NOT that long ago, the idea of a holiday in Iran may have seemed a little like stepping off the map into the unknown – here be shouty dragons with long beards and guns – but that seems to have all changed recently.
In fact nine out of 10 glossy magazines in our local diabetic clinic are trumpeting Tehran as the 'must-visit city of 2014' – a fact which makes my girlfriend and myself feel further ahead of the curve than we've felt since Nirvana at the Top Hat.
But last April, as we sat in a little customs hut deep in a narrow mountain pass on the Iran/Turkey border and we saw pictures of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei (a pair of portraits that hang in every room of official Iran), our hearts beat a little faster. And cool wasn't in it.
We entered Iran with trepidation as our guide; it's difficult for Europeans not to. We left with a Persian rug and some sweeties (again, it's difficult for Europeans not to), but along the way we discovered one of the most warm and welcoming peoples. We were entranced by the beautiful landscape, dazzled by a most courteous and generous culture – in short (and after much heated consultation with her indoors, who concurs wholeheartedly), we found it to be a wonderful country.
Iranians have known this for a long time. Their earliest cities date back almost 7,000 years but we had a little less than three weeks to play with, so we planned a vaguely circular circuit of the country, taking in the hilly Kurdish areas of the northwest, moving south towards the Gulf, swinging east into the more desert areas before turning north towards Tehran.
It's a massive country – about the same size as France, Germany, Spain and the UK put together, with a population of almost 80 million – but it's got a fantastic infrastructure for moving around. Internal flights are simplicity itself: local travel agencies booked us next-day flights of 800 miles for about €25. Couchettes on an overnight train, with tea and snacks thrown in, were €5 each. A 300-mile trip on a VIP bus (where the seats almost fully recline) is cheaper than short hops on Dublin Bus.
Even though the utterly insane exchange rates make it difficult to spend more than €50 per person a day, we made our trip even cheaper by flying to Van in eastern Turkey, bussing it to the border and taking a taxi. That sounds like quite a hike, but it meant we got to Iran from Dublin for about €300 return each. And on €50 a day we stayed in the best places, ate at the best restaurants.
We weren't long in Tabriz, before we were stopped by a couple of twenty-somethings, who said: "Hello, thank you for coming to our country. Do you like it?" Well, what can you say? Delighted to find most people under the age of 30 speaking such good English, that's for sure. (To break the ice with the locals, I'd borrowed teach yourself Persian CDs from the library, and listened to them for six months. But it's fair to say my Persian was wojus.)
We waited for the tourist trap hard-sell at the end of these roadside introductions. But it never came. What did come – everywhere we went – were invitations; invitations to visit people's homes for dinner, invitations to tea, invitations to some local spot, invitations to civilised conversation.
Those Iranians do like to talk. About everything under the sun. As we stood on the side of the street in Tabriz and watched the then President Ahmadinejad being driven past us in the Persian version of the Popemobile, people openly came up to us to talk politics ("Ahmadinejad is bad," was the continual refrain – this being about six weeks before last year's presidential elections which brought the reformist Rouhani to office).
Or as the sun went down in Shiraz, we sat in the gardens around the tomb of Hafez (Iran's best loved writer: a 14th-Century poet so revered that people queue up to kiss his marble sarcophagus) and talked with an out-of-work engineer and movie buff about the music from the movie Barry Lyndon. He loved the Chieftains and Handel's Sarabande – but with a wry smile warned us that if we were looking to hear live music in Iran, we might be looking for quite a while.
Oh yes, while not encountering a single whiff of revolution, there is definitely a spirit of defiance among the Persian people (and an awful lot of them say Persian, not Iranian). They certainly don't want to go back to the days of the Shah, but they want the freedoms that others take for granted.
The spirit is most noticeable in those women who keep to the letter of the law by wearing small headscarves or even beanie hats perched precariously on top of high-piled hair.
Wherever we went we would meet incredibly well-educated young people with little job satisfaction, and no prospect of finding it at home. We met one tri-lingual young woman with an engineering PhD who was working for €250 a month – as a secretary. Her three sisters were in Canada. She's probably there now too. (Incidentally, the vast majority of third-level students in Iran are women – so much so that they've brought in quotas to try and reset that playing field.)
From Tabriz we made our way to Kashan, an oasis city on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir, a massive salt desert about the size of Ireland, and checked in at the Khan-e Ehsan, a traditional hotel. As is often the case in more traditional Iranian houses, from the outside it looks unremarkable: a heavy wooden door in a dusty wall. But peek inside and you see fountains, flowers, and hip-height day beds draped in pillows and carpets. In Persia, you never really sit down – you recline.
Leaving Kashan and heading south, we arrived in Esfahan late in the evening under a cloudburst that made the streets shine. By far the most lovely of all the cities we visited, Esfahan's river bridges are one of the iconic images of Iran and the riverside is lined with parks and greenery, and nooks and crannies where people picnic.
