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krisek Esfahan - A travel report by Krys
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Esfahan,  Iran - flag Iran -  E¶fahån
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krisek's travel reports

Esfahan (or Isfahan). Losing its charm?

  11 votes
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Famous for many grand mosques, spectacular bridges and its vast square, Esfahan tingles all the senses. The locals, whom I met told me that the gorgeousness of the city was the very proof of God’s existence. And they really believed that.

Esfahan travelogue picture
It definitely showed that Esfahan must have once been a great city. Perhaps the grandest one on Earth. It didn’t have an easy history. Under the Seljuk dynasty it became the capital of Persia. Many grand buildings were erected then, but in 13th and 14th centuries, Mongols sacked the city. 200 years later, the Safavid dynasty expanded the city, whose grandeur peaked. Much remains to this day.

Yet when I saw it, it was terribly crowded, paralyses by traffic and chaotic. It might have been the greatest disappointment of my holiday. The superb Imam Mosque was covered inside with scaffolding and canopy, making it impossible to enjoy. I could forget about taking any decent photographs. I was seriously gutted. It took over a day for Esfahan to grow on me and only after I met some great local characters, I felt like I didn’t want to leave.

Esfahan was undoubtedly a great city to visit. Its shaded avenues, like Chahar Bagh Abbasi Street (although dug up terribly for the metro system when I visited), green parks, river banks, mosques, Islamic schools, bridges and bazaars made it a splendid place to explore. However, the magnificent and grand Islamic monuments and structures had been blended with rather uninspiring, shabby-looking buildings, which somewhat ruined the charm. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay for more than one day. I guess I expected too much. Perhaps I was also set aback when I couldn’t find a room to stay overnight, stressed and uncomfortable.

And then I met some local people and everything changed. They welcomed me, invited to conversations, to smoke shisha, drink loads and loads of tea, and as soon as I relaxed, the greatness of Esfahan started to show. I will never forget those few hours I spent talking to three Kurds, who were studying in the city. The had 1001 questions, were friendly, funny and very patriotic about Iran. We must have drunk six pots of tea between us sitting at one of the teashops at a bridge until very late at night.

Favourite spots:
Jameh Mosque
Jameh Mosque
My favourite spot was most definitely the Jameh Mosque. Its architectural wonder was overwhelming. Inside it was free from plaster so it was possible to see the genius of the construction and design. The main court had four portals (iwans), each diametrally different from another. All was meticulously decorated with colourful tiles, many of which cited Quran. Apparently this was the largest mosque in the Islamic world (not sure how the one in Mecca compares) and one of the oldest. Anyway, it was one of the finest I‘d ever seen. I really struggle to find adequate words to describe it. The attention to detail on every tile of the iwans, the combination of different styles used to differentiate the portals from one another, the perfection of the bricks used to create the fabulously proportionate arches, domes and columns... Eh! A truly and deservedly holy place. I visited just before closing, so I had it just for myself. Entry: 5,000 rials (€0.34)

What's really great:
Naghsh-e Jahan Square
Naghsh-e Jahan Square
The Imam (Naghsh-e Jahan) Square was superb. Its harmony was disturbed by allowing traffic to pass through it. However, it was so large that it housed a track for horse cart riding, a large pool with fountains, small trees offering shade and converting parts of the square into small parks. The two storey building surrounding the square and hiding a bazaar underneath, wasn’t fully utilised. The ground floor was converted into multiple shops selling sweets or handicraft. The second floor could’ve been converted into cafes, restaurants or even perhaps art galleries.

The square boasting the Imam Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace looked splendid at any part of the day, and rather lovely at night when the little lights were turned on the ground and the mosques were skilfully illuminated. In the evening, hundreds of Esfahanis flocked to the square to relax, picnic, chat and eat ice-cream. It was great that the square was loved by the locals as much as by the visitors.

Inside the Vank Cathedral
Inside the Vank Cathedral
The bridges of Esfahan were great. My favourite were Si-o-se Pol and Khaju Bridge, with its arched gallery.

Painted walls of the Chehel Sotun Palace (40 columns palace, 20 real ones and 20 reflected in the pond) represented lost and won battles. The tearoom in the park was full of young local girls, who weren’t shy to flirt with me. One of them offered me ice-cream!

The Vank Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter was excellent. The walls and ceiling were painted all over, one of the walls showed 3 layers of life: Earth, Heaven and Hell. The adjacent museum showed religious artefacts, films about Armenian genocide and the smallest book in the world.

The Golbahar Bazaar leading from Imam Sq to Jameh Mosque was a maze, whose alleys were packed with shops selling absolutely everything.

Medreseh-ye Chahar Bagh, which was off limits for non students but open for foreigners at the price of 30,000 rials, impressed me. It was well proportioned, colourful and green - trees inside created a micro park.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
I had to stay at the Ghasr Hotel, overpaying painfully. The only room available was a suite, complete with a kitchen and a lounge. I was paying 750,000 rials for something I really didn't need. But there were no hotel rooms in the entire Esfahan, it seemed. My fears before going to Iran realised completely. No seats available on airplanes and no hotels.

I called over 15 hotels in the town and none of them would have me. I then visited 3 more and still had no luck until I landed at the Ghasr Hotel. I did want to change it for something less extravagant but that was again impossible. At Sepahan Hotel they also had only a suite available that would sleep five. They quoted me 660,000 rials for it. It was cheaper than the Ghasr but still a bit too much - I really didn't need five beds for myself! I had to compromise. I could’ve spent an entire day looking for a hotel and ruin my holiday or ruin my budget and enjoy the city.

Si-o-se Pol Bridge Tearoom
Si-o-se Pol Bridge Tearoom
At nightfall I minded my own business at Imam Mosque thinking about going out. Locals walked up and stroke a chat or two. I asked about a party. But according to 2 guys, the bedtime for the Esfahanis was about 9:30pm. Subconsciously I wanted to disbelieve that, but they were really serious about it. Fortunately, a third guy, Ibrahim, joined us and said that if I wanted to go out, he could take me. I suggested that we could take some tea at the teashop by the Si-o-se Pol bridge. He was very happy to do that. Ibrahim had a motorbike, which was very convenient I thought initially. Yet, as soon as we hit the traffic, I remembered that I didn't have a helmet, that no-one cared about adhering to the highway code, and that my travel insurance was unlikely to be valid in Iran. And then I was very pleased with myself how indeed brave I was. After 10 hair rising situations, I stopped counting how many lives I might have had in that game. Because it did seem like an unreal thing to be doing.

Gheysarieh Tea Room, view over the tea towards the Naghsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square
Gheysarieh Tea Room, view over the tea towards the Naghsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square
It turned out that 9:30pm was probably just the closing time of the 2 Esfahanis out of the entire population. By 11:30pm teashops were still full of people drinking tea and eating sugar. Bridges I visited that night had artistic programmes on offer. The Khaju Bridge had singing on the southern bank, and the Si-o-se Pol Bridge was housing samples of Iranian bagpipe music. Both events were free. The teashop at the Si-o-se Pol was excellent! Sadly tea had to be drunk from plastic cups but the ambiance was superb.

The only tea shop to rival the location was Gheysarieh Tea Room on the top of the bazaar with the view over Imam Square. Locals guys came to smoke shisha (ladies didn’t do that). Out of 8, who surrounded me with their water pipes (each had his own) only one could speak some English. I invited 2 of them to join my table, so they could sit close to rest at the adjacent table. I was rewarded with an amusing company, peculiar conversation and a few sucks on the shisha. Total hangout!

Madis Pizza at Hafez Avenue, a stone throw from Naghsh-e Jahan Square
Madis Pizza at Hafez Avenue, a stone throw from Naghsh-e Jahan Square
On the side street starting from the Imam Square, Hafez Avenue, I found a small pizza bar, called Madis Pizza. The owner was very polite, professional and his pizza was great. He was also doing French fries, hamburgers, hotdogs, and Kentucky chicken, none of which resembled any of their Western counterparts. I haven’t tried any of those, but I saw people eating them.

The following day I just had to try the traditional restaurant at the side of the Imam Mosque, the Bastani Restaurant. I peeked inside when it was still closed and thought that it might be horrible as it looked very artificial. My thoughts were that only tourists would go there. However, when I failed to find a good alternative, I had a second look and 90% of the lunchers there were Iranian. I entered and had chicken with rice and beer with sprite. Both were adequate for 55,000 rials.

In Esfahan, I tried the Jaguar peach beer. I don’t recommend it. The plain or lemon versions, I tried many times, were much, much better.

Other recommendations:
Chehel Sotun Palace
Chehel Sotun Palace
Talk to the local people! They will approach you, so don't shy away - they’re not selling anything and don't want your money. In fact those Iranians I met insisted for paying for my tea and even entry to the parks!

The Esfahanis I had a pleasure to talk to were kind, warm-hearted, friendly and of great sense of humour. Hardly ever did we touch on politics or religion, but I guess it was my choice, as I wasn't interested in these subjects. I'm sure they'd discuss anything. What I really loved was talking to the girls. They were not shy and very, very funny. I allowed myself to be photographed with them on several occasions, which rarely happened to me on travels in any other countries.

The schoolboys cruising around the Imam Sq were on assignment from school. Their task was to talk to foreigners and make them write on a piece of paper something about Esfahan. If you have a chance to oblige, write loads! And read it back to them. They'll love it, giggling hysterically.

Published on Saturday May 31th, 2008

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Sat, Jun 07 2008 - 08:36 AM rating by jorgesanchez

a pleasure to read

Tue, Jun 03 2008 - 06:13 AM rating by leillli

:)honestly..your view to my home is lovely,i was a little borred by my city...but living here is nice,thanks for make me beilive it again!

Sun, Jun 01 2008 - 04:45 AM rating by marianne

great report, good information and excellent photos

Sat, May 31 2008 - 07:48 AM rating by davidx

Right up to your usual standard. I should love to travel in Iran but I'm a bit worried about what reception I'd get - and then there's the cost.

Are most mosques in the country open to visitors? I think in Marrakech only one is.

Sat, May 31 2008 - 05:54 AM rating by rangutan

Excellent as usual :-)

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