Ah Shiraz, a word that drums up memories of lazy afternoons spent over a big glass of zesty red wine. Hafez, Iran’s most famous poet, so loved a good glass of red he consistently wrote about it. But alas since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 getting your hands on a good bottle while in town in Iran is near impossible. Unless you make friends with a local who makes their own at home, of which we heard there are many. The Shiraz (or Syrah) grape is perfect for a nice spicy red and thankfully the same variety lives on in the burgeoning Australian wine business. Here you’ll have to find other things to spend your money on.
If you’ve read our last couple of Iran blogs you’ll know that the exorbitant entrance fees whacked on tourists really began to grind our gears. So we’ll get it out of the way now, nothing changed during our time in Shiraz. Entrance fees for foreigners were always at least seven times that of locals and hovered between USD$5 to USD$7 per site. It might not sound like much but when you consider most locals we met reeled off a fist full of sites we must visit while in town, most on the higher end of the cost scale, budget travellers are left with no option but to skip out on a lot of them.
When you’re only in town for a couple of days, your bed and breakfast already costs USD$10 and you want to visit the famous Persepolis ruins as well, you’ll understand why hitting all these ‘must see’ sights soon becomes impossible unless you look Iranian and your Farsi is perfect. So instead we skipped them and spent our time in Shiraz exploring the parts of the city that were (mostly) free.
Arriving early morning we took a taxi straight to the Piroozi Street area where all the cheap hotels can be found. With Matt checking out a half dozen in the area the best deal is still the Niayesh Hostel. Surrounding hotels were asking twice the price with no breakfast and no WiFi, or half the price with no cleaner and free food poisoning. Niayesh, while guaranteed to be full of single and tour package travellers, had comfy beds, clean bathrooms, spacious (if somewhat warm slightly subterranean) dorms and the best breakfast we had in the entire country. We also managed to make our Iranian TV debut when we were interviewed by an Iranian TV station!
Day beds and chill out area at Niayesh Hostel
A courtyard filled with daybeds gives you somewhere to chill out, food is always on offer (though not always top quality), and staff are mostly friendly. Do watch out for the extras though. A day trip to Persepolis and the surrounding ruins will cost you USD$55 per person while we paid just USD$45 for a taxi for the whole day for three people with a young driver right out the front. A Dutch guy in our dorm was charged USD$16 for two small bags of laundry. He didn’t pay it, obviously, he’s Dutch. But you’ve been warned.
We bumped into an old travel friend we’d met in Guatemala, Nicaragua (twice) and Panama a year ago. He knew we were in the country but since we’d bumped into each other by chance so many times he thought he’d try his luck. Snap!! Turns out he was allocated the dorm bed next to Matt and just waltzed on in one evening. Roman, it was great to see you!
Shah Cheragh Shrine
This is one of the best free sights in the city but as a tourist expect to be treated, well, a little strangely. Entering through the separate men’s and women’s entrances Sarah is wrapped in a ‘tourist’ chador (making us easier to herd along) and we’re reunited inside with a young male and female escort to boot. Ushered along we’re given information on the history, architecture and religious meaning of certain parts before being ushered indoor and separated again. As with all shrines men and women must view the tomb on opposite sides separated by a fence. While Matt has a pretty relaxed time Sarah’s time is spent with a slightly over zealous young girl who gives here a gift of blessed sugar before getting so emotional in the tomb area she has to excuse herself
The interior is stunning (check out the huge unusual chandelier) with huge areas covered in the detailed mirror work for which Iran is famous, and the locals who swarm the place are passionate about their worship. Back outside we’re mobbed by locals wanting to take Matt’s photo and while his male escort laughs it off our fanatical girl gets flustered and frustrated, trying to hurry us along to the International Relations office. Once there we’re sat down, have tea, biscuits and sweets stuffed down our throats and photography books of the history of the site shoved under our noses. Eventually we escape leaving the other tourists behind inspired to come back for some 5am sunrise photos (the site is open 24 hours) until we’re told at this time cameras for tourists are not allowed. Hmmmm……
Walk through Azadi Park on a Friday
Turning up at the gates of Eram Garden’s we balk at the IRR200,000 entrance fee (each!) and instead make our way on foot to the nearby Azadi Park. Being Friday, the Islamic worlds Saturday, families and friends are out in force with picnic rugs, carpets, tea pots and snacks. Walking around we’re invited to join a family for tea, fed sugary snacks and struggle to get away an hour later when more family continues to arrive. We met nieces, nephews, uncles, aunties, mothers, fathers and babies. It’s a great experience on a sunny day and if you look like a tourist expect to be invited to join. Or perhaps that’s just if you have dreadlocks and red hair…
The historical Qur’an Gate, located in a gorge in the north east of town, also attracts a local crowd on the weekend. Water features and stadium style steps are used for picnics, tea parties and to smoke water pipes and relax the day away.
The Nasir ol Molk Mosque
Unlike any other mosque you’ll see while in the country and in our opinion worth the IRR150,000 entrance fee. As the sun rises and the curtains are pulled back a small room is bathed in a full spectrum of colours as the morning rays filter through a wall of stained glass projecting images onto the carpeted floor at your feet. It’s entrancing, especially when there’s just a small crowd and all you hear are camera clicks and bare feet on carpet as you watch the colours develop. For the best chance of pictures without tourists posing all heavenly like in the saintly lights be here by 8am. By 8:30 the place is overrun and even the best Photoshop crop artist will struggle to get a perfect picture, though even at 8am there’s that one guy who can’t help sitting right in everybody’s way. The reflection in the courtyard pool is also worth a pic.
Coffee at the Shapouri Pavillion & Garden
A short walk from Niayesh Hostel Shapouri Pavillion is best visited when the morning sun lights up the front facade. There’s a small entrance fee of IRR20,000 and if it’s not busy staff might let you visit the restaurant to view the crazy paintings and interior inside.Otherwise the downstairs cafe and outdoor terrace is a great place to enjoy a coffee and prices aren’t that bad. You can find a few tables scattered under the trees in the garden too. When we visited in the afternoon the facade was in shadow but the kind guard at the front let us come back the next morning to take some photos when we showed our ticket.
Buy painkillers from a Pringles packet
When we entered Iran overland from Armenia we passed a cardboard box stuffed full of rainbow coloured unpopped pill packets which were deemed illegal to be let into the country sitting unmanned at the customs control point. We watched as Iranian’s departing the country sifted through the box and popped a few of what they needed or grabbed a handful as they departed for Armenian soil. Getting hold of some simple cold and flu tabs was going to take some effort. Or so we thought.
With Matt a little under the weather Sarah headed out hunt out some painkillers and discovered with a little Farsi, some charades and the help of a young woman who spoke a little English things weren’t so hard to find. Entering a small corner store her request for Ibuprofen was met with a definite NO. With a thanks and a wave she went to leave only to be beckoned back by said young woman, a fellow customer, who proceeded to advise Relieve would help with head, throat, aches and pains. Sure, let’s give it a shot. Cue the shop keeper to reach for a Pringles packet on the shelf behind him, open it and pour out a mini pharmacy on the shop counter. For under a dollar drugs were bought, the Pringles were resealed and Sarah had made her first Iranian drug deal.
Find the streets with no name
Just wandering the streets of Shiraz we stumbled across some great little gems and met some of the amazingly open and friendly locals. While wandering near the famous leaning tower of the Arg-e Karim Khani fortress a smiley young boy ran up to us to say ‘Salam’ before running away. A few seconds later his mother sent him back with a flower to give to Sarah. Next he ran up with flowers for Matt to say ‘I love you!’ before returning a fourth time with a couple of little honey cakes from his mother. The next day in the same area we sense a kid running up behind us and sure enough we recognise the same toothy grin as he yells
‘Salam, I love you!’
before running all the way back to his parents.
We stumbled across an alleyway covered in floating umbrellas between the hostel and the mosque and after watching a guy ride his motorbike right inside the door or a corner store he dragged us inside, sat us in a chair behind the counter and gave us a bottle of water and some fresh coconut. He then proceeded to take about a dozen selfies with us before sending us on our way (with the coconut as a parting gift).
So while we may not have made it to some of the big ticket sights we found some little memories that money can’t buy. Back to the wine, which has always played an important role in Persian culture (even when Mohammed advised it was against Islam they continued to drink it). Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a glass of traditional Shiraz in Shiraz? Here’s hoping the country can one day redevelop the regions vineyards and join the international wine loving community!
Tips for Shiraz
- A dorm bed with an awesome buffet breakfast at Niayesh Hostel cost IRR330,000.
- Entrance fees to the main sights we decided to skip whilst in Shiraz included the Tomb of Hafez (IRR200,000), and Eram Gardens (IRR200,000)
- We covered most of the city on foot, it’s mostly flat except the area around Qur’an Gate but even this wasn’t strenuous