The young couples in the café could have been almost anywhere in the world. They leant forward over the tables, gazed into each others eyes, smiled and laughed. Some of the girls had blonde streaks in the fringes protruding from their scarves. They wore make-up and flirted.
The Café Naderi in Tehran has always been known as an intellectual hangout, and that seems to be just as true today. I was travelling with a small group, one of whom was a woman who was brought up in pre-revolution Iran, and was on her first return visit. “I used to be brought here as a child for a treat. We used to have the most wonderful café glacés. I wonder if they still do them?” She spoke to the waiter in Farsi and sure enough some very Western-looking ice-cream floats arrived within minutes.
Walking down Bobby Sands Street (next to the British Embassy) on the way to the café, I found Iran already overturning some of my preconceptions. Certainly the arrival at the airport hadn’t gone as expected. The immigration officer smiled as he asked whether it was my first time in the country, and proclaimed “Welcome to Iran.” as he stamped my passport.
Here, on the streets of Tehran, women were dressed from head to toe in black chadors, but they were often smiling and walking with confidence, looking far from the downtrodden image I had expected. Now and then a flash of colour – red or turquoise – could be glimpsed beneath their robes.
I certainly felt safe walking around. “Ironically, it’s probably the safest country in the world for women travellers,” an Iranian woman, now based in London, told me. As I found on my first day in the country, the most dangerous thing seems to be crossing the road. Tehran’s streets are busy, and it takes time to find the courage to copy the locals and walk out in front of the cars, forcing them to stop.
Tehran itself has plenty to see, and we did the standard tourist route, starting at the palace complex of the former Shah, where I gawped at the ornate furnishings of the White Palace. Adorned with Czechoslovakian chandeliers, Italian oil paintings and French Louis XIII-style furniture, the only sign of Persia was the carpets. It was easy to see how the gulf had grown between the Shah and his people.
However, the impact of the palaces and the gaudy Crown Jewels was insignificant compared to the culture shock of having to cover up constantly. I silently seethed at my male companions, who were able to stroll around in the sun in short-sleeved shirts.
The hardest thing was remembering to keep my head covered – every time I sat in a restaurant or café my natural instinct was to take the headscarf off. However, I was also beginning to see some advantages. For a start, there is no such thing as a bad hair day in Iran.
The scarf was useful again one night as an eye-shade when I found myself sleeping at the airport. Fate had conspired to have us miss a late flight to Shiraz and we were destined to spend several hours on the hard plastic airport seats. However, it was suggested that we retire to the Ladies Prayer Room, where several women were relaxing, scarves off and smoking freely. The lights were bright but I pulled my scarf over my eyes, curled up on the floor and fell asleep. “I’m beginning to envy your scarves,” said a sleep-hungry male in our group when we reassembled for the flight.
A few hours later, at the archeological site of Persepolis, it was a surprise to see a group of tourists inappropriately dressed. They wore trousers and shirts, but the women’s heads were barely covered, and one seemed to have plonked a plastic bag on her head. “You wouldn’t have seen that a year ago,” said our guide. “Their guide shouldn’t let them dress like that. There is no-one here to see them, but in the towns it will be embarrassing for them.”
Fortunately there were few people, tourists or otherwise, to witness them at this once-magnificent site. Set on a huge rock platform, Persepolis was built by Darius I, head of the Persian empire, in 512BC. Subsequent rulers added to it over the next 150 years, until it was burnt to the ground during the time of Alexander the Great.
Entering the site, the first thing you see are the remains of the towering Xerxes Gateway. The huge slabs of rock are covered by century-old graffiti, a lot of it chiselled by the hands of British soldiers. I nearly missed ‘Stanley New York Herald 1870’, presumably carved when he was on his way to find Livingstone.
However, it is carvings of a different type that are the big attraction here – the extraordinary bas reliefs covering the walls. The Persian empire was the largest the world had ever seen, and here you can see representations of the different nationalities, lined up and offering gifts to their ruler.
Darius I and the subsequent Achaemenian rulers are believed to be buried a few miles away at Naghsh-é Rostam. Four tombs are cut high in a cliff, the scale difficult to appreciate until you are standing at the base.
Iran is home to many ethnic groups and these four families said they belonged to the Khamse tribe. They were herding almost 5000 sheep to a village where they would stay for a couple of months. “The people there like having us,” one explained, “as the sheep fertilise the ground.” It was the women who did most of the talking. Their hands were patterned with henna and they were dressed in brightly coloured clothes.
In Shiraz we headed first for Shah-é Cheragh, tomb of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, a descendant of Mohammed. We donned chadors (blue and white, rather than black) before entering the complex, and then removed our shoes at the door of the shrine.
Although there were separate entrances for men and women, we foreigners were all invited into the men’s part. It was calm on this side of the shrine, the only noise being a quiet murmur of prayer. But the sound of wailing and crying could be heard from the women’s side. Someone explained, “This is a country with no counsellors. If you have a problem you can come here and cry, and then you’ll feel better.”
It was bedlam at the shrine, but visiting the tomb of one of Persia’s great poets, Hafez, was a completely different experience. Set in beautiful gardens, the air was heavy with the scent of orange blossom and flowers, and the loudest sound was that of bird song.
Poetry is taken seriously here – the great poets are taught in school and most of our guides throughout the trip would quote them. Hafez was born in the early 14th century and achieved early fame for learning the Koran by heart as a child. He is still highly revered for his poetry, much of which was mystical, but also dealt with more earthly pleasures such as wine, women and love.
As befits such a romantic poet, the garden was full of giggling school girls. One called Hannah was bolder than the rest and spoke some English. She asked if they could quiz me about my visit to Iran “for a school project”. I asked them what they planned to do when they left school. “University,” they chorused. I was not surprised to learn that more Iranian women than men now go to university. Some of the girls wanted to be engineers, others to work with computers. Hannah asked if I’d pose for photographs, and before long a little crowd had gathered, taking it in turns to photograph the alien.
I eventually escaped to the teahouse in an adjoining walled garden. Young couples and groups of friends reclined in the shade, smoking ‘hubble-bubble’ pipes or eating ice-cream. I tried a speciality, faloudeh, made of vermicelli with sugar, lime and rosewater. It was pleasantly cold, but I couldn’t get used to the worm-like texture, and preferred a refreshing cup of tea.
It seems ironic that a place that gave its name to one of the world’s top grape varieties should now be dry. “The grapes are used for food, not drink. But some locals still make wine,” a man told me. “They are very discreet about it.”
My guide revealed that Shiraz people are known for being fun-loving. “If they make some money then they go on a picnic. They spend it. Then they make some more and spend that. The people of Isfahan save their money. Go to a closed shop on a Friday and the owner will open it, but Shiraz closes on a Thursday afternoon.”
That there should be a rivalry of sorts between Shiraz and Isfahan did not surprise me, but his comments had given me a slightly false impression of Isfahan. It may well be commercially minded, but it turned out to have an even more relaxed atmosphere than Shiraz.
On our first full day in Isfahan we visited the Friday Mosque, the oldest in the city. Someone commented that they had not yet heard a call to prayer. Our guide Eraj explained, “You don’t hear it in the ‘rich’ areas, where the hotels are. The rich don’t need to pray. They have everything.”
We wandered around the complex, part of it dating back to the 10th century. I asked about the segregation of the sexes in the mosques. “If there are no curtains, the nice girls forget about God and think of other things. Everywhere in Iran ladies are first... except at prayer.”
The mosque adjoined the local bazaar and so we wandered back through it. This was an everyday bazaar, certainly not aimed at visitors. Next to the household goods there were several stalls selling the familiar black chadors and roupushes, some with a few fashionable touches. But they also sold brightly coloured, fashion items; women’s fitted suits with nipped-in waists, shoulder pads and knee-length skirts that would suit Joan Collins down to a tee. A woman saw me staring in amazement. “We wear them at home,” she explained. This double-life presumably explains the make-up that was also on sale, along with some wedding kits of cosmetics for the bride-and-groom.
There were several courting couples at Khaju bridge, the most beautiful of several bridges that span the Zayande River. Built on two levels, there were plenty of shadowy spots for intrigue. Out in the sun, holidaying families were posing to have their photographs taken. Eraj beamed when we enthused over the beauty of the bridge. “I’ve come here at least three times a week for the past 27 years, but I never get tired of it.”
We went to another of the bridges, Chubi, for tea in a traditional teahouse. A beautiful young woman puffed on a bubble pipe as she waited for some friends to join her. She spoke good English, and put up good-naturedly with us poking a camera in her face. In between supping on tea, learning to suck it the local way through a sugar cube clasped between our teeth, we tried the bubble-pipe, known as a ghalyan, the tobacco flavoured with apple.
Eraj had been saving Isfahan’s most spectacular sight until last. The Emam Khomeini Square is one of the largest and most beautiful in the world. Built in the early 17th century, it was originally used for polo matches. It is dominated at one end by the huge Masjed-é Emam mosque complex, which twists southwest towards Mecca. Its blue tiles change colour throughout the day as the sun moves round the square, but I groaned at the sight of scaffolding that would prevent a classic photograph.
Inside, a party of girls descended on us and were soon conversing about western music. They were fans of the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. They then talked about football, seemingly a national obsession especially since Iran’s good showing in the World Cup.
A newspaper I bought had football reports from around the world, but all the photographs of the players showed them from the waist up. No bare legs in Iran. Some of the men I met proudly reeled off the names of the Iranian World Cup team, but these girls were far more interested in another team – Manchester United. It was the last place on earth I had expected to hear David Beckham’s name.
Strolling alone across the square, more people came and spoke to me. A kindly-looking man, Mustapha, pulled up on his motorbike and asked whether I wanted directions anywhere. Assured that I was alright he said “So glad you visit our country,” and with a wave he drove off.
