If if Tehran is known as Iran’s big bustling capital then Isfahan is surely the garden city. It’s green, beautiful and ridiculously busy. Tree lined streets are flanked by pavements bursting with pedestrians as the sun is shining and the end of the Nowruz is nigh. The verdant green streets are in striking contrast to the surrounding desert landscape and the scale of some of the monuments is awe inspiring. Arriving quite late in the day we drop our bags at Amir Kabir Guesthouse (see tips below) and head out for some local cuisine. All we can find is pizzas, burgers, kebabs and fries. Nothing particularly Persian about that.
We eventually escape the holiday crowds flocking for greasy snacks and icecream and duck into the slightly posh yet slightly bland Parsian Hotel on the main drag. Taking a seat in the huge empty restaurant, after a couple of days with barely a vegetable on the menu we find ourselves drooling over a huge salad buffet. We order a couple of Iranian dishes then pile our plates as high as gravity and physics allow. The mains arrive and we get our first taste of fesenjan, a delicious pomegranate and walnut stew (with chicken) which our new friends in Maranjab could not stop talking about.
The next morning with the many sights to see around the Imam Khomeini Square we waste no time after shoveling down the free breakfast. The streets are quiet with only the odd street sweeper attempting to clear up the mass of sticky ice cream mess from last night.
First approaching the Shah Mosque we again balk at the IRR200,000 (USD$7) entrance fee and decide we’d check out the cost of the other three sites on the square before paying up. Yep, sure enough they want to sting us IRR200,000 for each of the four sights for a grand total of a wallet empting USD$56 between us for the day. Bearing in mind the locals would pay around IRR100,000 to visit everything, this was the final straw and where our experience of Isfahan became mildly tainted. Now we don’t mind paying a little more than a local though we still think it’s wrong as the experience received is the same and often lessened due to fewer English descriptions, but here in Iran it’s an average of SEVEN TIMES MORE than a resident! Due to this we also skipped the nearby gardens and decided to wander the bazaar instead.
We’d barely set off when we were set upon by a seemingly harmless English speaking gentlemen. He asks where we’re from. He kindly offers us tea. He ambushes us into a nearby carpet shop where we find the door closed and the sales pitch in full swing. Sipping our tea it’s a battle of stamina as the shop keeper keeps whipping out designs we hate and Sarah keeps saying no quicker than he can keep up. Those of you who know Sarah will know who won this battle. Tea finished we show ourselves out followed by our ambusher. Asking if he can join us to practice some English we say why not and he takes us on a mini bazaar tour where we taste the local confectionery gaz (a bit like nougat), a green fruit so sour it should still be on a the tree and visited fabric printing and metal workshops.
After trying to drag us away from locals who politely asked for selfies with us and forcing us to follow his self imposed tour, our patience wears thin and we shake him off for an early lunch. Getting ourselves lost in the locals market area to the north the mood relaxes, faces become inquisitive, smile broaden and the local restaurants servicing regional dishes replace those of the typical fast food junk that fills the main touristic areas. Then we hit the jackpot, passing a place where the queue is 20 deep just to get inside. Sticking to the adage that if it’s full of locals it must be good we take a seat at Golestan Beryani (turns out the crowd are waiting for takeout). Far from the Indian dish of a similar name beryani is is a specialty of Isfahan and consists of a kind of flat pita spread with minced beef and lamb, raw onion, fresh basil and herbs and cut orange. The handful of tables are churning over patrons, the open kitchen is doing double time, sweat dripping off the chefs. The line of customers never seems to dwindle as the closing of take away boxes and the rustle of plastic bags soundtracks our meal. It’s absolutely delicious.
Quietly enjoying our meal we’re approached by a trio of females from the right, one’s we’d smiled and offered a ‘Salam’ to at the front door. The younger of them, the daughter Melani, kicks off the conversation as we exchange the usual pleasantries
‘Where are you from?’
‘How’s Isfahan? How do you like Iran?’
And then the moment we’d heard and read so much about. That invitation to visit a local’s house as a dinner guest. Trying not to jump too hard at the opportunity we play it cool with a slightly staged
‘Are we free tonight?’
glance in full knowledge that (having shunned anything with an entrance fee) we were. Date set we have time to grab a polite offering for the night and get back to the hotel and scrub up. The masses queuing for Bbryani has swollen to epic proportions.
Arriving in the backstreets of town we’re greeted by an afro sporting Melani, who barely looks anything like her hijab sporting self from earlier, and are shown into our hosts for the evening. Intricate carpets cover the floors and many handmade ornaments cover the surfaces, a burst of colour contrasting the bleak narrow neighbourhood streets outside.
Delighted that we’d been invited to experience life inside an Iranian families house the announcement that ghormeh sabzi, a herb stew, is going to be served means it’s another Persian culinary first for us since arriving in Isfahan. This is joined by kebabs, rice, vegetables, endless sweets and a side dish of saffron coloured khoresht mast, a kind of dessert made with beef neck (no that’s not a typo). Something it’s probably best to know after you’ve tried it as it’s actually quite nice!
