The day starts early and I feel the excitement of our first day on the road. I actually enjoy sitting in a vehicle looking out of the window and watching the changing landscape as we cover miles of Tarmac. We board our bus and a telling question is asked by one of my fellow travellers: ‘where is the centre of Tehran?’ I think I know why they asked as my impression, as we chug out of Tehran passing nondescript cement buildings, countless mosques, and huge paintings of Ayatollah Khomeni, has been that the architecture lacks definition. I maybe wrong about the motive behind the question but there has been notable lack of distinct civic centre and the grey cement buildings seem blend and gently crumble into one. Coupled with the fact that it is the New Year (Nowruz) and the public holiday lasts two weeks. With shops closed and their shutters down and with no people roaming the streets, Tehran had an eerily ghost town feel to it. We were assured that normally it is hectic and bustling but without seeing where the hubs of people gather it is hard to gauge where the heart of a city lies.
As we rumbled south we passed Khomeini’s mausoleum. The site is still under construction and cranes loom over the site. The gold dome and four minarets stand proud in the flat landscape and by night they are a beacon – each of the turrets is lit up and can be seen for miles.
Our first stop is in Qom. Since I am travelling with Italians the guide insisted on calling the religious complex we were to visit “the Vatican of Iran”. In fact it is the second most holy site in Iran and is where Fatima, the sister of eighth Imam fell sick and died in AD 816. A shrine was constructed and it now draws quite a crowd. A shuttle bus delivers you to the gates and women and men are herded through separate entrances. For the men, a simple barrier to pass, for the women, a tent to enter and a chador to don. The chador is the garment that covers you from head to toe and I was quite curious as to how it felt to be shrouded in a swathes of material with just your face visible. I’d only seen black chadors but as we entered the tent we were handed what looked to be a set of Aunty Betty’s old curtains. A swirly flowery pattern in pinkish brown that had nothing of the elegance of the black version. Once covered I rejoin the rest of the group and slightly tripping over the garment and lacking any grace or reverence as a result, I enter the religious site.
Passing by tiled walls, domes, minarets, fountains and under elaborate archways we are shepherded through the complex at a pace. We are not visiting the mausoleum but instead circulate in the many courtyards along with 100s of Iranians. Stopping to try and take some photos I fall behind and in my hurry to catch up with the group my foot catches on the back of my chador, something pulls and before I know it my head is exposed in the one place in Iran it really shouldn’t be. I snatch a at the fabric to rectify the situation but the elastic around the head has come loose and I can’t work out in my desperation how it ever fitted. Only one solution – wear the elastic as a chinstrap. Luckily the whole garb makes me look thoroughly ridiculous so the fact I am now the only woman with a chador held on by a chinstrap is the least of my worries.
From Qom we drive towards Kashan stopping for an atmospheric lunch next to the Fin Gardens. We find a restaurant with a seating area adorned with wide beds and lined with water channels and fountains. It’s bustling with Iranian holiday makers and the atmosphere is palpably jubilant. We have stumbled into a rose water production area and the vats distilling the rose water boil away behind us. The tireless waiters skip over the water channels with trays of food and locals take the opportunity to try and sell us every form a rose can take: dried rose petals, dried rose buds, rose water and rose perfume.
The gardens are described as a ‘paradise’ and behind the high walls lie stretches of trim hedges that box in neat lawns. Around these green patches mill Iranian fmailies and the mood is buoyant. Amongst the locals there is much laughter, chatting, photo taking, and struggling with selfie sticks and the noise of rippling water fills the air. The pavilion positioned with a view down the water feature would be, I imagine, a relaxing place for contemplation but not today; today ‘paradise’ was temporarily redefined.
We arrive at our hotel in Kashan and the group are visibly struck by the tranquility and beauty of the building. The restored traditional house is entered by a step flight of steps opening out into a courtyard with the familiar water channel and fountain. Rooms are arranged around the courtyard and wide beds are populated by guests drinking tea. Now this is paradise.
We visit a local mosque which was serene and the door had 6666 nails, supposedly to represent the number of verses in the Qur’an. Then onto a couple of historic houses – the properties of 19th century wealthy traders in tea and carpets. Originally to enter one had to knock and whether your intention was to meet with the women or men of the household depended on which door knocker you used. A round one on the left for the women, let’s call it breast-like, and a rather phallic-shaped one on the right for the men. Each knocker has a different sound to distinguish it when heard from inside the house.
The decoration of the houses is relatively simple, light and airy then one room jumps out in ornate decoration, vivid colours and features fabulous moustachioed portraits amongst natural scenes and tiny landscapes.
We wander back to our hotel and on our return we agree that our hotel is probably the loveliest of all the traditional houses we have seen. Plants break up the severe lines and fill the courtyards with a blaze of green. Sitting on a wide bed listening to the sound of the fountains in the peace of the courtyard feels like a real paradise.