Dermott Brereton's second destination in Iran was Esfahan on the crossroads of ancient trade routes. It's around an hour from the capital, Tehran, and more than 3000 years ago man stumbled across the oasis in the middle of the desert. Word spread and it became the centre of the Persian Empire.
The Zayandeh River is the lifeblood of the city, transforming what was desert into the beautiful and second largest city in the country. A 16th-century proverb said to see Esfahan is to see half the world. Dermott began his worldly experience in Imam Square.
After China's Tiananmen, Imam is the second largest square in the world, measuring 500m by 160m. A great way to see it is by horse and cart. The magnificent square holds a stunning assemblage of Islamic architecture. It was built in 1612 by Shah Abbas the Great as a trading place for travelling merchants. It is surrounded by Imam Mosque, the elegant Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and the indulgent Ali Qapu Palace.
The square was reduced in size when the palace was built. Shops were moved forward to align with the palace. The square was once closed to men for one day a week to allow women to shop. Male shopkeepers were obliged to remain out of sight.
At either end of the square remain goal posts used in polo games played 400 years ago. A human head wrapped in bandages was used as a ball.
The best time to visit is late afternoon or early evening when families arrive and fountains are turned on and lit. The superb surrounding architecture is then seen at its best.
Ali Qapu Palace
The majestic six-storey palace was built at the end of the 16th century as a residence for Shah Abbas I. It was a monumental gateway to royal palaces lying in parklands beyond. Its highlight is the elevated terrace with 18 slender columns. A wooden ceiling has intricate inlay work and exposed beams. Sadly many paintings and mosaics were destroyed in the 1979 revolution, but some remain in the throne room.
It's worth climbing to the music room on the upper floor. Its stucco ceiling is a mass of shapes of vases and household utensils, built to enhance acoustics. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of secular Persian art.
The 400-year-old mosque at the head of the square is considered to be one of the most beautiful ever built. Work commended in 1611 and was completed in 1629, the last year of Shah Abbas' reign.
Minor decoration was added during the reigns of his descendants.
An estimated 18 million bricks and 472,500 dazzling blue mosaic tiles completely cover the mosque inside and out. Although perfectly symmetrical, builders intentionally mismatched some of the bricks to show humility in the face of Allah.
Non-Muslims are permitted to visit mosques except during Friday services and on mourning days. You should never take pictures inside and always remove shoes when approaching carpeted areas.
Known locally as Bazar-e Bozorg, the 400–year-old market is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It stretches between Iman Square and Jameh mosque several kilometres away. It was mostly built during the early 16th century but parts of it date back 1300 years.
There are dozens of points of entry along its winding route, but the main entrance is Qeysarieh Portal which is decorated with tiles and frescoes depicting Shah Abass' war with the Uzbeks.
Like most Iranian bazaars, Bazar-e Bozorg is divided into corridors specialising in a particular trade or produce. You will be amazed by the array of carpets, gold, silver, shoes, samovar makers, camel-bone miniatures, pistachio and spice sellers, and dyers. The bazaar has several mosques, tea shops, bathhouses and even gardens. Small apertures in the vaulted roof allow light to enter but keep out summer's intense heat.
It would be almost impossible to visit Esfahan and not come away with a superb handmade carpet. The 100 percent silk carpets change colour with the light, and some are two-in-one, with a different pattern on each side. The more knots, the more expensive. It could be an idea to swat up on what to look for before you go.
Not far from the bazaar is Abbasi Hotel, an oasis in the desert. Once an old caravanserai, a roadside inn where travellers rested, the hotel is beautifully romantic. Rooms are modest but the central courtyard is grandiose. It has views of Madraseh-ye Chahar Bagh mosque and it's a peaceful place for tea and traditional wafers.
The Abbasi has a range of rooms including suites and apartments, some overlooking the garden and some with private balconies. There are seven restaurants, a coffee shop and teahouse. There's a covered pool, sports and recreation complex and handicraft store.
Esfahan has many bridges and Khuju crossing the Zayandeh River is its finest. Built in around 1650 it doubles as a dam and has always been as much a meeting place as a carrier of traffic.
The 132m bridge has 23 arches and two levels of terraces. You can still see original paintings and tiles and remains of stone seats built for Shah Abbas II so he could admire the views. A central pavilion was built for his pleasure. On summer nights Iranians surround the bridge to enjoy their passion for picnics.
Esfahan, an hour's flight from Tehran in Iran.
World Expeditions has 11-day Best of Iran tours from Tehran. They are $3390 per person twin share and include accommodation at the Abbasi Hotel, most meals, guides, internal flights, entrance fees, private transport and transfers.
Emirates has flights to Tehran. They are on sale for a limited time only. Log on or call them for up-to-date information on all Emirates fares.
Prices correct at May 28, 2009.
For further information
Ph: 1300 303 777
Ph: 1300 720 000
Visas: Most 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.
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- and 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 six weeks before travel. For further information, visit www.smarttraveller.gov.au and