Days: 558-560 (4 January 2016 – 6 January 2016)
Total distance travelled: 140,884.1 kilometres (87,505.66 miles)
Perhaps the place in Iran we’d looked forward towards with the highest level of anticipation
Oddly enough, we couldn’t really tell you why.
It was another UNESCO World Heritage site, sure, but that’s not a unique tag in this part of the world, so maybe it was the pictures, iconic images of the cities famous bridges that had us salivating.
Shortly after booking into our hotel, a seemingly extravagant option for us (I don’t think we’d been able to locate a hostel), we began our walk towards the river, keen to get our first glimpse of these famous spans.
Along the roughly three kilometre journey, we found plenty of distractions.
We began to ponder how much sugar was consumed in the local tea, when we passed by one small store, it’s only role seemingly to be a dispensary for sugar cubes, of which they had bag loads, able to sell them by the scoop.
A little further and we were gazing through the glass windows of a book store where, despite western media’s perceptions (or more aptly, our perceptions as a result of western media) they held titles from such ‘luminaries’ as Hillary Clinton and Larry King!
After passing a host of more practical businesses (at least for us) in the form of eateries dispensing rotisserie chicken, local sweets or ice-cream (there seemed to be ample supply of them all), crossing a couple of major thoroughfares, we were in sight of the river (Zayandah Rud is its name).
Along its banks, the people of Esfahan lounged in the winter sun, and across its width sat the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge (we had no idea of its name at the time, in fact I had no idea of its name at all until I Googled it whilst writing this), the first of those beautiful pictures we’d kept stored in our memories, we’d been able to replace with vision of our own.
Despite us being a month into winter already, you wouldn’t have known it with the beautiful day it was, and the locals with their ice-cream out in force.
The structure itself was whilst obviously a bridge, less a means to cross the river and more architectural work of art.
It’s many niche span providing privacy for young Iranian love birds, while its arches beneath were like a faux subterranean tunnel, a series of strategically placed stones allowing one to hop across the river underneath the bridge proper.
As lovely as the day looked, it was actually a lot later in the afternoon than we’d fully realised, and after the first half of the day had been consumed by our transit from Yazd, we thought we’d take some time out on our way back to the hotel to investigate the Nagsh-e Jahan Square, apparently one of the largest in the world.
Whilst we traipsed the few blocks, the clouds began to close above, convincing us that we’d be better served returning the following morning should the sun again be shining.
On the way to the square we’d stopped off for a late lunch at one of the aforementioned chicken shops, although we couldn’t bring ourselves to brave one which proudly bore its name in illuminated sign glory “Kentukcy Chicken”… yes, I have spelled their name ‘correctly’ (well at least true to what we’d seen written on the sign).
Instead, our eatery was far more humble.
Having caved to the lure of that charred and roasted chicken, we waltzed up to the counter to make our order of what we hoped was roughly half a chicken and chips (I think there was a basic salad of lettuce and tomato included as well, but everyone knows that’s cheating).
I’d placed our order, however at the last minute Sarah revised it, having thought we hadn’t ordered enough.
We sat at table to await our orders, nursing cans of HeyDay, a ‘Premium Quality Lemon Non-Alcoholic Malt Beverage’.
When a whole chicken was delivered, half a chicken each, we realised we’d had the order right before the last minute revision!
We certainly weren’t going to be hungry tonight!
It was delicious enough, even if the potato was a little soggier and more oily than would have been desired, but we walked away content and stuff… and it was so cheap that we barely noticed that we were paying for two whole serves!
By breakfast the following day we were indeed again ready to eat, and luck was with us as again we had a ridiculously clear winters day.
In the shade it was chill, so we were very much appreciative of the sun that bathed more than half of the vast square.
The vast square was ringed not by walls, but arched and alcove riddled awnings, the bulk hiding tea houses and trinket stalls, selling all manner of rugs and glassware.
Like the four train stations on a Monopoly board sat a palace a pair of mosques and the grandest entrance into this wide space, Qeysarie Gate.
The Qapu Palace continued our curse as much of it was closed and covered in scaffold (so we gave it a miss), so that left the mosques with their stunningly tiled minarets and niches (in fairness, even one of the impressive domes was half clad in scaffolding too).
The Sheikh Lotfollah, whilst not considered the grand mosque of Esfahan was a true gem, and were not long in discovering where the image that sported the cover of our Lonely Planet guidebook had come from.
So many beautifully painted tiles, so many shades of yellow and blue, perfectly mirroring the winters sky and the sunshine that warmed us on this winters morning.
At some point during our explorations we met a young local who was dead keen for us to meet him for tea (as in the drink, not an evening meal), and it so happened that this was also just off the square proper.
We were happy to oblige, so we agreed to meet him at a certain time, which is how we found ourselves following him into a slightly subterranean place with low wooden beams, long wooden tables and accompanying bench seats.
If it had been able to purchase anything stronger, it could easily have appeared to be a very serviceable beer hall.
Instead, we sat and spoke, letting him practice his English whilst we had tea and local cakes.
After we’d been there a short while, it all ended a bit weirdly as he decided he promptly had to go, said his farewells and off he went.
It worried us not, having hardly disrupted our day, but it was all a bit odd…
We did also spend a bit of time at one of the aforementioned rug vendors, when during one of the duller parts of the morning we decided to acquiesce when the delivered their spiel to try and get business for one of the many merchants.
A short while earlier we had actually determined that should we find something (a rug) in Turkey or ideally Iran, we were close enough to returning home that we could either carry it around with us for what remained of our adventures, or if necessary send it on home ahead.
As such, we were genuinely interested in making a purchase should we find something… only we weren’t going to let them know that!
