Prayer on University Shahid Beheshti University’s campus

I think my experience in Iran has been slightly different from that of a traveller, as I went there for a course of Persian at Dehkhoda Institute.

I spent forty days there, and I have stayed primarily in Tehran, where the Institute was. I only traveled to Shiraz for a weekend and to Sari (in the North, near the Caspian sea) for another weekend. I had been in Iran before and I had back then visited Esfahan too.

Well, let me start with Esfahan. They call the city “nesf-e jahan”, half of the world, which in itself is not very surprising, if you think that there are many cities around the world where proud inhabitants make up phrases and expressions to promote the beauty and the unicity of the city itself (think about Naples, “vedi Napoli e poi muori” or Granada, “has llegado a Granada, lo mejor del mundo entero”). Well, I have to admit that few things I saw had on me the effect of seeing Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan. And not only the square makes you feel like you would like to spend some more time or even some years in that city, but also the streets full of young families having picnics everywhere you see grass, or the men sitting under si-o se pol, singing forbidden songs, promptly interrupted by the guards, when a too big crowd gathers to listen.

Admittedly, going back to Tehran, having spent some days in cities like Esfahan or Shiraz, is a pure nightmare: the city is pregnant with smog, pollution, heavy air that makes you feel tired only after walking a kilometer on your feet, if you have survived to cross the streets in the middle of the busiest traffic you can imagine. But Tehran is unfortunately the heart of Iran, the political thermometer, the city where everything is possible: seeing a woman moving around with her headscarf fallen off her head, high heels and very very tight clothes, that don’t leave much to imagination, and seeing another one all covered up in her black chador, the two walking together hand in hand. Hidden house parties where as soon as you arrive, everyone goes to take off the many layers of clothes they were wearing on the streets and hurries to get drunk, and religious processions where believers flog themselves to the point of bleeding.

I see Iran as a country of paradox, a mixture of ancestral Zoroastrian culture, Islamic culture, western culture, and autochthonous Iranian modern culture.

And books: books are everywhere, books are scattered down on the pavement, on the piece of cloth where they are exposed by the street seller; books are staying orderly inside a book machine dispenser; books in the small library in Enghelab street where they organize weekly discussions about literature; books are in the hands of the women who fill the metro during pick hours in Tehran; books are everywhere. Poetry is everywhere too: in the speech of the taxi driver, in the song coming from the radio, in the recommendation of the grandmother while you are leaving her house, after helping her wash the dishes; in the air at the mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, crowded at whichever time you visit it, with people from all over the country.

Iran is the Persian teacher who will tell you more about the history of your own country than yourself have ever known. Iran is the incredible corners that open up unexpectedly while you are walking on the most common-looking street of Shiraz or Tehran, it’s the small café where you sit in an exquisite patio with a fountain in the middle and flowers all around. It’s Harry Potter café in Tehran, with the very young waitress who jumps up and down out of joy because she could exchange some French words with you; it’s Parvaneh market in Tehran, where all wishes come true, and all you ever wanted to buy is there, if you look closely and spend your morning going around its five floors. Iran is seeing a man walking his dog around with pride, in spite of the ban on possessing dogs, as they are supposedly haram.

Iran is many things, many people, and a huge country of which I only lived a small part, but where you will realise that, to say it with Maya Angelou, “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike”.

For the ones coming from Southern Europe (like me), Iran is pretty familiar. Family and food are a predominant part of everyone’s life. For the ones coming from the North, well it might look quite “exotic”, but very easily approachable. The country is huge, and even if you decide to undertake the most common itinerary (as I did) through Teheran, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz, you’ll have the feeling that everywhere in Iran you might face a hidden gem, and that’s true.

Every single region is spotted by great cities, archaeological sites or simply nice places to spend a couple of days. I was in Iran ten years ago for a long time and I still remember how hard it was to plan a decent trip through the whole country because time is never enough. That’s a kind of frustrating, but it’s also the reason of why the 90% (I think) of travelers want to go back.

So that’s my suggestion: take your time, and don’t presume to cover Iran in a two-three weeks trip. Forget it. Choose an area and explore it, and leave the others for further journeys. I did the classic tour in 17 days and still I had to rush from one city to another. Simply because places in Iran (both social and cultural) are above all interesting places where you’ll need to spend time observing people around, admiring a mosque detail, sitting and breathe. That’s the experience. Don’t miss it just because you want to see both Mashhad and Tabriz

So here some places you could easily spend a half a day 

  1. Masjid-e-Jāmeh, Isfahan – It’s unique, literally. I never saw a mosque combining together so many islamic architectural styles. And it’s huge, calm and evocative. Speech-less. 
  2. Madrase-ye Khan, Shiraz – I found it by chance, and it has been like discovering the Paradise entrance. You can’t enter inside the big complex but the main central hall is the most persian panorama you’ll never see: fountains, palms and tress, the sun’s reverberations on the blue majolica. No-one around (excepts a cat colony) and some nice restorers that will be happy to explain you how they are preserving the old wooden windows. Perfect. 
  3. Islamic Revolution & Holy Defense Museum, Teheran – Behind the propaganda grandeur (and messages), this museum is very useful to understand the long, traumatic period of the Iran-Iraq war. It’s extremely immersive, high-tech and impressive (there’s even the reconstruction, in 1:1 scale, of a bombed village in Ahvaz region). With english audio-guide, quite uncommon in Iran.
  4. Sitting down on a carpet in an Imam Zadeh (mausoleum), but the list is quite long. The modern ones are small cities, well serviced by everything you might need, like Imam Zadeh Jafar in Yazd. The ancient ones are usually more intimate, like the really beautiful Emamzadeh Soltan Mir Ahmad in Kashan. In both cases, you’ll feel like home, and you won’t able to stand up and get out so easily (especially in summer). 
  5. Dolat-Abad Garden, Yazd – Persian garden is a state of mind. For Iranian culture the meaning of beauty, proportions, harmony and inner light was born among fountains and trees. And you can feel it. Dolat-Abad is in the middle of an arid land, but once you enter the garden you would be able to write poems in Farsi. But you can’t, so just have an ice cream and enjoy this peaceful corner.   

And a short list of something that you’ll love so much 

  1. Toys Museum, Kashan – It’s behind a hostel, so the first time I came across I thought it was a clever way to attract new clients. But no. The museum is small and very well organized, with puppets and toys from all over Iran and the world. The girl working there is very nice and can explain to you everything about it. They organize workshops and plays for kids and the walls are covered by super interesting drawings made by some artists in residence. 
  2. Jomeh Bazaar, Teheran – Almost 8 floors of a parking lot are there to explore. Everyone is there to sell something, and everyone is there to look around. Anything from stamp collections, pre-revolutionary memoirs, Persian carpets, clothes and jewelry are to be found. 
  3. Nabaat, in Farsi, or sugar rocks. It is usually dipped into a black tea to make it more sweet. Typically a little bit of saffron is added, or has several herbs in it as well. There are Nabaat shops which are bigger than a supermarket, especially in Isfahan. I got mad to collect as many I could, in different colors and tastes. 
  4. Bridges, Isfahān – the perfect pattern is: one bridge, one tea, observe the people around you singing, chatting and walking – next bridge, next tea, and so on. The river is unfortunately dry, but the long promenade is still worthing. At the end you’ll be in love with the entire world (even the police that lazily monitors the situation, why not).

But the list could be more extended, of course. Above all, talk to everyone because everyone will talk to you. English is quite widespread, as well as Spanish, Italian, German, French (in Iran there are a lot of students of Japanese too). Iran has the most cultivated population in the area. Not only about poems of Hafez or Saadi. You’ll be impressed by the number of people that like talking about french cinema, jazz music, architecture, design, etc. Iranians (especially young people) knows everything of everything about the world. They are starving of experiences, interests and nice conversations. Which is not strange itself, of course. But because the 90% of the world inhabitants have a precise opinion about Iran and Iranians, which is actually completely wrong. You’ll realize it about twenty minutes after your arrival. And you’ll get lot of friends. Good suggestion: try to learn some words in Farsi, especially some jokes or funny expressions, you’ll be loved and pampered by everyone (Iranians are supposed to learn all the world languages but unfortunately no-one is supposed to learn Farsi, so a little effort in that sense could be a real challenge). Forget about everything you’re supposed to know about Iran, realty (as everywhere) is more complex than a couple of sentences on women and religion. Iranian society is incredibly diversified, and is facing a big, deep crisis that reveals how strong and ingenious it is. That’s why human contacts are the best memories you’ll keep with you from Iran.  

A trip to Iran, we had been planning for a couple of years and it was noticeable that everyone comes home with the same stories: what a very versatile country, what a delicious food and especially the people. Nowhere in the world are people as sweet and hospitable as in Iran.
In May 2017 we went to Iran for two weeks and the fun is, our anecdotes are exactly as predicted. It is indeed a beautiful country, it has a lot to offer for the interested traveler. You will find culture, nature, ancient history treasures, fine hostels and hotels, great food and indeed: the dearest people you can imagine.

iranian picnic
Iranian picnic

We have our two weeks filled with a route that many tourists follow: from Tehran by bus to Kashan, then to Yazd by train, then by bus to Shiraz, by taxi to Esfahan (with a break in Persopolis) and if last one bus ride from Esfahan back to Tehran. Those cities are all different and give you different experiences. Yazd is in the desert and the center looks like 1000 in a night.
In Iran, much (everything) is very good to arrange on the spot. The only thing we had in preparation was a visa, a hostel for the first nights, and cash to change, (think of 1000 Euro pp for two weeks and this was more than enough). That was it and that was enough. In every hostel where we were, we asked the owner if we could call and the overnight stays were fixed very quickly. In any case, everyone is willing to help you and a train or bus ticket has always been bought. Also, count on people wants to have a chat with you. There are more tourists coming to Iran for a number of years, especially to the tourist spots like Esfahan, Shiraz, and Yazd, but also rely on the fact that you are approached by students and people who want to practice their English.

iran persepolis

An Iranian SIM card is therefore useful for this kind of phone calls. We kept in touch with Mera and Ali, and they tipped us which hostel was nice, where the bus station in Tehran was and what you should try.
The food is an experience in itself! In hostels and hotels, you often get a delicious varied breakfast, with bread and especially a lot of fruit. And tea, liters of tea! On the bus and train, you usually receive a box of refreshments for your journey after boarding. (Do you see this doing the NS? If you are traveling from Utrecht to Amsterdam in rush hour, we were amazed!). And then, of course, you have the delicious restaurants with kebabs and all kinds of stews with greetings. Vegetarian food is certainly possible, but you can count on it that meat is served in most meals. (and so nicely seasoned).

Golestan Palace
Golestan Palace

I can only recommend you to go. It’s a bit more hassle than an all inclusive holiday in Spain, but those who love backpacking and traveling around are really recommended!
There are a few things that are useful to know in advance. For example, you can apply for a visa at the embassy in The Hague, or if you prefer not to do it yourself via a visa agency. You can also buy a visa at customs in Iran, but there was a line with us. Do what you want, of course, but it seems nice to go through the passport control on arrival.
Well, then you only have to enjoy it. Expect a lot to be addressed, school children want to take a picture with you or want to interview you in front of the camera, and many people want to practice their English with you.
My advice: just go and enjoy everything!

