British Airways will resume flights to Tehran from July 2016

Faster Travel

Travels in a misunderstood country

Author
Mark Jones

@markmywordsltd

Tehran is back on the BA route map. Travel writer Mark Jones explains why this is a very good thing

There are lots of awards in the tourism business. It’s not hard to pick a category for Iran. It walks away with the title of Most Misunderstood Country.

British Airways’ decision to resume Tehran flights in February was a direct consequence of the new business climate created by the US-Iran nuclear deal. For Iran’s tourism industry, slowly stirring from a period of enforced hibernation, it was a welcome move indeed. Around six million tourists visited in 2014. But many were from the immediate region. For all the richness of its long history, the lands of ancient Persia are a closed book for many westerners.

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An Iranian family enjoy a picnic in the park

The script we have learned instead – that this is a volatile, theocratic state hostile to foreigners – just doesn’t match up to the real experience of travelling in Tehran, Shiraz or Isfahan.

The cities are thronged with shoppers, café goers and above all picnickers. Couples stroll together. Completely veiled women are a rarity outside the rural areas. The vibe in the cities is closer to Paris than Riyadh.

Tehran can be a tough city, but no tougher than any other traffic –choked megapolis. Iranian taxi drivers would score well in any international competition to find the craziest – but also most good-humoured – practitioners of their trade.

Then again, escape from the Tehran streets to the sweeter air of the looming Alborz Mountains is easy. Skiing is another unexpected Iranian passion. It’s said the revolutionary guards, pretty fond of the slopes themselves, successfully stopped the skifields being decommissioned immediately after the 1979 revolution.

If there is one must-see-before-you-die place in Iran, it is Isfahan. Ancient Persepolis outside Shiraz is a majestic reminder of Persia’s pre-Muslim history. But Isfahan, and specifically the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, captures the grace and serenity of Islamic architecture more completely than anywhere I know: and that includes the Taj Mahal and Samarkand. One early visitor described Isfahan as ‘a paradise, with charming buildings, parks in which the perfume of the flowers uplifted the spirit, and streams and gardens’.

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Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan

And while we are playing the lists game, feel free to set Naqsh-e Jahan against St Peter’s in Rome and St Mark’s in Venice in your list of Most Sublime Square in the World. If the quality of souvenirs decided the contest, Isfahan would win thanks to the quality of its handmade silks, cottons and pottery – and the calmness of its souks and markets.

It was on Naqsh-e Jahan that two people appeared from nowhere and fastened onto my arm.

They were two female students. Having accosted me they insisted I spend the hour so they could practice their English and pump me for information about the west – especially about how we manage the whole business of courtship and marriage.

In return I got a free guide around the city. As deals between the west and Iran go, it seemed a pretty equitable one.