Iran has recently reopened its tourism doors and if you are thinking of going there, you would probably start in Tehran, its capital. The sprawling city is at the foot of the Alborz Mountain range which has the highest point in the Middle East at 1191m. It has many ski resorts, large museums, art centres and palace complexes. Tehran is the largest city in the Middle East with a population of 7.5 million, and has a much-envied network on highways. It was once the last stop from the old capital, Rey.
It's the sort of place people may have preconceived ideas about, but if you push those to one side, you will be rewarded by many things to do and see. The huge, busy and slightly grubby city assaults the senses not to mention its mad traffic. Some say it really is the worst in the world. With petrol at around 50 cents a litre, everyone's on the road more than 2 million cars hit the streets every day, all with drivers believing they have the right of way.
Reputedly the world's largest bazaar, the Grand Bazaar covers a mammoth area with 200,000 stalls selling everything imaginable. It's kind of the Wall Street of Tehran, controlling one-third of the country's retail and trade sector and where everyone is a salesman. Some merchants have access to foreign currency and are able to supply loans as readily as any bank. With growing wealth, merchants are moving businesses to better surroundings, so the size of the bazaar is shrinking.
Right now a million people work in the city within a city which has over a dozen mosques, guesthouses, banks and a fire station. Corridors specialise in a particular commodity copper, paper, gold, silver, spices and fabulous carpets are just some of the goods. Wander through the labyrinth of streets and alleys, preferably early in the day, and it's a good bet you won't leave empty-handed, even if it's just a big bag of pistachios.
Iranian bazaars are more than just a place to shop. The men who run them are often extremely wealthy and wield great political power, mostly religiously conservative.
Iran provides around one-third of the world's carpets and rugs. These days, some are machine-made, but the 2000-year-old art of making them by hand is alive and well. The pattern on handmade carpets is as clear on the reverse side as it is on the front. A million people in 60,000 villages create the richly coloured and pattered rugs which are highly desirable in countless homes around the world.
Different areas produce unique patterns using lamb's wool and camel hair and it can take a villager up to a year to make just one carpet. They parcel up into impossibly small packages, so aren't all that difficult to carry home.
There are more teahouses in Tehran than there are pubs in most Australian cities. Alcohol is not taken in Iran, but they love their tea, particularly a glass after eating, but it's also drunk in offices, mosques and bazaars. Bath houses and chaikhaneh
, or tea houses, are found everywhere, all over the country. Etiquette says you put a sugar cube into your mouth and sip the tea through it. Tea is traditionally served in silver-rimmed glasses on a silver tray.
One of the oldest traditions of the Middle East is the art of hookah smoking. Preferred over cigarette smoking, the narghile containing a blend of dark leaves, fruit pulp, honey or molasses and glycerine is placed in the centre of a group. The hose is passed around the circle and everyone has a puff as politics, religion and daily news are discussed. There is a wide variety of flavours including double apple, strawberry, melon, pineapple, vanilla, pistachio, and rose. Dermott Brereton is a non-smoker but he found the experience quite pleasant.
It's seen better days, but the Golestan Palace in what was once the heart of Tehran is a prime example of the luxury that once existed. Built with money made from the sale of state assets, the courtyard alone contains more than 50,000 hand-painted tiles that tell the tale of the Persian Empire. There are several grand buildings set around manicured gardens. Admission is cheap, but you need a separate ticket for each building.
You'll see a mirrored, open-fronted audience hall, a fine collection of Qajar-era art, an indoor pool and fountain and at the end of the garden is the imposing Shams-Al Emarat, the tallest palace of its day. The other buildings offer decorative arts and there is an ethnographical museum to tour.
The Laleh is one of the few five-star hotels in Tehran and was built as the Intercontinental. It's in a good part of downtown and has views of the city to boot. It has 380 air-conditioned rooms and suites with private balconies and excellent facilities including a pool, sauna and several restaurants serving Far Eastern, Persian and French cuisine.
Tehran takes a bit of a breather on weekends which fall on Thursday and Friday there. Traffic almost disappears, the smog lifts, parks open their gates and everyone goes to church.
You might like to take a trip to the village of Reynah. It has garden restaurants and Dermott and the Getaway crew recommend the lamb cutlets on a skewer at Bob Shah restaurant. A trip to the Caspian is also a lovely thing to do.
Iran is a deeply religious country and there are customs to adhere to in order to ensure your visit is comfortable. Modesty is high on the list men must wear long pants and women must be covered from head to toe while in public. Signs of affection in public are frowned upon. Tourists are expected to adhere to these rules.
Tehran, the capital of Iran.
World Expeditions has 11-day "Best of Iran" tours out of Tehran. All accommodation in four- and five-star hotels, most meals, guides, internal flights, entrance fees, private transport and transfers and entrance fees are included. Cost is $3190 per person twin share. Spring tours depart in April and May and autumn tours monthly from August to November.
Emirates has flights to Tehran.
- Melbourne $1693
- Perth $1841
- Brisbane $1862
- Sydney $2009
- Adelaide $2271
Valid for sale until April 1, 2009 and for travel until November 30, 2009.
Prices correct at March 19, 2009.
For further information
Ph: 1300 303 777
Ph: 1300 720 000
Visas: Australians need a passport with at least six months validity beyond duration of stay. Visas are required.
Electricity: 220V/50Hz and European plugs are used.
Time zone: GMT +3.5 hours.
Currency: Iranian rial.
International dialling code: +98.
Travellers to Iran should be ‘in date’ for the standard Australia/New Zealand immunisation schedules and should consider routine traveller vaccines against food-/water-borne illnesses. Depending upon the time of year of travel, activities and exact destinations, other health precautions may be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor about 6 weeks before travel. For further information visit www.smarttraveller.gov.au and www.welltogo.com.au.
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