Greetings, Erik and Bianca

Een reis naar Iran, we waren het al een paar jaar van plan en het viel op dat iedereen met dezelfde verhalen thuiskomt: wat een bijzonder veelzijdig land, wat een heerlijk eten en vooral de mensen. Nergens ter wereld zijn de mensen zo lief en gastvrij als in Iran.

In mei 2017 gingen we voor twee weken naar Iran en het leuke is, onze anekdotes zijn precies zoals voorspeld. Het is inderdaad een prachtig land, het heeft superveel te bieden voor de geïnteresseerde reiziger. Je vind er cultuur, natuur, oude geschiedenisschatten, fijne hostels en hotels, heerlijk eten en inderdaad: de allerliefste mensen die je kunt voorstellen.

iranian picnic
Iranian picnic

Wij hebben onze twee weken gevuld met een route die veel toeristen volgen: van Tehran met de bus naar Kashan, toen naar Yazd met de trein, vervolgens met de bus naar Shiraz, met een taxi naar Esfahan (met een pauze in Persopolis) en als laatste nog een busrit van Esfahan terug naar Tehran. Die steden zijn allemaal anders en geven je verschillende ervaringen. Yazd ligt in de woestijn en het centrum lijkt op en stadje van 1000 in een nacht.

In Iran is veel (alles) heel goed ter plekke te regelen. Het enige wat wij als voorbereiding hadden was een visum, een hostel voor de eerste nachten, en cash om te kunnen wisselen, (denk aan 1000 Euro pp voor twee weken en dit was ruim voldoende). Dat was het en dat was ook genoeg. In elk hostel waar we waren vroegen we de eigenaar of we mochten bellen en zo waren de overnachtingen heel snel gefixt. Sowieso is iedereen bereid je te helpen en een trein of busticket was altijd zo gekocht. Reken er ook op dat mensen graag een praatje met je willen maken. Er komen sinds een aantal jaren meer toeristen naar Iran, zeker naar de toeristische plekken als Esfahan, Shiraz en Yazd, maar reken er ook daar op dat je aangesproken wordt door scholieren en mensen die hun Engels willen oefenen.

iran persepolis

Een Iraanse simkaart is dus handig voor dit soort telefoontjes. Wij hielden contact met Mera en Ali, en zij hebben ons getipt welk hostel fijn was, waar het busstation in Tehran was en wat je moet proeven.

Het eten is een ervaring op zich! In hostels en hotels krijg je vaak een heerlijk gevarieerd ontbijt, met brood en vooral veel fruit. En thee, liters thee! In de bus en trein ontvang je na het instappen doorgaans een doosje met versnaperingen voor je reis. (zie je dit de NS doen? Als je van Utrecht naar Amsterdam reist in de spits? Wij stonden versteld!). En dan heb je natuurlijk de heerlijke restaurants met kebabs en allerlei stoofpotjes met groeten. Vegetarisch eten kan zeker, maar reken er op dat in de meeste maaltijden vlees zit. (en zooo lekker gekruid).

Golestan Palace
Golestan Palace

Ik kan je alleen maar aanraden om te gaan. Het is iets meer gedoe dan een all inclusive vakantie in Spanje, maar wie van backpacken en rondreizen houdt is het echt een aanrader!

Er zijn een paar dingen die handig zijn om van te voren te weten. Zo kun je een visum aanvragen bij de ambassade in Den Haag , of als je dat liever niet zelf doet via een visumbureau. Je kunt ook bij de douane in Iran een visum kopen, maar daar stond bij ons een rij. Doe wat je wil natuurlijk, maar mij lijkt het fijn om bij aankomst lekker snel door de paspoortcontrole te gaan.

Tja, dan hoef je er dus alleen nog maar van te genieten. Verwacht veel aangesproken te worden, schoolkinderen willen met je op de foto, of willen je interviewen voor de camera, en veel mensen willen hun Engels met je oefenen.

Mijn advies: gewoon gaan en alles lekker beleven!

Groetjes, Erik en Bianca