Tourism in Iran is on the rise, and fast. Hilary Smith, expert lecturer and co-writer of the Bradt guide to Iran, explains why this rewarding country should be your next holiday destination. Iran is an exciting country teeming with people radiating warm curiosity and hospitality. Iranians want to welcome and meet people from the English-speaking world. Most of us who visit - and I include myself here - are not Farsi speakers and many would be surprised to discover that Farsi, the language of modern Iran, is an Indo-European language.
What might we expect from a trip to Iran?
It's true, we women, in particular, must go 'in disguise from the moment we land to the moment we take off, but it's really not too daunting. Colour is certainly allowed and I wear Indian dress: loose long drawstring trousers, long-sleeved loose overshirt reaching down at least to mid-thigh and often longer, and the scarf, or dupatta, arranged over the head and neck.
Dotted throughout Iran are nine gardens, which collectively make up a Unesco listing simply called The Persian Garden: one, the Dolat Abad garden, surrounds the tallest wind tower in Yazd while another on the desert edge is the Shahzadeh in Mahan. Others belong to the Safavid era and are to be found in two cities particularly associated with them: Isfahan and Kashan.
The thirst experienced in the desert can be slaked by a visit to the oasis city of Isfahan(The Persian Florence). The appetite for the glowing colors of the tiled domes and minarets will have been whetted in Yazd's Timurid Friday Mosque and other buildings, but in Isfahan are numerous jewels to choose from: for me, it is the coffee-colored exterior of the dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque. The whole of the central Safavid square, where polo was once played but now fountains, lights, and horse carriages delight the eye and the ear, is a joy.
One day free tour in Isfahan
More serious but equally breathtaking is the complex architecture of the old Friday Mosque, built like many early mosques on the site of an earlier fire temple and whose architecture in part provokes in me the same kind of shivers I experienced when I first entered Durham cathedral. Iranians love to eat and meals are a shared family occasion. If evenings are warm in, say, Isfahan, you may expect to see families picnicking in the gardens by the river. And the food is tasty but not too spicy for our palates: rice with barberries, almonds or saffron with egg, and meat either cooked on skewers or in wonderfully spiced stews called Khoresht. Above all, Iran promises warmth, smells, sights, and lasting memories.