I checked into my hotel in Tehran and then zipped upstairs to get cleaned up. I had no evening plans on my itinerary, but Bahman did not want to drive home in rush hour traffic and told me rather forlornly he had nothing to do while he waited out the traffic. He wanted to know if I would join him for tea. Why of course!
A half hour later I met Bahman in the lobby of the hotel. As we were about to leave, I reminded him that I wanted to buy Iranian caviar from the shop in the hotel (which after a little bit of research came with good recommendations). I ended up buying two tins of the “high end stuff” and had the gentleman vacume pack the tins for me in dry ice. It will last three months provided I refrigerate it when I get home. Perfect … enough for a treat at American Thanksgiving and on Christmas Eve!
After my purchase, Bahman and I walked across the street and first hit a carpet shop (I was still in search of my elusive carpet). The shop was a sister shop to the place we had visited in my beautiful, beloved Shiraz, and the proprietor was the father of the fellows I had previously met.
Mr. Vafaei greeted me like a long lost daughter, had us sit down and immediately served us tea. Mr. Vafaei then had a carpet brought out, which had been shipped to his shop from Shiraz at my request. I had contemplated buying the carpet in Shiraz, but thought the carpet was just too small for my house. I looked at it again and told Mr. Vafaei it was perfect, but my first instincts were right. The carpet was just too small for my house. Unfortunately, Mr. Vafaei did not have anything else in the size I wanted, but he promised to keep looking. In the mean time he showed me some smaller carpets for the entryway of my house, which I was also looking for. However, none of the carpets worked for me. Bahman in the mean time found yet another carpet (this one for his home) and suggested that they put it aside for him while he considered it.
Just as we were about to leave, I spotted a carpet that had been hanging on the wall directly in front of me. How could I have missed this? I asked the guys to take it down, examined it, walked around it once, asked the price and said “sold”. It was absolutely perfect for my entryway. YAY!
Bahman seemed thrilled I finally found a carpet, and I was very happy to finally find what I wanted. In celebration, Bahman told me it was time to go down the street to a little teahouse for tea. Fine by me. So we said our goodbyes and walked out of the carpet shop and to the teahouse. The teahouse was down a set of stairs from street level, through a door and down another set of steps. It turned out to be a very cute little cafe where water pipes seemed to be the order of the day. Uh oh, I can see where this is going.
Anyway, we found a nice table, ordered tea and Bahman of course ordered qalyān (the water pipe) and suggested we try orange blossom. The pipe was brought to the table, lit and Bahman handed it to me to give it a try. I kind of rolled my eyes at him, but gave it a go. Bahman provided me with some additional coaching and this time around I started to get the hang of it. (There is a bit of a technique to this thing….)
So Bahman and I proceeded to spend the next couple hours drinking tea, puffing on that pipe thing, talking about world affairs and life and laughing about nothing in particular. It was a perfect, serene and simply lovely way to spend the early evening. Before we knew it was 6:30 and time to leave.
As we walked out the door, Bahman suggested one more stop. I “had” to take pistaccios home with me he said. So one block later we found ourselves surrounded by barrels of fresh nuts. I tasted the pistaccios (excellent) and two vacume packed bags later we were on our way back to the hotel. Once at my hotel, Bahman made arrangments for me to have dinner in one of the penthouse restaurants of the hotel, agreed on a meet up time in the morning and said goodnight.
I was actually exhausted, but since Bahman went to the trouble of setting up a special dinner for me I went upstairs to the penthouse around 8. Dinner was actually quite lovely, and I had a magnificent view over Tehran from the top of the hotel.
Next morning Bahman met me for breakfast and we planned out our day. Our first stop would be the Carpet Museum. Since it was such a beautiful, sunny morning, Bahman suggested we walk to the museum. Perfect.
The Carpet Museum contained some of the oldest and most treasured carpets in Iran dating from the 17th century to today. As we wandered around, we saw a variety of styles from the beautiful dome style designs in the city carpets with gorgeous reds and blues to amazing Nomad carpets in earthy tones. The older the carpet the richer and deeper the colours. Many of the carpets belonged to long dead shahs and were at one time housed in palaces throughout Iran. The most quirky carpet we saw was one that included many of the famous faces from history. Even George Washington’s face made it onto the carpet. All in all the trip to the Carpet Museum was a lovely way to start the day.
