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
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The Independent Culture
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.