[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]resh off the plane in Iran, in the elegant city of Shiraz which is admired for its gardens and poets, we are photobombed by a young local man in aviator shades.
That morning, my group of travellers have been languidly arranging ourselves for a picture in the 13th-century Eram Garden when the prankster leaps in front of us. His two female friends, wearing denim and head scarves, laugh out loud from the side.
This light-hearted encounter is one of several surprises that reveal a modern, multi-layered Iran during my 10-day journey to four Iranian cities in April.
Iran is safe and friendly and rewards the wanderer with hidden gardens, echoes of great civilisations past and a stylish lifestyle that is still affordable. However, most travellers enter the land with some unease as the country has been a pariah state for 37 years and associated with the “axis of evil”, a term used by former United States president George W. Bush to brand Iran, Iraq and North Korea which he accused of sponsoring terrorism.
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The country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the nuclear ambitions led to oil and financial sanctions and years of isolation. But sanctions were lifted on January 16 this year after the nation reached a historic nuclear deal with world powers last July and the country of 80 million is re-emerging on the global stage.
World leaders and industrialists are now rediscovering Iran, as are travellers.
About 125 hotels are opening this year and I stay at the new five-star Espinas Palace Hotel (palace. espinashotels.com) in the capital Teheran, where I spend a couple of nights. The place bristles with security scanners, as a South African delegation is staying there. I hear that the Portuguese are also in town, intent on trade.
With Iran opening up, this is an ideal time to visit. Although foreigners are rushing in, many places are still under-explored and authentic. It is in cosmpolitan Teheran that I get the strongest feeling that change is accelerating.
Our coach speeds on modern, multi-lane highways where Renault cars are everywhere. On the streets, I see quirky public art, luxury condominiums, foreign labels such as Benetton and Adidas and chic cafes.
But there are quieter places, where time stands still. My favourite is the Reza Abassi Museum (District 7, Shariati Avenue) that has a space dedicated to Persian calligraphy. I know little about this scholarly art, but its graceful letters that float up and down on paper are meditative to behold.
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There is a stillness in places such as this private museum, a hush before the world shows up in greater numbers. Due to its rich history, Iran has 19 Unesco World Heritage Sites and its top tourist attraction is Persepolis, a palace complex dating back 2,500 years when Iran was a revered superpower known as Persia. The city was built by King Darius I, known as the king of kings, in 518 BC as a showpiece for the Persian empire, the largest in the ancient world.
At its zenith, the empire stretched from the Balkans in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. Its vigour and influence can still be discerned from exquisite wall carvings of gifts from vassal states, including balls of silk and ivory.
Now, in Persepolis, 60km from Shiraz, there are monumental ruins of a 100-column throne hall, treasury and sepulchres. When our group of 16 from Singapore and Hong Kong arrive at 8.30am, we have Persepolis to ourselves.
Here in the silence of the desert, I try to imagine that lavish, US$90-million party thrown here by the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1971. It was meant to celebrate the 2,500th birthday of the Persian empire and world leaders, including British Prince Philip, former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, were invited to the bash.
The banquet was provided by haute cuisiniers Maxim’s in Paris, which closed for two weeks when its chefs came to Iran to prepare a feast that included a ton of golden Imperial Caspian caviar and 50 roast peacocks stuffed with foie gras. The opulence helped stoke the Islamic Revolution and the ascent of fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who turned Iran into an Islamic republic.
Persian carpets and pistachios, the One Thousand And One Nights anthology and ice cream, the first Human Rights Charter and polo: These are some of the creations, or refinements, of Iran’s 7,000 years of heritage.
The country’s desert technology is part of a long line of inventions, and I get a glimpse of Iranian design ingenuity in the desert city of Yadz in the centre of Iran. It is filled with wind towers or “wind-catchers”, four- or eight- sided towers that direct the airflow into houses for cool comfort in summer.
At the bottom of Iran’s tallest wind-catcher, which is 33m high, I relax in the Doulat Abad Garden (Iran-shahr Street, Mojahedin Square, Yazd), and it is so cool it feels air-conditioned although it is a blazing day.
Another clever Iranian invention is the qanat, an elaborate system of underground water tunnels. You access the water from wells that pop up on the desert landscape like mini-volcanoes. There are also ice houses, or yakhchal, shaped like domes, which store snow and ice for the hotter months.
