A tourist in the land of the ayatollahs

A Spanish tourist walks past an Achaemenid griffin at the ancient Persian city of Persepolis Image copyright Getty Images

From ayatollahs railing against the Great Satan (aka the United States) to whip-wielding policemen on motorbikes, Iran hasn't presented the most inviting face to the outside world over the last few decades. But a few days ago the UK Foreign Office stopped telling travellers to avoid non-essential trips. So what's it like for a visiting foreigner? Amy Guttman shares her experiences.

I'm fairly fearless in far-flung places, but arriving in Tehran made me nervous. As a single, white female, I stuck out. I scanned the hall for my guide Amin, and didn't relax until I spotted his placard with my name on it.

British, American and Canadian tourists must be accompanied at all times by a guide. This meant Amin, short in stature, but long in kindness, would spend the next eight days with me - many of them stretching from dawn until late at night. Amin, with his warm smile, sharp sense of humour, and gentle nature became like a brother to me. He also became my accountant. Hotels, food and souvenirs are roughly on a par with American prices, but for an outsider working this out can be tricky - Iran uses the rial, but prices are often in toman, which equal 10 rials... Let's just say there are several zeros to contend with, and long-division skills are a necessity.

Image copyright Amy Guttman
Image caption A view of the Alborz Mountains beyond Tehran

Hotels in Iran are like a time warp, circa 1979. That's when the Islamic Revolution forced the termination of all foreign hotel contracts. Nowadays, they're referred to by their former names, like "the old Sheraton". But despite the lack of modern amenities and contemporary decor, the hotels I experienced were very clean, and functional.

Breakfast is tea, dates, and watermelon, served with thick, sesame-topped flatbread and honey or quince jam, and sometimes whipped cream. Yes, whipped cream!

The only thing missing was coffee - good coffee. A government backlash against Western habits, such as socialising in coffee shops, has shuttered many of Tehran's cafes. A few good coffee shops near the university and north Tehran remain, but even the strongest cup doesn't taste like a proper Americano. On the other hand, coffee drinking - and cupcakes in typical American flavours such as red velvet - are gaining in popularity. A Persian Starbucks would have bright prospects.

Image caption Amy Guttman at the Golestan Palace in Tehran

The Espinas Hotel, built in 2009, comes closest to five-star luxury. An influx of foreign tourists has provided valuable lessons for local hoteliers like Amir Mousapour, who manages the Espinas. "European guests always ask for quiet rooms, away from the street, on high floors," he tells me. "We never had that request before."

According to the Tehran Times, the number of European tourists who visited the country in spring 2014 was more than double the number who visited in the same period a year earlier.

All women, including foreign tourists, must wear a headscarf and manteau, a loose robe covering neck to knee, including elbows. Only the most religious are cloaked in black. Most women embrace colours and patterns.

An entire cottage industry has emerged to supply this mandatory uniform. At one end of the scale you find bespoke interpretations from design studios in sophisticated styles such as a pale-blue linen duster coat, or fabric overlays in contrasting shades. Some are casual, others elegant.

But there is a manteau for everyone. I wore a shirt dress over trousers, which was totally acceptable, but visited Tehran's Friday Market to buy more manteaux for the rest of my trip. There were rooms and rooms of vendors selling antiquities, handicrafts, jewellery, household goods, rugs and clothing, all crowded with local people. Most tourists head to the Grand Bazaar, but it's the Friday Market where the bargains are - and haggling is a must.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Iranian women at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, in 2014

I wandered through it with Sarah, another guide, who watched me admire an inexpensive, vintage pendant and instructed me not to buy it. "I have one just like it at home. I will give it to you," Sarah said. The legendary Persian hospitality was in full swing, with no expectation of anything in return. I was relieved she was by my side, when I received a warning from the religious police - my headscarf had slipped to the back of my neck and needed to be returned to the top of my head.

One long road, Vali Asr, divides the east and west of Tehran, charting the personalities of the city as it snakes from south to north. The south is home to the more religious and traditional, working and middle classes. The north is home to Tehran's elite, successful business owners and the Alborz Mountains. In the south you find affordable dress shops selling conservative styles - further north, these turn into boutiques, which wouldn't be out of place in a European capital.

The streets are quiet in Tehran in the early morning - until the rush-hour begins. Then they become choked with traffic, and it stays that way all day and into the night. Apart from that it's easy to get around Tehran, and the rest of the country too. Most tourists travel by car, often with a guide who is also a driver. The roads seemed perfectly safe to me.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A cleric stokes the coals of the "sacred eternal flame" at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple

I also took a short, domestic flight to the city of Yazd, famous for its 15 different cookies and a Fire Temple, containing a flame kept alight since 470 AD.

In the departures hall, before the flight back to Tehran, men and women were quite casual about mixing in public. A friendly man in his mid-thirties, carrying a box of cookies for his family back home, struck up a conversation with me. We joked about everyday topics and his geniality didn't stop once we boarded the plane. After we landed, he saw me waiting for Amin while family members and taxi drivers came to meet others. "Are you OK? Is someone coming for you?" he asked. I assured him my guide was probably delayed by traffic, but he insisted on waiting with me until Amin arrived.

I also met women who made a big impression. Fatemeh Fereidooni established her own travel agency two years ago. She's a strong, single woman and the first to offer culinary tours in Iran - as good a sign as any, that Western tourism is on the up. With eight different kinds of bread in Tehran alone and each region of the country producing its own unique watermelon, there is no shortage of stops. Dishes like lamb with pomegranates and walnuts, herb stew with beans and turmeric-seasoned beef or jewelled saffron rice with slivers of almonds and dried fruit read like an Ottolenghi menu - an imaginative reinvention of Middle Eastern cuisine - except they are Persian classics.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption A tourist admires the facade of the Golestan Palace

The steady increase in Western guests has already given Iranians a chance to study what it is that these visitors want - from their obsession with food, to their quest for a good night's sleep.

Thankfully, Mr Mousapour and his colleagues are learning to set aside a few quiet rooms.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics