At first I wasn't sure if it was a question. "You don't have visa?" says the immigration officer again, raising an eyebrow as punctuation.
It's taken more than two months to secure one but I do "have visa". He gets up and leaves the booth, my passport in hand. It's hot. Tehran's new airport seems to have been built minus air conditioning. I fidget with my headscarf, totting up all the American stamps in my passport. Palm-sweating minutes later the officer returns, marks my visa with a perfunctory signature and with a relieved sigh, plucks a lipstick-sized atomizer of cologne from his top pocket. The booth fills with the scent of rosewater. He flashes me a bashful smile and, offering me a spray, says: "Welcome to Iran."
Iran is not high on most people's holiday lists. Even with Obama's diplomatic efforts the country is regarded suspiciously by the international community. Yet Cox & Kings, with whom I'm travelling, are experiencing record bookings on its group tours to Iran. Places are selling out and they've put on extra departures to meet demand. So, what is this place, long hidden behind rhetoric and misconception, really like for a visitor?
We head straight into frantic rush-hour traffic. Rusty scooters with mult- iple passengers vie with battered Hillman Hunter cars and, as we edge towards Tehran's more prosperous north, spanking new SUVs driven by women wearing black hijabs, talking on mobile phones. American sanctions have punished this country since 1979 but like most desirable US goods, shiny SUVs come into Iran via Dubai and a hefty import tax.
Ali Vasar Avenue, the north-south artery that cuts through Tehran's smoggy, concrete sprawl, was once known as Pahlavi, after the royals whose language spawned modern Farsi. Like many streets nationwide it was rechristened after the 1979 revolution with a devotional Shi'a muslim name (in this case the revered 12th Imam). Sainted or no, the traffic on this street is hellish. I hop out at Sa-ei Park, one of the few green spaces that hints at Tehran's tranquil beginnings. Before it became the capital in 1795, Tehran was a small leafy refuge from the desert. Only in the past 30 years has its population doubled to 15 million. Not that you can tell here. Only a scattering of couples sit under shady cedar trees, striking a precarious balance between furtive flirting and pious public behaviour. You get the sense they have nowhere better to be.
Of course, there are better places to be. The National Museum of Iran, despite its shabby appearance, is one of them. Here I find a handful of artefacts cherry-picked from the country's countless archaeological sites, so ancient as to make the Roman Empire look like it crumbled yesterday. Dusty glass cases house delicate pottery with elegant designs that look Mycenaean, though it would be 3,000 years before the Mycenaean Greeks reached this level of refinement. Next to it, there is pottery from the recent headline-grabbing excavation at Jirfot, in southern Iran, dating back to the fourth-sixth millennium BC and thus redrawing the history of civilisation, predating as it does the birth of Mesopotamia's cities. This small collection is as staggering as it is carelessly displayed. The slick Islamic arts gallery next door illustrates where the government's funding priorities are.
But there are more atmospheric ways to uncover ancient Persia. After an hour's flight south with Iran Air, I arrive in Shiraz. Like the rest of Iran, since the 1979 revolution, no alcohol has been permitted in Shiraz. The eponymous grape that gave birth to New World wine may appear to have long departed for Australia, yet a local saying – "we used to drink in public and pray in private; now we drink in private and pray in public" – gives a livelier picture. For those not privy to private parties, the cornerstone of Persian social life, Shiraz's heady combination of poetry and gardens thick with the scent of orange blossom and native roses still make it one of Iran's most seductive cities.
At the tomb of Hafez (the most adored in Persia's pantheon of poets) crowds gather to ask this 14th-century scribe for guidance on modern life. It's said that every Iranian can recite Hafez and here a sea of lips moves in whispered verse, eyes wet with the weight of incantation: of wine, women and distinctly earthly love. Few religious sites receive such worshippers. According to Iran's Ministry of Culture and Guidance, less than 1.4 per cent of the population attend Friday prayers. The neighbouring Vakil Mosque and Kahn Madreseh (Islamic school), like many sights in this country, are almost deserted when I visit. The richly painted, inlaid and tiled vestibules of these 17th-century gems stand as a symbol of the privacy at the heart of Persian culture, dividing as they do, the outside world from the inner household.
So, where is everybody? Apparently in the 18th-century bazaar. It's packed yet somehow the place feels tranquil. I wander, free from hassle, under vaulted brick ceilings, picking up dried limes and sniffing heaps of bitter orange blossom. Despite the Persian ingre- dients (pomegranate, aubergine, walnuts, mint and saffron), you'd be forgiven for thinking of Iran as the land of the kebab, such is the ubiquity of skewered meats. Traditionally, only the desperate (or tourists) eat in restaurants, but if you know where to go, there's food fit for a shah. My guide ushers me into a cool, tiled basement restaurant, called Sita, where we eat a refined aubergine stew with mint and onions, and chicken with rice delicately flavoured with dill.
