Eschewing the suggestion of a group tour, our family of three decided to “go it alone” on a trip to Iran recently, staying in small hotels, hostels and guesthouses.
Babak and Naseem, owners of Howzak House in Isfahan, perfectly demonstrate the Iranian hospitality we had heard about. Friendly, helpful and kind, they have restored a traditional family home into a charming guesthouse. Rooms surround the classic central courtyard complete with pool and flowerpots for about a dozen guests.
The rooms are simple but captivating, furnished with hand-printed cotton and kilims woven locally.
I found Babak’s personal tour around nearby artisan workshops very exciting in terms of the range of crafts we saw. It was also refreshing that we were not pressured to buy at all.
The crafts included: an artist who paints miniature designs on metal; a master craftsman in the art of “Ghalamzani”, where relief designs are chiselled out of brass; a family business specialising in stamping designs on fabric; kilim weavers who use natural dyes such as pomegranates and cochineal; a glass blower; and a metal worker who creates his own quirky locks.
Babak’s respect for the skills of the craftspeople was evident. An engineer by profession, he now works full-time running the guesthouse. Naseem is an architect and is working part-time for Unesco developing protocols for restoring and preserving historic buildings.
Food in Iran is fresh and wholesome, and it was exhilarating not to see fast food outlets and American–style franchises everywhere.
For us non meat-eaters, it wasn’t easy to find vegetarian food in Iran, but it wasn’t impossible. Firstly, a meal will usually include the ubiquitous delicious Iranian bread. Iranian bread is a topic all on its own. “Nan” is a Persian word and there are so many varieties.
One type of nan, “sangak”, is cooked on a bed of tiny river stones. We loved to walk the back alleys and would often come across a hole-in the wall bakery, and be invited in to have a look and take a photo.
Lunch at Babak’s also included “miraghazemi”, an eggplant dish consisting of soft roasted aubergine in a garlic and tomato sauce; feta cheese with a tomato, onion and cucumber salad; “ashe mast”, a yoghurt soup; “kookoo sabzi”, a pancake made from herbs and a little egg; and dates and honeyed pastries to finish.
“Doogh”, a fizzy minty yoghurt drink is also an everyday accompaniment to meals.
The absence of alcoholic drinks in Iran means some exquisite cold drinks are on offer. Mocktails made from minced cucumber or pomegranates, or health-giving concoctions were containing “khakshir” seeds and rosewater.
If you are desperate for a beer, the non-alcoholic malt fizzy drink labelled “Classic” is, in my opinion, an excellent imitation!
Isfahan has some glorious examples of Iranian architecture, in its mosques and monuments, such as the Jame Majid mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. Structural brickwork creates mesmerisingly, beautiful visual patterns. Masses of painted tiles merge into a complex geometry. Intricate wooden webs serve as doors or windows.
The Ali Qapu Palace was built in the 17th century. The keyhole-shaped recesses in the Music Hall on the sixth floor of the palace are believed to have been created to enhance the acoustics.
Sanctions imposed on Iran have severely affected the economic situation for the ordinary Iranian people. This is tragic for them, but they seem keen to distance themselves from the actions of their government or world powers.
Iranians are incredibly proud of their country and rich cultural heritage and want to share it.
For me, this trip to Iran was nothing short of a wonderful experience.
Written by: Shona Watson, at Iran: Nothing short of wonderful