Iran travel: Tehran to Tabriz
The colour and tastes of Iran illustrate a country full of friendly hospitality that will put many of us to shame.
The sky was dark as my plane started coming into Tehran, then suddenly it banked to the left and from my aisle seat I could see the lights of the city below. It had been a long journey.
Taking my cue from the women around me I pulled on my manteau and hijab, put my seat and tray table in the upright position, stowed my hand luggage and braced for landing.
Iran is largely shut from the world and has been for decades. The only news we tend to here (in the West at least), is about the “mad Mullahs” running the country; their alleged designs to blow the world up with nuclear weapons and actual brutal crackdowns on protesters.
The Ayatollahs who make up part of Iran’s government are not liberal minded; many of their laws are prohibitively conservative to say the least; but the people and the culture of Iran are not the government. And the people and culture are the things that make Iran an underrated, but worthy destination.
Looking out the window of the yellow Peugeot taking me to my hotel, Tehran reminded me of other parts of the Middle East, yet there was also something different about it. Iran was unknown, but familiar all at the same time.
Imam Khomeini Airport is about a 45 minute drive from the centre of Tehran, and at first the roadside scenery is mainly large tracts of dirt, with a few mosques and buildings dotted alongside the highway. Occasionally a few trees and some greenery, but then coming into the city, suddenly the highway is edged with tall blocks of concrete apartments, schools and offices, many of them covered in large murals.
In fact murals and street art are everywhere in Iran. There are paintings of martyrs who died in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), paintings of trees and birds, abstract staircases to nowhere, geometric shapes and patterns and scenes of centuries gone by. Colours to brighten up otherwise grey concrete buildings, but also give a hint to the Iranian love of art and culture, and some of the history.
My first walk after leaving my hotel took me down Larestan Street, a tree-lined street off Motahari Avenue. Larestan is filled with music shops selling drums, guitars and pianos of all shapes, sizes and colours including racing car red (a little too gauche for me). To me, for an entire street to be filled with these shops shows how much music means to Iranians, even when the government has cracked down on it.
There are plenty of Iranian pop singers, but these days most of them live in Los Angeles. If you happen to stay somewhere where there is cable TV from neighbouring countries, you’ll see the film clips on the music channels. You’ll pretty quickly guess why the musicians don’t work in Iran; their clothes and dance moves are not compatible with the strict modesty laws imposed in Iran.
Persian culture is strong though, and from what I saw it is stronger than the Islamic culture. Filmmakers mourned at the National Cinema Museum (Abbas Kiarostami died the day before I arrived); poets are revered; and art and design are on display everywhere, from the gardens to the modern design of the Tehran City Theatre (Teatr-e Shahr).
To see the more historic architecture, the bazaars of Iran are the best place to head. And where better to start than one of the world’s oldest – Tabriz Bazaar.
By the 13th century this bazaar was famous as a major trading post on the Silk Road. One of the world’s oldest and largest covered bazaars (it covers about 10km²) and has UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Like other bazaars on the route, it’s brick built, has vaulted ceilings, caravanserais, alleys to get lost in. Nowadays you can buy just about anything , from carpets to gold to kitchen utensils, and probably the kitchen sink too. The hustle and bustle was expected, but it was far less touristy than I expected. It is like a big variety store, saying so much about Iran and the size of its tourism industry.
Tabriz is in the north west of Iran, in the mountains and a LOT cooler than Tehran. The Safavid kingdom capital until the 16th century and stayed an important trading post until the late 18th century.
I didn’t see a lot of the city as I was there to spend time with friends and their family; my first taste of Iranian hospitality.
Middle Eastern hospitality is something that puts many in the West to shame. Strangers open their homes and go out of their way to make sure you are enjoying yourself.
They will also make sure you eat enough… read: force fed more food than you can imagine eating. In Iran that means: dolme, kazhk-e badamjam (aubergine and cheese dish), many varieties of kebab, ghormi sabzi (lamb, herbs, beans and tomato stew served on rice), bread of many varieties, cheese of many varieties (some of it more palatable than others), and of course rice… lots of rice. Oh and sweets… and saffron ice cream.
So when, and I mean when, not if, an Iranian invites you into their home, say yes. Don’t hesitate, the offer is definitely genuine. Try new things and enjoy every last morsel, you won’t regret it.