Iran: Forget what you think you know, the welcome is as staggering as the scenery
Beyond the veil
I'm standing on a snowy ledge before an unfurling carpet of clouds.
Hovering under an azure sky, the clouds are flanked by snow-crested mountains and basil- green slopes veined with zigzag trails.
It's the last few hours of an exhilarating trek through the Alborz Mountains in a country poised between East and West and shrouded in mystery: Iran.
With my guide Ali, a moustachioed veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who has an infectious laugh and a habit of breaking into song, I hike through a dazzling jigsaw of lush greenery and red rock. The landscape lurches from flower-splattered meadows to dizzying canyons.
Along the way, I fill my water bottle from melting glaciers and meet shepherds who smile warmly but seem as shy as deer. Reaching an altitude of about 3,000 metres, I cover around 15km a day on clearly marked trails and stay in family homes each night in remote hamlets.
With the families, I sit cross-legged on a soft Persian rug before the woman of the house unspools a dinner cloth, spreads it on the floor, and places the evening meal - often rice, lamb, yoghurt, flatbread and sweet tea - in the middle of the cloth. Afterwards, I sleep on a mattress and blankets on the same rug. Traditional Iranian houses don't have tables or beds: it's a way of using one room in multiple ways.
I notice that each hamlet is decorated with photos of young men imposed against the backdrop of a poppy field. These are memorials to local martyrs - replicated in every town and city in the country - who were killed in the Iran-Iraq War, a brutal, trench-warfare conflict that ran from 1980-88 and claimed more than 900,000 lives.
The trek culminates in the village of Maran. Here, my four hiking companions and I take a taxi to the city of Tonekabon to stay in Khoone Geli, a wooden mountain lodge owned by Farzin Malaki. Over a breakfast of oranges from his garden and fish from the nearby Caspian Sea, Farzin gives an insight into Iran's history and politics.
"Until fairly recently," he says, "the shepherds you met in the mountains had hardly seen any Westerners since the last hippie buses passed through Iran in the late '70s."
Iran was transformed in 1979: after the Shah fled and the Ayatollah Khomeini oversaw a revolution, the country became an Islamic republic. International sanctions isolated the country but in 2016, after agreement on Iran's nuclear programme, they were lifted by the UN.
Before my visit, I was unsure how Iranians would treat a Western tourist. And when, during the trek, I arrive with my companions in tiny Piche Bon, it duly provokes a reaction: a group of Iranian Kurds hurry towards us with hands raised.
Holding cups and glasses, they greet us with hearty handshakes and insist that we sit with them on rugs laid down with picnic baskets. While they serve us tea, the families' teenage daughters pick fresh flowers in a nearby meadow to present to Suzanne, the only female in our group.
Of course, there's a price: the families demand that we stand in for group selfies.
The humbling experience is typical of Iranians' irrepressible, peerless hospitality. About three hours outside of Tehran, Iran's chaotic capital city, however, I visit an area in the Alamut Valley whose name doesn't immediately conjure such hospitality: the Castles of the Assassins.
This is a tapestry of more than 50 ruined citadels - scattered across sweeping sandstone gorges - that once housed the most notorious religious sect in the medieval world. Today, thankfully, the valley is distinguished by its serenity.
Before I climb to Alamut Castle, perched high on a rock in the shape of a sideways-turned camel's head, Hosein, my guide, shows me around. We walk through a field of hay cut with a scythe near elegant poplar trees, and he tells me that the canvas of valleys, rivers and birdsong evokes for him the beauty of nature in the Koran.
After visiting Shiraz, the city of poets, the majesty of Esfahan and the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the sprawling Achaemenid Empire, I arrive at Yazd.
Like everywhere else in Iran, women here are obliged by law to wear a hijab (headscarf). On the streets, the former and current Supreme Leader of Iran gaze out from billboard-sized images.
Sandwiched between two deserts, Yazd is a beguiling city almost completely assembled from sun-dried mud bricks. Single motorbikes swish through its disorienting, camel-coloured lanes, sometimes carrying entire families. For me, it's a launch point for a 4 x 4 drive into the nearby desert, where our jeep barrels through crater-like sand dunes before stopping to allow the tour group walk along a spindly sand ridge franked by the footprints of a desert fox.
When I reach the top of a plateau to watch the rapidly setting sun, I'm ambushed by the other- worldly, almost sacred, mood of the sandscape spread before me.
After a thick stew of onion, tomato, and egg, I get my sleeping bag and sleep out under a galaxy of stars.
Forget what you hear about Iran in the news - embrace its staggering welcome and get there while tourists are still a novelty.
WHAT TO PACK
Get your visa (in person) from the Iranian Embassy in Dublin; visit dublin.mfa.ir/?siteid=230
Iranian ATMs don't accept foreign bank cards, so bring euro and US dollars and exchange for Iranian rials in Iran. An English-Farsi dictionary or phrasebook is also worth packing.
Pretty in Pink
Behind an unremarkable street entrance in Shiraz sits the luminous Pink Mosque (so called for the pink tiles in its ceiling). The early morning sun that filters through the extensive stained glass windows radiates a kaleidoscope of bright reds, blues, and greens across the tiled mosque floor.
Tomb with a view
Naqsh-e Rustam, which is just outside the ruined city of Persepolis, contains the tombs of four Achaemenid kings – Xerxes I, Darius I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II.
But what’s most striking about these cross-shaped tombs is their setting: the entrance to each is carved high into a fawn-coloured cliff face.
Half the world
The central Iranian city of Esfahan is, according to an ancient Persian proverb, 'half the world'. My scepticism was torpedoed by the city's vast Imam Square. The lavish fountain at its heart is orbited by a six-storey palace and the 30 metre-high entrance portal to the blue-tiled dome of the Shah Mosque. See whc.unesco.org/en/list/115
Brendan flew from Dublin to Istanbul and onwards to Tehran with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com). British Airways (britishairways.com) also flies direct from London. Note that the Department of Foreign Affairs advises Irish citizens to exercise a "high degree of caution" in Iran (dfa.ie). For more, see tourismiran.ir/en.
Where to stay
I stayed with local families during my trek. Starting in Garmarud, I stopped in Dineh Rood, Avator, Pichebon and Maran. Farzin Malaki organised the trek and arranged for a horse to carry the heavier gear. See alamuttrek.com/treks. For Alamut Valley tours, see gateofalamut.com/en; for Yazd desert tours, farvardinn.com/en.