From here it was only a couple of hundred yards to yet another mosque, the little Masjed-é Sheikh Lotfollah. Somehow, its more intimate scale made it more attractive. One of the many local sayings is that ‘if the Masjed-é Emam mosque is the ring on Isfahan’s finger, the Masjed-é Sheikh Lotfollah is the diamond’.
Fortunately for the mosqued-out, the square is surrounded by shops, selling carpets, miniatures and other exquisite arts. At the opposite end to Masjed-é Emam is the entrance to the main bazaar, one of the best in Iran.I wandered past the carpet shops, stocked up on fragrant saffron at the spice stalls, and watched a row of coppersmiths beating out jugs and platters. The stall-holders smiled and sometimes gesticulated to me to come and look at their wares, but there was none of the pushiness of a North African souk. I retired to a teashop on the roof of the bazaar, overlooking the square, and indulged in superb pastries and tea.
The sun was dipping low when I came back down into the square and it was starting to fill with families. They sat in groups on the grass, some with picnics, while their children played around the fountains. Others took a ride in one of the horse-drawn buggies that trotted around the square.
After the relatively liberal atmosphere of Isfahan, it was a shock the next evening to have to cover every single wisp of hair again in the sacred city of Mashhad. Pilgrims come from around the world to the shrine of Emam Reza, eighth grandson of Mohammed.
With so many visitors, the town had a bit of a holiday feel, and a park that we visited at dusk was packed with promenading families. Mashhad’s bazaar had been full of gold and turquoise, but here at the park the gift shops were full of tacky British seaside-style souvenirs – Laurel & Hardy models, figurines of white children with blonde hair and, most bizarrely of all, cute china pigs.
We had dinner at an atmospheric restaurant that was packed out. Sitting on traditional ‘beds’ we were served a typical meal of soup, aubergine purée, lamb, rice, and tarragon salad, all washed down with little bowls of tea. A band was playing and our local guide, Ali Firouz, was invited up to join them and sing.
The next day we had a long drive to the far north of the country, close to Turkmenistan. We were so delighted with Ali Firouz that we press-ganged him into joining us for the rest of the trip. He sang romantic Persian songs to us as the hours slowly passed. “You’ve stolen my heart and you’ve scattered the ashes in the wind.”
We were heading for the village of Ghara-Tappeh-Sheikh, and specifically for a stud farm belonging to an American-born woman, Louise Firouz. It was dark when we arrived, and we pulled up close to a tethered stallion, swaddled in traditional Turkmen blankets. Louise came out to meet us, exclaiming “Welcome to Central Asia!”.
Our belongings were taken into yurts, one for the women, another for the men, our accommodation for the next couple of nights. We then made our way to another yurt where a feast was being laid out around the blazing fire. As well as us and three generations of the Firouz family, there were two local Turkmens in white turbans. One was the local headman; at 82 he looked strong and had a twinkle in his eye. No wonder he had six wives, the youngest 62 years his junior.
In the morning we drove out to Khaled Nabi, a pilgrimage centre. The few villages we passed were small and simple, some with camels tethered alongside the donkeys. With their brightly-coloured clothes and Central Asian features, the people were unmistakably different to those we had seen elsewhere in Iran.
Khaled Nabi is perched on a high plateau. At first sight it looks like a village, but the accommodation is purely for the pilgrims, who visit the shrines to ask favours of a Muslim saint.
Here we were just 36km from Turkmenistan border, and from our wind-swept vantage point we looked out over what is known as the Turkmen Steppes – not flat as I expected, but strange low hills that ripple away to the horizon like a petrified sea. The feeling of mystery was compounded by the sight of a couple of hundred ancient phallus-shaped stones on one of the hillsides.
After a lunch cooked over an open fire, we headed back. Louise had arranged a race meeting at a local village. Desperate to preserve the Turkmen horses, an ancient breed, she encourages the locals to race these fast little animals, so giving them a motive to keep the pure bloodstock alive.
All was mayhem when we arrived. The children had just raced their donkeys and, just like any Home Counties gymkhana, some parents were arguing over the outcome. The enthusiastic crowd was beaten back by stick-wielding elders, and order restored for the next race. Half a dozen horses lined up, nostrils flaring. The riders were all ages and dressed in traditional Turkmen garb, including sheepskin hats. On a signal they set out at a blistering gallop to do a circuit of the huge field. Having finished, the crowd surged forward again, swarming around the horses. The winner pressed his prize envelope to his horses forehead, while more disputes broke out.
Louise has started to offer riding holidays up here, and I vowed to return another time to join one of the trail rides through this remote region. But it was now time to return home.
On the long drive back to Tehran, Ali Firouz resumed his serenading with Persian love songs. The buses and trucks that we passed had slogans on their sides, sometimes in English. In the Sea of Love there are no Beaches, said one. In the desert of my heart you are the only poppy, said another. My preconceptions of Iran had been wrong and the last thing I had expected to find was a country with such a romantic heart.
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