Melani, who amazingly learnt to speak English before Farsi when she was very young, is an avid K-Pop fan (Korean Pop that’s totally manufactured as only an Asian country could) and we spend an enjoyable evening with her and her family as she and her sister demonstrated some of their K-Pop dance routines and a revolving door of family and friends dropped in for Nowruz. After such a great time we’re home around midnight with a lunch date for tomorrow as we were unable to refuse the invitation to visit their friend Masir’s house the following day
Having until 1pm to see some more of the city we again head out early headed for the river. Isfahan is famous for it’s bridges spanning the Zayande River, some dating from the 3rd century and most containing numerous arches. We start off at famous Sio-seh-pol Bridge, or Bridge of 33 Arches, which is just under 300 metres long and one of 11 ancient bridges crossing the river. From here it’s enjoyable walk west along the northern banks through lush green parkland, a bit of a contrast to the struggling river. Apparently the government has been redirecting the flow to water the parched town of Yazd with little care for the impact here in Isfhan.
Crossing at Felezi Bridge we make our way on foot to the Armenian Vank Cathedral. The entrance fee is once again IRR200,000 but as it’s not another mosque, medrassa or shrine we hand it over. We’re now used to the Nowruz crowds and manage to duck and weave to avoid them as much as possible yet inside the vividly painted interior it’s impossible. The place is crammed the entire time we’re here. Built in 1606 after thousands of Armenians were deported during the Ottoman war it’s a nice chance from the blue tiles and domes. A small two story museum holds some interesting Armenian artifacts including a strand of human hair under a microscope with writing on it. It’s in Farsi but still very impressive.
If you spot a few dejected looking pigeons around town it’s probably because they’re feeling a little useless. 400 years ago the local pigeons were invaluable and kept well fed in roughly 3,000 brick, mud and lime pigeon towers, around 300 of which you can still see dotted around the outskirts of town as you drive in. Pigeon poo (or guano) was used as a nutrient rich fertilizer until chemical replacements came in. In the south of Isfahan on a large green roundabout you can find a pretty well-preserved example of one of these towers, Mardavij, which used to hold up to 14,000 birds. It’s a shame they’re all now wandering around town unemployed while the big corporate fertilizer companies are raking in profits.
If you tire of the commotion, carpet salesmen and chariots of Imam Khomeini Square head down to the quieter Armenian quarter. You’ll find some funky little coffee shops scattered around the streets and a much more relaxed vibe where every offer of tea doesn’t come with a closed door and a carpet viewing.
With a lunch invitation to attend to we jump in a taxi and head to Ammad Abad Street area where we’re greeted in a back alley by our host Masir and escorted into his families old home complete with large courtyard, high ceilings and carpet strewn floor. The sisters from our home cooked dinner the night before are also here, as is the grandmother, mother, cousin and uncle. And what a character he turns out to be!
Checking out his caged finches and budgies we show enough interest for him to invite us into his room. Or should we say Aladdin’s Cave. This place is insane. Pictures and posters adorn the walls, necklaces, beads and chains are strung across every surface, vintage phones, water pipes, TV’s, cameras and other eclectic finds are hidden amongst the wall hangings and a little group of pigeons are happily roosting on some eggs in a back nook. More than happy to entertain he takes Matt on a photo shoot, posing with his traditional drum, before whipping out his meels, traditional Iranian exercise equipment. Weighing 10kg each these bad boys aren’t just hard to get used to, they’re also dangerous if you come too close to a beginner. Handing them over to Matt a chorus of laughter erupts as he almost knocks himself out.
When lunch is set we’re ushered inside and take a seat on the floor before the biggest spread of food we’ve seen in a while and soon enough our plates are loaded with steaming Persian fare. It’s delicious. Once again if you’re invited to eat at somebodies home in Iran, just say yes! But beware of pointing out your favourite and making a compliment, the entire dish will end up in front of you, or on your plate, and you’ll have to fnish it all then roll yourself home. We wash it down with a cup of doogh, a local drink made of watery yoghurt and mint which is surprisingly good after having tried the awful ayran.
After relaxing over more chai, sweets and a water pipe we say our goodbyes and walk back to the hostel. That evening we head out to take some night shots of the bridges, get an early night, wake up fresh in the morning and spend five hours sat in bus station waiting for the next available bus to Yazd at 2pm for which we’d managed to score the last two seats. Luckily we’d been sent packing by Masir’s mother with a big bag of leftovers to make oursevles a picnic lunch.
Thanks for reading guys. While it may sound a little like a massive moan regarding the entrance fees we weren’t the only ones who ended up feeling this way. How do you feel about two tiered pricing in foreign countries?
Check out more photos from the crazy photo shoot in Masir’s Uncles room here!
Tips for Isfahan
- We stayed at Amir Kabir on the main street, a close location for all the sights. A triple room with fridge, TV (Iranian only) and shared bathroom cost IRR1,000,000 (about USD$30). A double on the first floor with the same amenities cost IRR700,000 (about USD$). The breakfast is the standard boiled eggs, tomato, cucumber and such served in the courtyard,a nice place to meet other travellers. It has to be said that the staff are amazingly helpful, converse with guests often and alwaybs polite.
- Dinner for two at Parsian Hotel, including two large mains, two garden salad buffets and a bottle of water cost about USD$15. You can also opt for the garden salad or full salad buffet only. A great way to get some much needed veggies into your Iranian diet!
- Better value was lunch at Golestan Beyrani, IRR250,000 will get you a delicious fresh meal for two.
- The VIP bus (three seats to a row instead of two) to Yazd cost IRR210,000 (about USD$7) per person and took around 4 hours with air conditioning for once.