In 2006, we announced to friends, family and colleagues that we had just booked a holiday in Iran (an 'Axis of Evil Tour' as they might see it) and their responses were fairly predictable. They ranged from the geographically mistaken "But isn't there a war there?" (nope, that's Iraq) or "aren't they fighting with Israel?" (nope, at the time that was Lebanon) to the most predictable of all responses - a look of bemusement and the question "What on earth would you want to do that for?"
Iran could fairly be said to have a bit of an image problem. Try to set aside your images of mad mullahs and the bellicose but oddly attractive (in a Jose Mourinho despotic sort of way) prime minister Ahmedinajad. Try instead to think Persia - the world's first great empire and the land of carpets and fluffy kitties with squashed up faces. Try to look at Iran
We booked a two-week tour with a UK tour company called Explore Worldwide. At the time there were only a very small number of companies in Europe with permission to run tours. It's not quite impossible to go on your own but it's certainly not easy. It wasn't my first time in Iran as I'd previously been over for a few days on a business trip to Tehran which had whetted my appetite to go back for a proper look. Iranians are very hospitable and very generous and I'd received a gift of a large coffee-table book with photos of the country which made me realise this was a place that deserved a much closer examination.
As there's so much I could say about this fabulous country I'm going to enforce some much needed discipline on my thoughts and restrict myself to an A to Z format. I'm going to try to give you a taster of the good and bad of a tour round Iran.
~A is for Ayatollah Khomeini~
The old boy has been dead since 1989 but his scowling face still leers down on you wherever you go. He's best known as the 'architect' of the Iranian Revolution and as the man who pronounced the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for 'The Satanic Verses' and reduced the age of marriage for girls to just 9 years. To many Iranians, he's still seen as a national hero and his shrine just outside Tehran is set to be the biggest mosque in the world if the builders ever finish it. It's a project on a par with Wembley Stadium and a building with all the attractiveness of a cattle market crossed with a 1970's Shopping Centre.
~B is for Bread~
I have a professional interest in bread and baking and am a bit of a bread bore. Nowhere in the world have I ever tasted bread as bad as made in Iran. It would seem that local bakers have cracked the art of producing a product that comes out of the oven pre-staled. The remarkable thing about this is that their neighbouring country, Turkey, produces what I consider to be the best bread in the world. I can only guess there's an issue with the quality of the flour but Iranian bread is very poor and very disappointing. And since I don't eat meat, I had to face far too much bad bread.
~ C is for Crafts ~
Shopping for local goodies should be a highlight of any holiday and there is some great stuff to buy in Iran if you know what you are doing. The carpets are world-class but very expensive and are highly valued by local people, perhaps more so than by tourists. Every Iranian with money knows the value of each type of carpet and can quote the 'going rate' per square foot in the same way that everyone knows the rate for an ounce of gold in other places. As a tourist you are unlikely to be able to compete for the finest quality knotted carpets. However, I prefer flat-weave rugs and you can get some outstanding bargains.
Miniature painting is also very popular and can be found on both camel bone (didn't see a camel the entire trip but plenty of bone) and paper. The quality is excellent. Tiles and ceramics also make nice presents and there's plenty of jewellery and high grade gold if that's what you like. However, the smaller towns and cities see very few tourists and the shops are more likely to be selling plastic buckets and rice and to have very limited appeal.
With so few tourists there are very few touts and pushy sales people and those who don't want to shop, won't have to. We met only one pushy seller in two weeks - a guy trying to flog Iran T-shirts for a dollar who clearly hoped we wouldn't notice that the embroidered flags were in the wrong colours.
~ D is for Driving ~
With petrol heavily subsidised the car is king. We heard different prices quoted with a dollar buying you between 10 and 30 litres of petrol depending on whom you believe. The cars are mostly out of date models flogged by European car companies, many before the revolution. The Paycan is the national car and is based on the long defunct Hillman Hunter but production has now ceased and Peugeot 206s are very popular. Many of the cars are kept together by little more than prayer and filler. Based on the standard of driving we strongly suspect that getting a driving licence in Iran is like getting a TV licence, a dog licence or a fishing licence in the UK (i.e you pay for it rather than having to 'earn' it).
~ E is for Esfehan ~
Esfehan has long been known as one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Visitors will be exposed frequently to the famous quote 'Esfahan is half the world' - not that anyone seems too sure what that's supposed to mean. The best guess seems to be that half of everything worth seeing in the world is in Esfahan which might well have been true in the days of Shah Abbas in the 16th Century. It's home to the Imam Square – alleged to be the world's second largest square (after Tianamen) which is ten times bigger than St Mark's in Venice and so pretty it makes your eyes water. (It's actually not true – there are bigger squares but not ones that anyone has ever heard of). Add to this some stunning palaces and museums, some mosques that have withstood 800 years of all that earthquakes and Scud missiles could throw at them and you've got a place you'll want to stay in forever - or until you've spent all your money.
~ F is for Food ~
At the airport we saw a book called 'The Art of Persian Cooking'. It was quite a slim volume but even so I suspect the type must have been big. If you don't eat meat the food is a disaster. If you do it's just plain boring. You may think you like kebabs but could you eat them twice a day with stale bread and garlic yoghurt? I suffered - I really did. And three days being off my food after a colossal vomiting session was actually quite a relief. Iranian food is bland and repetitive. Sorry - some will disagree with me and sing the praises of great Iranian dishes but this is my review and my opinion and I can't recall a holiday where I've eaten more poorly. Oh, and I HATE saffron - there's seemingly no food in Iran nothing that can escape this evil spice including the ice-cream.