While much of what I see in Iran is on an epic scale, there are also lots of intimate experiences. The food, for instance, such as the lamb kebab, fresh pomegranate juice, or an unforgettable dark chocolate ice cream in the hip Hermes restaurant that serves Mediterranean food in an Armenian quarter of Isfahan (Jolfa Alley, Nazar Street).
The scents as well, especially of narenj or orange blossoms, small flowers exuding a jasmine-like perfume in many gardens. The mosques too, many of which are contemplative yet dazzling spaces, with colour, soft illumination and elegant calligraphy.
In Shiraz, the Pink Mosque (Lotf Ali Khan Zand Street) glows like a kaleidoscope when sunlight spills through stained-glass windows onto wall-to-wall prayer carpets.
But the most intimate and refined city, I find, is Isfahan in central Iran. Cherished as the Pearl of Persia, the 1,500-year-old city, twice a capital, showcases the best of Iran: Islamic architecture, Persian carpets and miniature paintings in its bazaars, teahouses, libraries and gardens.
“Isfahan is half the world,” as the Iranians say in reference to its importance.
While there are grand sites here, notably the Naqsh-e Jahan Square that is bigger than the Red Square in Moscow, I delight in the littler places. In the evening, we walk on the Khaju and Siosepol bridges when they are tinged with romantic sunset colours.
It is lovely to see Iranians enjoying life – roller-blading, texting, singing, picnicking and relaxing by the landscaped river banks.
There is also the 300-year-old Ali Gholi Agha bathhouse (Ali Gholi Agha Alley, off Masjed-e Sayyed Street, Isfahan), for men and women at different hours. It is a museum now, and we gaze at the fine mosaics and reflect on the social role played by bathhouses as places for relaxation and hygiene.
Nearby, there is a gym where men, mostly middle-aged and older, do traditional sports performed to the beat of a drummer. In the indoor marble amphitheatre, we see displays of group push-ups, upper-body strength exercises using wooden clubs and Sufi whirling.
We drive out to Teheran and stop by the village of Abyaneh, which is set in a valley. The houses are made of red-brown earth, and its 150 elderly dwellers are dressed traditionally, the women in flowery garments and the men in satiny, balloony pants.
Our guide says the village is part of a disappearing world. Young people have left to work in the cities. Their elderly parents, left behind, peddle village products such as dried apple slices and roasted chickpeas, which we buy.
From the countryside, we head into Iran’s pulsating metropolis: Teheran. While the capital is the political and economic centre of the country, it is also filled with places of cultural significance.
The National Museum of Iran (Si Tir Street), a modern building designed with art-deco and Persian elements by a French architect, and completed in 1928, houses national treasures. I like its carvings from Persepolis, winged lions and terracotta bulls, and a ceramic “thermos flask” from the first millenia.
We also head over to the Saadabad Palace (Valiasr Avenue, Taheri Street), set in a park. In earlier dynasties, it was a summer royal palace, including for the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, until his pro-Western regime was toppled in 1979. Since the revolution, the palace has been converted into a museum featuring Persian arts and relics of royal life. It still contains portraits of the deposed Shah and his queen, and the toys in the bedrooms of their four children, now exiled.
Finally, for some unabashed splendour we go to the Treasury of National Jewels (Ferdosi Street), which is said to contain the most expensive jewels in the world, amassed over centuries.
Most eye-popping of all is the Peacock Throne, a lavish raised platform with a sun symbol. It is made of gold and precious stones and ornamented with verses set in blue enamel. There is also the dreamily named Sea of Light, a colossal diamond in a rare pale-pink hue that weighs 182 carats. It is reputedly the largest uncut diamond in the world.
No wonder the museum has to be set within the fortified Central Bank. It is a shame, though, that the jewels seem to be lumped higgledy- piggledy in a cramped, nondescript vault, when it may outshine the collections in the Tower of London or the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
The pomp and bling are an eye-opener. But for me, the loveliest moments in Iran are still the more reflective ones. I think about the lush secret gardens, introspective poetry and a solitary stroll to a bridge in Isfahan.
This is the hidden Iran that lingers in memory and, hopefully, even as the republic rouses from its days of isolation, its great beauty will never fade.
Adapted from The Sunday Times.