As Iran opens up to visitors its monuments top every travel hitlist. But bypass the city spectaculars and seek out its mountain nomads instead
Everywhere I went on my first visit to Iran surprised me. Shiraz and Yazd, Kerman and Kashan confounded my expectations, and not just with their immense age and extraordinary beauty. Iran conjures the idea of ayatollahs and women in black and yet I saw no one praying in mosques and young women seemed to flaunt the veil injunction by draping headscarves off the back of high beehives. The towns and cities exuded a surprisingly fresh energy, as though in the process of remaking themselves. Nowhere impressed me more than Esfahan.
A green oasis in the middle of a rocky desert, cut through by the modestly named River of Life and surrounded by mountains, Esfahan is a city of broad boulevards lined with shade-giving trees. It has some of the most beautiful buildings in Iran, as well as my favourite hotel, some very good restaurants and brilliant shopping. On my first night I went straight to the huge central square, where I stood in wonder as the moon glittered on the mosaic domes of those most beautiful mosques. I hadn’t felt that sort of excitement since I first laid eyes on Marrakech.
On that visit I spent a couple of days in and around the square – which is actually a 510-metre-long rectangle – dodging horse-drawn carriages on the outer path (no cars or scooters allowed). I ate kebabs, rice and yogurt and sipped zero-per-cent beer while stretched out shoeless on a raised bench in the Banqueting Hall, a traditional restaurant with a big window looking onto the dome of one of the grand mosques. I drank strong coffee in antique shops with some of the city’s smart young crowd, and managed to break my rule about not buying a carpet before I had even reached the bazaar. Then at sunset, I did what so many in this town do and headed to the river.
When Shah Abbas rebuilt Esfahan in 1598, he made it an essential stop on the Silk Road, but it was his great-grandson who built the white-stone, two-storey Khaju Bridge. My favourite crossing over the river, this is where poets and their admirers gather at the end of the day, taking turns to sing, their voices lifting towards the setting of the sun. What are they singing about, I asked the man nearest me. ‘About women,’ he told me, ‘and love. What else is there?’