T he Islamic Republic of Iran is a destination rarely found near the top of travellers’ bucket lists. It is, after all, ruled over by a strict theocracy, one in which police patrol shopping malls to enforce a mandatory dress code, and social media continues to be blocked across the country.
Yet in the cities, Iran’s young women hang out with young men in shabby-chic cafés. They wear tight-fitting jeans and transform head scarves into fashion accessories with vibrant colours and stylish designs, thrown back to cover only half the head.
And despite the ban, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani has his own Facebook page, with over 100,000 likes, making the block on social media more of a symbolic compromise between Iran’s liberals and religious conservatives. Iran, ideologically, is on a grating tectonic plate of two attitudes towards the West. But among ordinary Iranians there is no such divide, and foreigners are generally welcomed.
Apart from the surrounding snow-capped mountains, Tehran lacks lustre but some colour comes from the anti-American murals that still decorate the walls of what used to be the US embassy. It’s an historic sight, steadfastly maintained by the Revolutionary Guard, but pedestrians stroll past with indifference.
Good roads, comfortable VIP buses and inexpensive domestic flights make for easy travel around the country. Esfahan, some 250 miles to the south of the capital, is Iran’s most beautiful and sophisticated city.
The country’s poshest hotel (the Abassi) is here and so too is the spectacular Iman Square, rivalling Beijing’s Tinanmen Square in size but infinitely more graceful. Giggling Iranian tourists scoot around it in horse-drawn carriages, couples picnic on the lawns and two eye-catching 17th-century mosques display exquisite tilework.
For tasteful shopping, Esfahan can’t be beaten but avoid the cheap merchandise in favour of the 100 per cent silk carpets and finely painted camel-bone jewel boxes.
Shops are all around Iman Square and a charming café worth seeking out here is Roozegar, off the bazaar on the left side of the women’s mosque. Iced cappuccinos and light meals served under swirling fans and nostalgic décor transports you back to the pre-revolution, Shah-ruled era.
Shiraz, not the origin of the French grape which bears the name, is an attractive city where you’re likely to stay on the journey to Persepolis. Built 2,500 years ago by the ruler of a Persian empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to India, Persepolis was burnt down by Alexander the Great. The stonework, preserved under sand for millennia, includes sculptured reliefs of astonishing quality and detail. Finely dressed ethnic groups from across central Asia are depicted bearing gifts to the emperor — a giraffe, camel, lioness, honeycombs, a chariot – a splendid procession decorating a grand staircase. Another staircase, with intricately worked imperial bodyguards and royal attendants, is further testimony to what was the first of the world’s greatest empires.
Iran’s flat and semi-arid landscape is traversed by highways filled with trucks carrying imported goods from the Persian Gulf and Turkey. The country wasn’t hammered into poverty by the economic sanctions but costs increased and pharmaceuticals became too costly for many; the lifting of sanctions is welcomed by all. Inflation has made a banknote of half a million rials worth just over £11 so everyone drops off four zeros and calls it 50 tumans.
Accommodation may not be five-star and breakfast is always goats cheese, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and flatbread, but standards of hygiene and comfort are high and there are good restaurants in the cities. Boutique hotels are appearing and sleeping in a caravanserai at Zein-o-Din near Yazd is good fun. Yazd is another city worth exploring, and on the outskirts you’ll find the Towers of Silence where Zoroastrians used to leave their dead to be eaten by vultures.
Tours include a visit to the isolated, picturesque, but rapidly vanishing village of Abyaneh. Iron in the soil gives a pinkish-red hue to the adobe-built houses that are stacked up on a hillside, but now there are only a few score of elderly inhabitants still living here. Modernity beckons and the young have all left.
Departing Abyaneh, the road passes pockets of anti-aircraft guns punctuating the desert-like landscape. Underground lies the once-secret Natanz nuclear site for the production of enriched uranium.
Under the 2016 deal, Natanz will ship its uranium to Russia and become a research and development plant. The nuclear curtain has lifted and tourism is rocketing for one of the most rapidly flourishing countries in the world.