Centrally located, east of the Zagros Mountain range, this former capital of Iran is known for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with tree lined boulevards, historical bridges and Islamic architecture. There is a famous rhyme in Persian “Esfahan nesf-e Jahan”, meaning “Esfahan is half of the world”.
Esfahan (Isfahan) is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iran so we were excited to spend a few days there to explore what the city has to offer. We stayed with a local couple through couchsurfing. We were greeted with warm tea and fresh fruits, but unlike our previous hosts, this was the first time we sat by a dinner table, instead of sitting on the living room carpet.
In Esfahan we felt a bit more close to Europe. It felt a bit more modern. The Naqsh-e Jahan square, a UNESCO site and one of the largest city squares in the world, reminded us of a park in Vienna. It was calm, people were relaxing on the grass, and tourists were circling the square on touristy horse wagons. The scenery is however stunning, on one end you have the famous Shah mosque, the other the imperial bazaar, and in between is the Ali Qapu palace surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era (1501-1736). During this era, under the rule of Shah Abbas, Esfahan flourished and was strategically situated in the center of the country, unreachable by the Ottoman Empire.
The Naqsh-e Jahan square
After threading the square and the bazaar, we were starting to get hungry. In Iran you won’t find many restaurants, mainly small coffee shops, but luckily we happened to stumble upon a true gem, Nagash-e-Jahan restaurant. After walking up a pair of stairs you enter a courtyard with a great view over the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque. This traditional restaurant is lined with colourful tiles and glass windows, and serves amazing chelow Kabab and Iranian black tea.
Unlike the desert cities, the Zayande River flows from the Zagros Mountains through the heart of Esfahan. We really enjoyed walking by the river, stopping at the many teahouses near the ancient Si-o-Seh Pol and Kahju Bridge (over 400 year old). Unfortunately, as a result of drought and badly planned damming, the river water is often non-existent or shallow.
In Esfahan you will find a district called the New Jolfa, or the Armenian district, with around 10.000 Iranian citizens who are ethnically Armenians. They were deported to Esfahan from historical Armenia in the 17th century by king of Iran, Shah Abbas. Today, you won’t hear Armenian spoken on the streets, only Persian. Nonetheless, adding to the European character, here you will find Armenian schools and 16 churches, most famously the Vank cathedral, surrounded by well-kept streets with cozy coffee houses with free Wi-fi (one of few in Iran). Today Armenians are Iran’s largest Christian religious minority.
Our hosts were curious about Icelandic culture and asked us to prepare a traditional Icelandic dinner for them. Since we don’t cook much at home we had to think for a while. Most of our traditional cuisine consists of third class sheep leftovers, like sheepshead, tongue and blood-filled intestines, which apparently they also eat in Iran. After a trip to the supermarket with a few recipes in mind we felt hopeless. We just couldn’t find the ingredients… no pesto, no croutons, no BBQ, no parmesan, no sugarcane! Due to the sanctions, you only seem to find Iranian products. We couldn’t even find Colgate in the toothpaste department.
Later that evening our host helped us to shop the last ingredients, but not at the supermarket but at the many local corner shops in his neighbourhood. One shop sold only cheese, and after a few tastes we found the best feta cheese. Our host paid for all the ingredients for us, but when he was about to pay for the cheese we noticed the cashier making a gesture; he didn’t want to accept the payment, and said “this is so little, just a bit of cheese”. However, our host insisted on paying, but the cashier replied “Oh be my guest this time, your presence is enough honour for me” but at the same time he took the money from his hand.
This is called “Taarof” a special art of Iranian etiquette or politeness, which encompasses a range of social behaviours, from opening a door for a woman to denying a cup of tea at least three times before accepting the offer. After the third time the host will know whether you seriously don’t want a cup of tea or not. Taarof may sometimes cause misunderstandings between both parties and can be a source for awkward situations in a social setting. For example when a host piles food on a guest’s plate despite the guest’s refusal. The host believes that the guest is Taarofing, but the guest is actually full and satisfied. This can also be confusing for tourists. We met a solo traveller from Brazil in Iran who was telling us how generous the Iranian people are. He told us that, yesterday, he had filled his motorcycle’s gasoline tank but when he asked the attendant “how much?” the attendant replied “ Its not a big deal, please be my guest”. Having never heard of Taarof, our Brazilian friend, thanked him dearly for the free petrol and ran off on his bike, probably leaving the attendant very confused.
Iranian Taarof ?
Next our journey continued to the red clay cillage – Abyaneh and Tehran.
Are you thinking about travelling to Iran? Read our Ultimate travel guide to Iran here!
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