Such feasts would have been workaday at Persepolis. These atmospheric dun-coloured palace ruins, an hour from Shiraz, today seem part of the dusty plains. In the fifth century BC they gleamed with lapis and gold, the centre of an empire that reached from India to the Danube but could be covered in three days by the world's oldest postal relay service. Ancient Persian inventions are endless: the forerunner of the mechanical clock; batteries; "Arabic" numerals; and the date for Christmas. The bas-reliefs on Persepolis' Apadana Palace staircase illustrate the knowledge and wealth at this empire's fingertips. Delegates from 23 subject nations are depicted bearing royal gifts: Scythians with magnificent pointed hats and Ionians carry-ing crystal vases.
But all empires come to an end, this one at the hands of Alexander the Great (or "the Macedonian" as he's understandably known in these parts). Persepolis's ruins bear the scars of Alexander's violent attack but also his seduction. As is repeated throughout Persian history (with the 7th century arrival of the Arabs and Islam, most notably) the country subsequently beguiled Alexander and he later took a wife and died here. "If you stay long enough," says my guide, "we will make Persians of you." In such a strategic location, survival has meant a certain amount of cultural elasticity, part aided by a complex system of ritual politeness, known as "ta'arof". Today, faced with international suspicion and an antagonistic leader you get the impression, time and again, that Iranians feel desperately misunderstood. "We are not Arabs but Aryan and we are not terrorists," asserts my guide with a near breech of ta'arof. "We are sons of Cyrus."
At nearby Parsargade, I find the sixth century BC tomb of Cyrus the Great, credited with creating the first chapter of human rights – a primordial Magna Carta. These scattered wind-swept ruins demand more imagination than Persepolis, yet speak powerfully. During Nowruz (New Year celebrations with origins in the pre- Islamic fire-worshipping religion of Zoraster) crowds of young Iranians gathered under crumbling white columns, with cuneiform inscriptions of peace, to pay Cyrus their respects. I leave Shiraz the next day, before President Ahmadinejad arrives and the city is besieged with "supporters" (impoverished rural Iranians on the promise of a free meal). In Isfahan, with 350 miles of desert road behind me, I watch the rally on a café television. I am the only one; the spiced chicken and rice dressed with jewel-like red barberries gets everyone else's full attention.
Next to the great mosques of Samarkand and Bukhara, Isfahan has the most majestic collection of buildings in the Islamic world. Like those Central Asian cities, it occupied a key position on the silk route and during the 16th-century reign of Shah Abbas the Great (star of the British Museum's current exhibition), 99 caravanserais were built across Persia, as trader's motels. I check into the Abassi, perhaps Iran's best and only real landmark hotel (tourist addresses here are basic rather than boutique). This converted caravanserai with a flower-filled courtyard, hand-painted murals and an unassuming charm makes, say, Morocco's legendary Mamounia Hotel look like a puffed-up pretender. In Imam Square you can see Shah Abbas's hand at its best. Second only to Tiananmen in size, this square (which doubled as a royal polo pitch; another game of Persian origin) is Isfahan's jewel, home to gold and turquoise onion-domed mosques, fresco-filled palaces and a stately two-kilometre covered bazaar at its circumference.
If the political situation and visa process were different, Isfahan, with a regal river spanned by sculptural bridges, countless gardens, palaces, museums and soul-stilling mosques, would be a city-break destination to outshine Istanbul or Marrakech. As it is, the only other tourists are pioneering Italian and French groups. I spend my day "signing autographs" for Iranian schoolgirls, being swallowed into their giggling masses, my hand held and cheek gingerly kissed.
Beneath soaring mosque domes, with acoustics that amplify the smallest of sighs, I wonder at the intricate paintings of birds and curling arabesques of flowers adorning the walls – animate objects rarely seen in Islamic art. On a noisy street behind the square, a group of university students approaches me, desperate as ever to hear my impression of Iran. "It's beautiful," I offer. They shake their heads, listing their grievances, particularly as women; that universities could be dictated to by religious leaders once seemed as unlikely as women succumbing to the veil. If they could change one thing in Iran what would it be? The answer is immediate. "Our president," they say. Until then, Iran remains, at least for this visitor, a strange and shrouded land.
How to get there
Sarah Barrell travelled with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk), which offers an eight-night tour of Iran, taking in Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, and Isfahan from £1,505 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights with bmi, half-board, transfers and all excursions.