We wandered back to the hotel in the brilliant sunshine (and no smog) to meet Hamid who was going to drive us to North Tehran so we could visit the Sa’d Abad Palace which was home to the last Shah of Iran. (Yes this is the site that was closed when I first arrived in Tehran so we were making a second go of it.)
We drove the same route north we had taken two weeks ago, and I immediately recognized the beautiful wide streets and winding roads. North Tehran is built right up against and into the mountains, and as we drove, I commented to Bahman that North Tehran looks very much like San Francisco, with lots of beautiful condos and gardens built atop steep hillsides in front of narrow, windy and very hilly roads. He immediately agreed and said that many people make the same comment. (And I am not sure why I didn’t see that the first time we drove the area.)
Anyway, we reached the palace by mid morning – it was open… YAY. Now the palace is actually comprised of ten buildings built on an enormous amount of mountainside acreage in what amounts to a gorgeous park. The buildings have actually been turned into museums so Bahman suggested that we visit two of them: the main building called the White Palace and the Farshchian Museum containing art works by Mahmoud Farshchian, the famous Iranian artist and miniaturist. (Unfortunately the Museum of Fine Arts was closed and would have to wait for a return trip.)
So we entered the grounds and walked the beautiful pathways uphill through canopies of trees, gorgeous gardens and fountains and birds chirping all around us. It was another one of those “oh my goodness” moments where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The gardens in this country are simply over the top spectacular.
We reached the Farshchian Museum, entered the fairly nondescript front entrance and proceeded to walk around the gallery and be completely wowed by the works of art on the walls. Some paintings were very dark and featured mythological creatures bent on death and destruction. I walked by those quickly … not my taste when it comes to art. Others paintings, however, featured men and women in what I would call “soft” poses that left me feeling calm and full of passion and hope. The man was incredibly talented and had an amazing ability to bring out a depth of emotions in his work.
After we finished viewing the gallery, we walked out of the building and back down the hill to the White Palace. The first thing I noticed was a huge statute out front, which Bahman told me was as statute of Arash or Arash-e Kamängir ( Arash the Archer) a war hero who, as legend has it, put his soul into his arrow and fired it off to save his country. Bahman then looked at me and said that Arash would make my perfect “Persian husband” because he did not speak. I told Bahman, I would prefer a man who speaks his mind, which prompted Bahman to say that he would remember that in future conversations. The comment got a big laugh from me.
Anyway, we walked up the steps into the White Palace. The main foyer was beautiful and was covered in an enormous silk carpet that had aged into a lovely deep red colour with blue and cream floral accents. I immediately turned to Bahman and told him I had found my carpet. He looked, smiled, nodded and told me he would be right back after he negotiated a price for me. Ah if only …..
As we walked around, I learned that the upstairs rooms were closed for renovations so all I was really able to see were the main floor guest and greeting rooms (meh) and a billard room that had huge cabinets, which I guessed at one time held the finest liquor the world has to offer.
We were, however, able to walk downstairs to see the Nation’s Art Museum and the walk downstairs was worth the price of admission! I felt like I was walking down a staircase right out of Saturday Night Fever. It was made of stainless steel and chrome and had this wacky ’70s vibe to it. (And since the overthrow of the last Shah occured in 1979, I guess the staircase fit the times back then, but now it just looked cheesy.)
Anyway, by Western standards it’s unlikely the “Nation’s Art Museum” would actually be classified as an art museum since it was not much larger than a small hotel meeting room, but it hit a home run with me because it was filled with Marc Chagall paintings, my absolute favorite French painter. Now Chagall was Jewish so there was some irony in seeing his painting in this museum, but I was thrilled at the chance to unexpectedly see original works of art by Chagall.
I wandered around with a big grin on my face and spent probably far more time in the little room than Bahman had expected, but hey this room actually gave the White Palace a far better grade than I was prepared to give it.
We finally left the museum, walked back up the funky staircase and into the sunlight outside. I will be the first to say that the Golestan Palace is far superior in design and character to the White Palace, but it was an interesting visit.
