We reached Isfahan in the afternoon. We are extremely lucky to stay at the Abbasi Hotel, which is indisputably the most beautiful hotel in the city. Ali’s father picked the hotel for us. It is an old caravansary and its garden is what heaven should look like. From the uber cool metal table and chairs in the garden to the patterns on the curtains and beddings, the hotel has a very chic 1970s style. Even if you don’t stay here, you must pop in for tea in the garden.
After we settled into our rooms, we went outside for dinner. Ali’s family’s intention was to have us try the local dish berian; but when we couldn’t find any open restaurants that served it. So we chose to eat at Sherzhad Restaurant, which is claimed to be the best in town in many city guides. Their Chelo Kebab was delicious. This is quite a fancy restaurant, but again we paid around 30000 tuman each (around $10). I really enjoyed the local dessert they brought after dinner called gaz, it is like halwa but has a rose water flavour.
We picked up some sweets called shrini from a local patisserie and stayed in the hotel’s garden until late, washing them down with glasses of tea. Just as we were about to go back to our rooms, Ali ran into his friends from university in Cyprus who were there to grab some food with their girlfriends. Lauréne and I went back to our rooms while Ali stayed back to have a chat with them. There was a knock on our door 15 minutes later, Ali was behind it with a grin on his face. He asked us if we wanted to go to his friends’ house for a little party. Well, we had to say yes!
One of the couples were newlyweds who lived in Isfahan, the other couple had come to visit them from Tehran. They were very hospitable, as we sat down they brought out all these different bottles of liquor that I had never seen in my life! They told us how they had liquor ‘dealers’ that made house calls when you gave them a call. Honestly, I thought their lifestyle was not that different compared to the lifestyle we have in Turkey or in Europe, the only difference is that they live theirs behind close doors. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t Rich Kids of Tehran kind of guys either, we had a lovely time together. The hosts could be the funniest couple I had ever met. When we left their house in early morning, we were so high and giggly. Ali gave us a tour around the city and played some wonderful Iranian jazz on the way.
I somehow managed to wake up at 7:45 to go to the hotel gym. When I asked about the facilities earlier, the staff had told me that the gym served women from 8am to 2pm, and men for the rest of the day so I had to experience what it was like. It was alright, it even had a swimming pool. I don’t know if it had many male visitors but I was the only one working out in the morning. The staff seemed very happy that I was there, asking several times if everything was alright. I joined the others at breakfast after a quick shower, and we got on our way to Imam Square.
The square was previously named Naqsh-e Jahan Square, but its name was changed to Imam Square after the revolution. So creative, I know. It is the world’s second largest square after Tiananmen. The bazaar surrounding the square offers beautiful handcrafted rugs, silverware, china and hand-painted fabrics, which are all amazing works of art and very affordable compared to those in Turkey. I didn’t do much shopping as I didn’t have a permanent home in Istanbul at the time but I would certainly like to visit Isfahan again even if it’s just for shopping.
We also visited the Ali Qapu Palace, Qayseriya Gate and Imam Mosque in Naqsh-e Jahan. Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque at the Eastern end of the square was partially closed due to restoration work, so we just admired it from outside. Naqsh-e Jahan is the heart of Isfahan, it is always packed with people chilling or shopping. I really enjoyed how vibrant it was.
I received some great news while walking around so we stopped to celebrate with some coffee. After our coffee break we ran into Kamran, the guy we met at the train – what a small world!
You must visit the Chehel Sotoun Pavilion and Hasht Behesht Palace to the west side of Naqsh-e Jahan. Chehel Sotoun means “forty columns” in Persian. Although the pavilion is tiny, it stands in a beautiful and peaceful garden at the end of a long pool. I could have happily spent the whole day there. The paintings of historical events in the pavilion were impressive, the artists described both victories and defeats with the same sincerity and mastery.
Hasht Behesht Palace, meaning eight paradises, was built as a summer palace in the Safavid era. It also has a large garden. The people of Isfahan, especially old retired men chill in the garden.
After so much sightseeing, we went to a restaurant nearby to taste that berian dish we couldn’t have the night before. Berian is nothing like the Turkish büryan or Asian biryani; it is more like a patty made of minced lamb and liver in a flat bread, served with lots of fresh green herbs and raw onions that Iranians love so much. It was alright, but I liked the side salads better.
After lunch Ali’s father and sisters went back to the hotel. We got in a cab to go to Masjid-e-Jameh (Jameh Mosque). The cab driver was a funny guy, Ali told us that many comedians in Iran hail from Isfahan because the people here have a good sense of humour and a funny accent. He did screw us over though and dropped us off quite far away from the mosque. At the entrance, Ali wanted to buy us ‘Iranian price’ tickets again but the officer refused (Ali said there was a guard behind him). We visited the mosque quickly as Ali kept the officer busy, so this one was free for us. We were very impressed with the building though, different parts of Masjid-e-Jameh were constructed in different periods like Abbasi, Seljuk and Safevid eras, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2012.
We were kicked out of the mosque, so we had nothing better than walking around the area surrounding it. I think this was the most conservative area we had been to. It was the day before Ashura, so there were whips and chains on sale in the bazaar, there were even kiddie-sized ones! Almost every woman we saw on the street was wearing a chador even though they were wearing heavy make up. We got some dirty looks from them (probably because of our colourful clothes). In a small side street we saw a group of men setting up decorations to reenact Imam Hussein’s death. They said they had been at work for a week, the man who spoke to us was actually an artist who did restoration work at the Square. There was a family in the small square in the middle of the street, the mother was very young and the girls looked exactly like their father. The girls were all dressed in black head-to-toe, which is very unusual in my country and I think also in most Western countries. One of them lifted her jumper to scratch her belly and her pink t-shirt showed, it was like that pop of pink was trying to escape from under all that black! The locals in this neighbourhood were a bit timid at first but then understood we were tourists and started smiling and asking a million questions like all other Iranians we met. We took photos of the father and the girls and moved on.
During the month of Muharram, Iranians set up large tents that are called tekyeh where they gather in the evening to mourn and pray. These tekyehs give out free hot tea for everyone, so we picked up a cup each and kept walking. A few steps away, a mullah signalled to Ali and they talked for about ten minutes. The mullah seemed upset but Ali was barely able to hold back his laughter, he turned to us a few times and winked. But the mullah was dead serious. He turned towards me and without making eye contact, said something in an accusing tone which of course, I didn’t understand. When he left, Ali explained that he had said it was sinful of us to wear colourful clothes in such a holy day. Ali said he had told him that we were foreigners, and the Quran didn’t have such clear instructions on this issue. The mullah was adamant there were, and advised Ali to read more. Then he said to me it was a sin that I didn’t cover myself properly, and because of my sin someone somewhere might commit adultery and I would pay for it in hell. When we told Ali’s family what had happened they laughed it off, calling the man a mini mullah; meaning he had just become a mullah and he had been a bit too keen to lecture everyone.
In the evening, we walked to the illuminated Si-o-se-pol Bridge but it didn’t look like the photo above. Zayandeh river was supposed to be flowing under the bridge, but there was nothing but cracked, dry land. I found out later that important government officials had pistachio gardens around Isfahan, they changed the direction of the river to water these gardens. What a shame.
In the morning, we bought a ticket to Yezd for Lauréne. Then we dropped her off at our hotel and set off on our way to Tehran.