5. ISFAHAN (2 nights)
It took me a few minutes to understand that Isfahan is a rich city. Elegant families were strolled on the pedestrian street near our hotel where local fast food restaurants had staff in trendy uniforms. But it is also rich in wonders and UNESCO sites.
Naqsh-e Jehan is one of the most beautiful squares I’ve ever seen. Large, wit lawn and pools in the center and surrounded by a palace and two beautiful mosques, with the bazaar running all around under the columns. Unfortunately both mosques were under renovation and a scaffolding occupied the central courtyard of the Shah mosque which prevented me from taking good pictures.
Ali Qapu palace is worth a visit for the wonderful view of the square, the garden, the paintings and the ceilings. The facade and dome of the Sheick Loftollah mosque are also very beautiful.
Nice to know: unlike the rest of Iran where you rarely meet annoying people – generally someone proposing themselves as tour guides – on the square you will be often stopped by groups of teenagers. They are nice English students who will ask you questions about your country while shooting a video and ask you for a selfie.
The bazaar is a bit of a tourist trap (particularly the part facing the square) but you can find very beautiful things. Miniatures, painted metal plates and lamps (mani kari), wooden and bone boxes (ask to be show a section) and obviously carpets.
Moving south of the river you reach the Armenian area. Well there are churches in Iran too! The interior of Vank Cathedral is amazing, and has beautiful frescoes. It is located inside a compound, where you can see bells, an interesting museum on Armenian history in the city and a pretentious museum of genocide (which says almost nothing). The church of Bethlehem, not too far, is also worth a visit.
An attraction of Isfahan are the pedestrian bridges, Sio Se and Khaju. I had been told they are very lively in the evening. And they were. Many people were walking and families were picnicking on the river banks.There were some musicians playing and singing (not very good), small crowds listening but almost no one moving. By our standards, it was boring, frankly. In general, there is no “night life” for having fun in Iran – something to keep in mind before deciding on a vacation here.
Among other things to see there is the Monar Jonban, a mosque with an architectural curiosity that attracts many tourists. It has two small minarets and when one is “shaken” by one person inside the other also moves. It is not known why this happens, but they do not collapse.
If you have time, you should also go to the Friday mosque (it’s in the North), which is an UNESCO site.
6. KASHAN (2 nights)
At first glance Kashan is less interesting than other cities. But its beauties are hidden. Starting with the so-called “historic houses“, built by wealthy tradesmen in the 19th century. The courtyard of the Tabatabaee Natanzi house is very beautiful. On the other hand, Borujerdiha house had ongoing renovations that ruined its charm.
The one I liked most was the Sultan Amir Ahmad hammam (now no longer working), to visit both inside and on the roof.
Take a visit to the bazaar, since its architecture is one of the most beautiful in the country. In one wing there is a gigantic and beautiful vault. By chance we were approached by a shopkeeper who suggested we visit the roof (for a tip of around 2 €).
The night view is stunning especially for the green-lit Darb Zanjir shrine, a beautiful sight. Also worth visiting inside, as in other mosques mirrors also fill the dome.
Agha Bozog mosque is also very beautiful for its architecture, albeit poorly decorated.
Kashan is famous throughout the Middle East for rose water, which is used as a perfume, for drinks and even for ice cream!
But there are very interesting places outside the city. We found a very convenient taxi service from Mr. Reza (his office is near the Ehsan Historical House) we rented it for half a day for half a million rials (about 4 €).
The main destination was famous Abyaneh, which disappointed us very much: it is a village clearly renovated for tourism purposes (it is about 1 hour and 1/4 drive from Kashan). The most interesting thing was to pass in front of nuclear site protected by huge anti-aircraft guns (no photos!).
It was interesting to see Fin garden, the one richest in water seen in Iran, with an interesting fountain under a dome.
Then we had some fun and coolness exploring the underground city of Nushabad.
The most beautiful stop and true attraction of Kashan (in the village of Aran va Bidgol) was to Hilal ibn Ali shrine, the most beautiful mosque we saw in Iran, with a gorgeous blue hue. I was struck by photos of soldiers who died in the war against Iraq outside the building, as well as on many roads in the region.
One of the biggest adventures of the trip was stopping for a few hours in Qom, the holy city of Iranian Shia.
We got off the bus from Isfahan on a roundabout and realized that the bus to Tehran leaves from a nearby parking lot. But there was no real station and therefore no luggage storage. In short, we eventually found a caretaker who offered us as a deposit facility … the trunk of his car! We set a meeting time and exchanged phone numbers (in Iran I used a local sim card).
From there with took a snapp! heading south of the city to the Jamkaran mosque. Definitely remarkable and very crowded. The courtyard is the largest among those seen in Iran.
The heart of Qom is in the centre and stands around Fatima Masumeh holy shrine. It is actually a complex of religious buildings which are accessed through some security check points.
At first it seemed they did not want us to enter being non-Muslims. Instead, after a quarter of an hour they told us that our door door was another (the one at the end of Khyaban bahr street, take note) in which some volunteers accompany foreigners inside. Ours gave us explanations but also said that we could not enter the mosques (even if it was Thursday); he didn’t accept any tip.
The complex is huge, there is a pavilion that serves as a reception. Then several courtyards with beautiful Azam mosque and also a house where Khomeini lived (all Koran students come to Qom).
Strangely, we saw more imams and mullahs in 5 minutes here, than in 2 weeks in Iran. Warning: in Qom we suffered the worst heat in Iran; if you come in the Summer, do it not before mid-August.
At the end we went back and managed to retrieve the suitcases from the trunk and take the bus to Tehran. We spent the last night there before the return flight.
Read the last part in which I summarize organisational details and costs of my trip to Iran