The city's wide boulevards are lined with leafy trees, casting a greenish dappled light over everything. And then there's the main square, Imam Square, one of the largest city squares in the world, lined with shops, cafes and historic mosques and palaces.
So much happened in Esfahan. So many stories. One young couple bought us several desserts in a restaurant, testing and teasing us about their ingredients. Later they took us on a moonlight drive around the city.
While we gazed slack-jawed on the majestic square, Tanya was mobbed by young schoolgirls eager to try out their English and make friends. We heard buskers under a city bridge bemoan the prohibition on live music. We were invited (and went) to a family's BBQ in their orchard just outside the city. Once in the family home all the women took off their headscarves and Tanya's hair fell free for the first time in the Islamic Republic.
We spoke with young men in their late 20s who told us that when they wanted a drink – an alcoholic drink – they went to the Armenian (aka Christian) quarter. The same young men spoke about their favourite western musician... Richard Clayderman. (I tensed up my face, knowing that it'd be rude to laugh, but I may have smiled slightly.)
I don't think there has ever been a city as wonderful as Esfahan, and I will go back some day – if, after reading this piece, they grant me another visa.
From Esfahan, we made our way to Shiraz, gaped at the ancient ruins of Persepolis and then on to the desert city of Yazd, where 1,000-year-old underground canals draw water from mountains many miles away to irrigate the city. And tall wind chimneys catch the air, funnelling it down into the houses and over pools of water to cool the domestic interiors.
From Yazd we flew north to Tehran and saw the remnant of the winter snow on the Albourz mountains which loom above the city. A four-star hotel for the price of an Irish B&B, and on the bottom floor of their four-storey basement there was a swimming pool. Sorry Tanya, men only.
Tehran is such a modern city, with a great metro that whisked us out to the tomb of Khomeini, located beside the heartbreaking war cemetery for the million dead of the Iran-Iraq war. Then we went north, to the hills of Darband, where Tehranis like to walk on weekends and eat kebab in little kiosks set up over the plunging mountain streams.
Again, so many stories. The big three sights are a visit to the Shah's home (a big square bunker), the jewel museum (where the Darya-e Noor diamond is only one of the historic gemstones), and the US Den of Espionage (the former embassy, where coups were plotted).
However, we also loved the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Giacometti and Magritte statues are kept out in the rain, while works by Van Gogh, Bacon, Picasso, Pollock, Monet, Munch are all kept hidden in the vault. They say that there's €4bn-worth of forbidden art locked away, but there is some amazing Iranian stuff showing on the walls. A metaphor for Iran really.
Departing Iran - and a special souvenir
With just days left, we wondered if would we leave Iran without ever running into the stereotypical bull-headed product of the revolution – and on our last day, we got lucky.
Short on time and needing to get to an airport 50km over the border in the Turkish town of Van, we hired a taxi to take us the 200km from Tabriz to the border (€15). Borders are always sensitive areas, and in that regard Iran is a sensitive country.
In our case, we were stopped by customs/police, who thought a souvenir bought at the National Museum of Iran was in fact an original artefact. I'd enough Farsi to explain it was from the gift shop – but that cut no ice with the wily Iranian officials who summoned jeeps of armed soldiers from the local army base, where we were taken, detained, and questioned – in Farsi, of course.
From the army base we were brought to an Islamic court and presented, along with the evidence, to a magistrate. You didn't need a word of Farsi to understand the withering look he gave the army captain and police lieutenants.
As we were returned to our waiting taximan, one of the lowly soldiers sidled up to us and whispered: "These men... crazy".
And it is crazy, Iran. But we made our flight. And got a good story out of it.
Keep it covered
WHETHER it's a head-and-shoulder combination of the hijab or the full-length black chador, covering the head is mandatory for all women – Iranian or not – in all public places. If you don't wear something, you face reprimand by the moral police.
As you move into the cities, you will notice headscarves get smaller, but the western traveller is advised to cover their head and casually wrap the scarf over a shoulder to secure it in place.
Finding your way around is far easier than we expected it to be. Wherever in the world you are going, it's always good to have some of the local language – a courtesy thing, if nothing else, even if it's just hello and goodbye, thanks and please.
Almost every city dweller under the age of 30 will have good English, and transport is all labelled in Farsi and English. Street signs are similarly labelled.
Kashan is famous for its textiles and rose-water – and the fields for miles outside the town are filled with millions of fragrant pink blooms of the damask rose.
Some of the best times we had in Iran were in parks and gardens, and Kashan's Bagh-e Fin and the Bagh-e Eram in Shiraz are both up there on the Unesco World Heritage List – classical Persian gardens laid out symmetrically.