By Roger ALLNUTT
Cities in Iran sometimes seem to appear from nowhere after a long drive through rocky terrain.
Yazd is one of these, a modern town with a couple of notable attractions. On the outskirts of the town the Towers of Silence are a huge mound at the top of which the Zoroastrian burial-rite took place where the body was left in an open pit to be picked clean by vultures. Fortunately this practice stopped some years ago.
A large ornate tower with clock is known locally as Yazd’s Big Ben while the large mosque complete with minarets is especially dramatic when lit up at night. All the mosques in Iran as incredibly colourful and the tiles decorating both façade and inside in various colours featuring mainly blue, green, pink and yellow tiles are a delight. The floors of the mosques are saturated with colourful carpets. Yazd has a fine old town with narrow streets and alleys unchanged for centuries. There is a famous sweet shop where four generations of one family have been making sweets – baklava is a specialty and quickly snapped up by tourists.
In some towns you don’t see many women about during the day but they come out in droves in the evening to shop – seeking bargains from cloth merchants and dress shops. Dressed in black they look like birds hovering over the racks of material.
Isfahan is undoubtedly the most interesting city in Iran It’s modern, sophisticated and cultured with much to see. Dominating the centre of the city is the wondrous Naqsh-e Jahan (Pattern of the World) Square, the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It has been renamed Imam Square. The vast open square has a huge fountain in the middle and, around the edge, two superb mosques and Ali Qapu Palace while a large bazaar is tucked into one corner. They used to play polo in the square during the time of Shan Abbas the first who watched from the balcony of the palace.
The river that flows (sometimes) through the middle of the city is crossed by a number of bridges. The heavily-arched Si-o-Se Pol bridge is very dramatic particularly at night when it is lit up and the locals come out to promenade. South of the river in amongst trendy shops is Vank Armenian Cathedral with its colourful interior highlighted by superb icons a stark contrast to the mosques. The museum in the grounds contains amazing books and religious items many centuries old, and the history of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century is well depicted.
In Isfahan we found a lovely restaurant Shahrzad, busy and noisy at Friday holiday lunchtime, which serves many traditional dishes including Fesenjan, a tasty chicken stew with walnuts and pomegranate sauce on rice.
Throughout Iran we came across family groups picnicking. A large rug is laid on the ground and animated conversation is prevalent. Tea is the common drink and many bring a samovar-like arrangement, gas bottle to heat the water container with a teapot perched on top.
Between Isfahan and Tehran is Kashan which is famous for its ancient traditional houses, some of which have now been turned into hotels. Many of the houses throughout Iran have lovely and sturdy doors, a feature of which is two knobs on the outside. To cater for a segregated society the long thin knob is for men to knock and it makes a different sound to the rounder knob for women so people inside can determine which sex is calling.
We visited three houses Boroujerdi and Tabatabaei and stayed in Negin Traditional house, now a hotel, with a huge, ornate dining room. We also watched the production of rosewater which is a specialty of the city.
In 1980 only a year after the last Shah was overthrown Iran was embroiled in a terrible war with neighbour Iraq. On the outskirts of Tehran is a huge cemetery honouring the martyrs from the war, and this is repeated throughout the country. In many cities poles along the main street have photos of young men who lost their lives in the war. Nearby is a huge tomb for Ayatollah Khomenei , the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.
Iran is becoming the ‘in’ place to visit. Tourist numbers have skyrocketed in the past two or three years and I noted large bus groups from European countries. Plans to increase tourism infrastructure are moving rapidly. Go now before the hordes descend.
For more information;
Australian passport holders require a visa to visit Iran which can be obtained from the embassy in Canberra. Allow plenty of time as the process can be slow.
Currently Iran is a cash society for foreigners although it is rumoured that sanctions imposed on use of credit cards will be lifted soon. USD are recommended to change at numerous exchange places but I found that most also changed AUD. A positive is that unused money can be changed back at virtually the same rate.
I joined an Intrepid tour and the hotels used were generally basic but quite OK. Wifi was available and free in hotels.
I flew Qatar Airways from Sydney via Doha and I would recommend the airline.
Iran can get extremely hot so most tours avoid their summer months.