Travel: Iran - Get that Friday feeling

Iran is once again opening up to visitors - including Philippa Goodrich, who spends the Islamic day of leisure finding a cyber-cafe amid the carpets, and Marion Bull, who searches for signs of the poet Omar Khayyam

I had been in Tehran for more than a week before I went out on my own. When I did, within minutes I was surrounded by a huge crowd of men and I found myself fielding questions that ranged from the standard "What do you think of the position of women in Iran?", to the unanswerable (by me, at least) "How do you think we should improve our economy?" and finally, "What do you think of Michael Owen?".

I walked away feeling relieved that I had actually watched the England- Argentina match and seen that goal, when another man came running up behind me. "Tell me," he said, "was Princess Diana murdered or was it an accident?" By then I had been in the country long enough to know that it is best to answer all but the most innocuous questions as neutrally as possible. Iran under President Khatami is beginning to open up again, but it is still wise not to be too free with your opinions in public.

Despite a certain wariness, Iranians are extremely hospitable people and are anxious to see that you have a good time in their country. We had an interesting rather than a wild time in Tehran. I was hoping for a city full of the mysteries of the East, but one look at the hideous Azadi (Freedom) Monument, the first landmark you see after coming out of the airport, put paid to any such notions. In fact, Tehran is a modern, sprawling place which, as we soon discovered, divides physically and socially into the yuppie north and the poorer, more conservative, south.

Most of the city's street trade goes on in the south, and a lot of that happens in the bazaar. I was determined not to go home without a Persian carpet, and we weren't disappointed. It was definitely one of the noisiest and liveliest parts of this sober city: a maze of covered, crowded alleyways where you can buy a range of goods including pistachio nuts, pans and carpets.

Our driver had promised to take us to his friend's shop, so we hurried through most of the carpet bazaar until we reached Mr Keshavarz's emporium, tucked beneath the main thoroughfare. His stock was heaped against all four walls; it had come from the deserts of Baluchistan in the east, and from the mountains around Tabriz in the north west of the country. I was just about to launch into a haggling session for a small Bokhara rug when Mr Keshavarz announced grandly that his prices were fixed; the economy is in the doldrums and carpets are an important source of foreign currency.

Northern Tehran lies in the shadow of the Alborz mountains, although you can see their high, bare ridges only on a clear day. Social codes in this part of town aren't quite as strictly observed as they once were, and pizzerias and cafes where boys and girls can meet each other are beginning to spring up.

We spent a good deal of time in Tehran's first cyber-cafe, which opened a few months ago. The Internet connection was quick, the proprietor, the English-speaking Mr Chizre, was friendly, and the cappuccinos made a welcome change from the sweet, weak black tea that we were offered everywhere else.

The main road leads easily out of northern Tehran to the mountains and the Caspian Sea that lies beyond. We made our expedition on a Friday, and as we drove through the outskirts and into the countryside, the roadsides were crowded with families out for the day eating picnics, their flasks of tea steaming amid the remains of a late snowfall. Having got the impression that this was a country where enjoying yourself is frowned upon, it was a relief to see the children running around and chucking snowballs at each other.

Surprisingly, although Iran is a clerical society, it doesn't seem to be full of people bursting with religious fervour. Our driver reckoned that among the 12 million people in Tehran, only one in six was a regular Friday mosque-goer. The much more appealing alternative for Tehran's younger, well-off crowd is the ski slopes. When we arrived at the resort of Shemshak after a 90- minute drive, that's where they all were. But even here, the mullahs' word is law: there are two queues for the ski- lift, with boys to the right and girls to the left, and strictly no fraternisation - not on the lower slopes, at least.

If the city life of Tehran becomes oppressive, it is easy to take a plane to somewhere else in the country. We chose Isfahan because, as Iranians are fond of saying, "Isfahan nesf-e jahan"; "Isfahan is half the world". Once you are there, you can imagine how in its 17th-century heyday it must have felt exactly like that. The city's most famous architectural sight, the beautiful, blue-tiled mosque of Masjed e Shah, reflects the confidence in his city of its founder, Shah Abbas I.

The mosque is open every day, except on Friday mornings when the area is best avoided, as there has been some factional fighting at Friday prayers in the past few months. It stands in an impressive setting, on one of the largest squares in the world, Nagsh-e Jahan, also known as Emam Khomeini Square. There's a lot to see around the square and it's lined with souvenir shops, though not many of them seemed to sell anything worth spending our money on.

The other great attraction of Isfahan lies in the famous old bridges over the river Zayande. They've been a feature of the city for hundreds of years, and these days seem to be the place for Isfahanis to meet and talk and enjoy Friday, their day of leisure.

On the walkway under the Khaju bridge, young men were singing traditional songs, the notes rolling from arch to arch along the length of the bridge. Meanwhile, the clientele in the tea-house at the end of the terrace was indulging in another favourite pastime - smoking the hookah.

The sound of the water bubbling furiously in the bottom of the pipe, with each pull on the sweet apple tobacco, rose even above the clash of pots and pans and chatter. We were given the best seats in the house, with a fantastic view right across the river, and we settled down with our hookah to order some tea and sugary biscuits.

Isfahan is a good place for relaxing. The questions asked here are easier, too. One student we met managed to slip in a quick, "Why does Britain always support dictators?" But, apart from this, the most taxing query came from Mehrdad, the owner of the Shahrzad restaurant where we stopped for lunch. Would we like lamb cooked in the traditional way, or would we like the dish of the day, chicken?

Fact File

Getting there:

Philippa Goodrich paid pounds 455 for a return flight from London to Tehran with British Airways (0345 222111). BA flies on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from Heathrow to Tehran; Iran Air (0171-409 0971) flies the route on the same days, plus Saturdays. Marion Bull paid pounds 380 for a return flight with Iran Air, which at present offers a free side trip (eg to Mashhad).

Organised tours: Caravanserai Tours 0181-691 2523 and Jasmin Tours (0181- 675 8886) are among the few companies that offer arrangements in Iran.

Red tape: Procuring a visa for independent travel is tricky. First, contact the Visa Section of the Consular Department of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at 50 Kensington Court, London W8 5DD (0171-795 4922; calls taken between 2pm and 4pm). On an organised tour, visa requirements will be taken care of by the operator.

Accommodation: Philippa Goodrich paid pounds 53 per night for a suite, including a kitchen, in the Ramtin Hotel in Tehran, and pounds 75 per night for a room at the Laleh International, one of the city's five-star hotels. In Isfahan a room in the Abbasi Hotel, an old caravanserai, costs pounds 75 per night.

Women travellers: Female visitors to Iran are expected to adhere strictly to Iranian cultural norms of dress and behaviour. All parts of the body, except for the hands, feet and face, must be covered when in public, and outer clothing should be loose fitting.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice