used to carry away the looted booty.

Shiraz is nowadays best known as a base from which to visit Persepolis, however, the city of roses and nightingales has much to boast of in its own right. Mazar Ali ibn Hamzeh, known for its extensive Qajar mirrorwork on its interior walls and vaults, is a short but interesting visit. The interior of the small building of the Park Museum is exquisite in its paintings and decor. The artefacts on display match the interior – this is a small but real treat of a museum.

City wall, Shiraz, Iran (Justin)

The garden of Bagh-i-Eram, named after one of the four gardens of paradise described in the Koran, is tranquil and reflective and a great place to wander around. Shiraz is the antithesis of Yazd. There is a far more modern and positive buzz to this liberal city. Its relaxed atmosphere is reflected in the absence of chadors instead replaced by coiffeured hair

is truly one of the must-see cities of the world. A bold statement but one more than backed up by the incredible wealth of its buildings and the charming nature of its people.

It is perhaps famed for its bridges – Shahrestan, Khajou and Sio-se-pol – but whilst interesting they are overshadowed by Maydan Imam undoubtedly one of the world’s grandest squares. It is not just its size that impresses but that it contains some incredible buildings in its perimeter most notably Masjid-i Imam and Masjid-i Shaykh Lotfallah. Tiananmen might me the biggest square in the world, St Mark’s the most famous but Maydan Imam is the greatest. When you’re in it, you can see why someone might once have suggested that “Isfahan is half the world”.

Building, Isfahan, Iran (Justin0

Not far from the square and not to be missed is Chehel Sotun Palace, built by Shah Abbas II in the 17th century is famed for its wooden columns reflected in the surface of the pool and hence its name ‘The Palace of Forty Columns’. However it is the paintings inside that are truly exquisite, even breathtaking.

Majid-i Jami is a large mosque that is most impressive for its domes. The Nizam al-Muulik (south dome) was built at the end of the eleventh century and is 17 metres in diameter. Compare this with St Paul’s Cathedral, which is 600 hundred years later and its dome is conical. As one architectural historian put it: “The Seljuks solved the difficulties which Sir Christopher Wren avoided.”

Yes there are some impressive buildings, sites and places in Iran but it is the interaction with people that you must take away. Throughout my travels in Iran, I was welcomed by the polite curiosity of strangers. It’s one of the many ironies of this complicated country that a nation with an international reputation for hostility should be inhabited by a people of such rare, and hospitable, charm.

In Iran, the government is more conservative and religious but the people are very open. The key to understanding Iran is to meet and talk to local people – and that is easier than in most Middle Eastern countries. In any bazaar, at any cafe, people will be keen to talk to you. Walking through the bazaar allows you to see everyday life as families go about their business. Doorways lead into open courtyards that once were caravanserai now inhabited by modern traders and their shops or stand derelict, bereft of their former industry. But bazaars reinforce a stereotype of the ancient of the exotic, an image conferred on the country by its exonym of Persia.

In today’s Iran, glossy shopping malls are de rigueur. The girls and boys who stroll contentedly along are world’s apart from my impressions of Iran. They are young, beautiful and fashionable – their hair coiffed and styled as if on a fashion shoot. This society is young and modern so different from the images that look down from billboards of men dressed in robes and turbans, their beards white, their eyes disinterested in what is going on around them. It is difficult to reconcile the two. The regime seems out of step with society, of a youth that has evolved far beyond the strictures of law. Iran has the youngest population in the world – 75% of its 70 million population is under 30 years old – which is storing up problems in the future in terms of housing and unemployment.

There will be change. When and in what format I do not know. But at the very least I hope to have changes, or at the very least made you rethink, your views on Iran.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Iran, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.


The Jewels of Ancient Persia

All I needed was half an hour. Think vast, whole families, sets – not lonely individual items. Dazzling to the eye, cool to touch, flawless. A stunning collection, each piece with its own individual story to tell. Priceless. There remained but one important question; how to quietly switch the alarms off. A visit to the sensational National Jewels Museum in Tehran is an absolute eye watering must and sets the standard for further exploration in Iran.

Travelling south through the arid desert we continued to Kerman in the foothills of the Hezar mountains before reaching Shiraz. This is the place to learn the language of poets, in a region once also famous for wine.  Today, you will be offered a refreshing “near beer” but nothing more alcoholic than this.

Our onward journey took us some 70km north east of Shiraz to the ancient ruined UNESCO city of Persepolis. Here we were transported back to the rise – and eventual fall – of the highly successful Archaeminid Empire with exquisite reliefs and fine examples of their stunning architecture. This was once the ceremonial capital of the Archaeminid Empire. The landscape has changed over thousands of years and where Royals once hunted in forests protected from invaders by mountains, now there is desert. Be prepared for the heat.

Although black chadors are still the preferred dress for some, the modern women of Iran are chic and colourful. They have a keen eye for fashion, which they adapt where necessary; often pushing the boundaries of the required dress code.

Ancient Persia was one of the great powers of years gone by. With the cultural revolution of 1979 The Islamic Republic of Iran was born and their doors were effectively shut to visitors. There followed many years when Iran was largely cut off from tourism and closed to westerners.  This is changing – the door to Iran and its great wealth of culture is temptingly ajar.  Plan well in advance and you will be warmly welcomed.