We were plied with tea, and presented with rug after rug in all manner of patterns, colours and sizes.
Fortunately, we weren’t alone, another couple also taking up the challenge and eventually (seriously they had hundreds out on display, and many more rolled up in anticipation).
We created a mental short list, discussed prices and ultimately settled on one we were both happy with before the merchant unveiled an old school ‘click-clack’ credit card machine with which to process our payment, something neither of us had witnessed in probably a decade or more (and even then it would have likely been due to a power outage).
I’m pretty sure the way most sellers get around the embargo and block on cards in this country, is by having an account set up in somewhere like the UAE.
Having completed our souvenir shopping, the following day had us taking in a few more of the cities tourist sites, the first being the last of its kind (our first stop was actually the UNESCO World Heritage listed Atiq Jameh mosque, but after a while they did start to blend together).
We were off to explore the surrounding gardens and the palace itself known as Hasht Beshesht, the gardens a popular hangout for locals of all ages.
The palace itself is actually an old mansion, roughly five hundred years old and apparently from a period when the Safavid people ruled Esfahan.
Later research suggested there were once more than forty of these ‘palaces’ in the city, however today, only one, this one, still stands.
Tall wooden columns supported an open aired patio, it’s ceiling a mixture of wooden tiles and mirrors, whilst within its airy ceilings and walls were adorned with dramatic artworks (not framed, the walls themselves were the canvas).
Outside, the gardens were divided in half by long pools on either side of the complex.
Where we’d entered, you could have mistaken it for a summers day.
To the rear of the building however, the second protected from the sun by the bulk of the structure itself, there were no such illusions.
There the pool was covered in sheet of ice! True, it was fractured in some points, but for the most part, it looked very much like the winter we’d expected.
Despite this coldness to the day, we had our hearts set on sampling a couple of the local sweets we’d spied, one of those, unless we were both kids, rarely something we’d indulge in during the winter months.
Ice-cream, or specifically the local saffron ice-cream which due to that famous spice sported a yellowish colour.
The volume (or indeed authenticity of what was) used certainly didn’t wow us, the version on a stick we shared, covered in lashes of chocolate and dipped in pistachios actually a rather bland experience.
Still, we’d otherwise have always wondered…
Our other article of interest proved far more memorable, Gaz.
No, we weren’t both keen on having a piece of some guy called Gary, rather, we were keen on getting a taste of (which became a taste for) the local sweet treat, an Iranian version of Nougat.
Once we got ourselves a sample of it, we knew we were onto a winner (full of chopped pistachios and flavoured with rose water), and it wasn’t long before we had a tin full of this sweet goodness to bring home with us.
Our afternoon explorations took as back down to the Zayandeh Rud, where the locals seemingly enjoyed the saffron ice-cream far more than us.
Universal however, was the enjoyment everyone was getting from the bright afternoon sun, visitors and locals alike.
We were actually headed to the opposite bank, keen to explore some interesting churches in an area apparently known as the ‘Armenian Quarter’.
Unluckily for us, Vank Cathedral, the primary motivation for our visit (apparently its interior is incredibly adorned with frescoes) was closed…
Something of a shame, although our wanderings did allow us to chuckle at a fried chicken shop sporting the branding ‘ZFC’ which alone doesn’t sound like much, however this place sported all the branding/trimmings of a KFC, with the addition of a Pizza Hut sign as well.
It must be really something as a dining experience, we just weren’t hungry at the time…
After walking past another knock off chain store (this time it was Starbucks), we turned our attention back to the river, keen to enjoy the last of the daylight and something a bit more authentic.
Rather than re-cross the river, we thought we’d go for a wander and take the chance to enjoy some of the cities other famous bridges.
As the shadows lengthened and eventually the light dimmed, we began to figuratively and literally see these icons of Esfahan in a new light.
The Joui Bridge was nice, however the Khajou Bridge, although not quite as grand, was the only one that could hold a candle to the most famous one we’d already visited a couple of times (that would be the thirty three arched span, the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge.
It reads a bit weirdly, slitting hairs over bridges, but here, if anywhere, it is a real conversation, and one you’ll better understand after seeing them all in person (or at least in pictures)!
It was to be our last night in this gorgeous city, and for this last hurrah, it pulled out all the stops.
A fiery sunset bathed the river in the most amazing colours, and as the skyline became a silhouette, the city looking like a stage backdrop at a school play, it only became more beautiful.
Then, when we thought it could offer no more and we began to wander back along the waterfront, we turned, and there was another incredible moment.
The Khajou Bridge was now lit, as though by candlelight and this special farewell continued.
Of course there was also the proposal!
As we walked the waterfront, ever closer to the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge and the main thoroughfare it meets (the same road that would lead us back towards our hotel) we met a family of women, and when I say family, I mean a real cross generational story.
The wizened grandmother, with her wrinkled face, her daughter and a par of her daughters daughters (that would be two granddaughters).
In a place where for women, all that stands visible is usually the face, they have an incredible ability to display so much beauty simply through their eyes.
These ladies, even in the dull, late evening light, were no exception.
Like so many others, they thanked us for visiting their country, so happy to befriend foreigners and welcome them to their beautiful land.
Upon learning that we weren’t married, ‘Nanna’ had no qualms, despite Sarah’s presence in promptly offering me either granddaughter for marriage.
Chuckling half heartedly, not fully appreciative of how serious he offer might be, I politely declined…
Esfahan, quite the welcome, quite the farewell…
* Our bus from Yazd to Esfahan cost us 130,000.00 Rials each.
* Entrance into the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque and Atiq Jameh mosque cost a hefty 200.000.00 Rials per person!