So as we were leaving the entrance, Bahman pointed out to me a very weird looking statute that consisted of two ginormous bronze boots. What the heck? Bahman quickly told me that the statute was originally a giant bronze statute of the last Shah, but after the revolution he got the chop and all that remained were his boots! For some reason the whole explanation struck me as funny, and I could not stop laughing. (Probably yet another of those you had to be there moments….)
After I got myself together, Bahman and I walked back through the park to the gate. It was time for LUNCH!!!! And we were both excited to go back to Lamanzy where we had the fabulous salad and pizza at the front end of my trip.
We arrived at the restaurant before the lunch crowd (Iranians tend to eat later in the day, which is actually my preference, but we were hungry …. ), found a booth and Bahman proceeded to order us the exact same meal we had before. Hey, why change when you find something you like?
And as before, the salad of lettuce, sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, peppers, olives and tomatoes mixed with an olive oil and herb dressing left me smiling. Yummy. Then the pizza came out and rather than describe it, I decided to this time post a picture. I actually start to salivate just looking at the picture. Fresh basil, feta cheese, peppers, sundried tomatoes, fresh tomato sauce, cheese and spicey chicken all on thin, wood fired pizza crust … WHAT IS NOT TO LIKE??
Both of us dove into the food like we hadn’t eaten in a week. In fact, it was without a doubt the quietest Bahman and I were the entire trip. The food could not have been more perfect. (You have no idea how much I wish I could order takeout right now!!)
So with lunch done, we got ready to leave the restaurant. As we walked to the exit, two young women walked in the door with one sporting a bandage over her nose. Bahman turned to me with a “what’s the count at now” look on his face, and I just laughed. Now one thing I have failed to talk about in this blog is the incredible preoccupation Iranians have with nose jobs. Everyone seems to have had one. It quite frankly seems to be a bit of a sport for the nation. And rather than hide after a nose job, the bandage across the nose thing seems to something of a badge of honour. In fact, a couple days into my trip I commented to Bahman that I should have kept track of the number of bandaged noses. I am certain the number approaches 50 as my trip comes to an end.
Anyway, after the “nose” encounter, Bahman and I wandered next door to the ice cream shop, He said he wanted to buy me my last saffron ice cream of the trip. If I haven’t spoken about the heaven that is saffron ice cream then my bad, but trust me when I tell you it is an incredible flavor. The blend of saffron, rosewater, pistachios, and coconut milk comes together in a way that so excites the tastebuds you really are not sure what to do with yourself. I simply could not say no to another taste of this delectible treat.
So Bahman ordered ice cream and told the fellow to add in a scoop of carmel ice cream as well (after two weeks traveling around Iran together, the man knows exactly what ice cream I like). As the ice cream was being scooped up, Gotye began playing inside the shop… seriously. I had not heard any Western music (outside of my iPod) since I left home and it really made me want to go inside and sit for a bit. I looked at Bahman, and he immediately said let’s go sit inside.
When we entered the shop, we ran into a bunch of students from the University of Tehran. One student was from Germany and had come to Tehran to learn Farsi. Wow. He told me that after he learns Farsi he plans to move to Shanghai to learn Mandarin and then will move back to Germany to work for the state department. This kid clearly had goals.
Another student was from Bejing and was also in Tehran to learn Farsi. She had been living in Tehran for over 3 years, and Bahman said her Farsi was flawless. The young woman also spoke English and Arabic. Yowza. Mandarin, English, Arabic and Farsi. Uh I think this woman is a little talented no?
We spent some time chatting to the students (who made me feel so inferior for my pathetic language skills) until Bahman motioned to me that it was time to go. We were off to meet his family for tea, and we did not want to be late.
The drive to Bahman’s condo took about a half hour through the winding streets of North Tehran. It was lovely and green with many new buildings under construction. We finally reached his multi story high rise, jumped out, walked through a beautiful gate and through more beautiful gardens and into the first floor of the building. One elavator ride later, we were walking into Bahman’s home being greeted by his simply gorgeous wife Camellia and their lovely 11 year old daughter. I was given the grand tour of their condo and made to feel completely at home.
Camellia is a painter and when I say she is talented, I am afraid the word talented is an understatement. Check out her original works of art at camelia-painting.com .
So Camellia brought out tea and two delicious cakes she had made as well as a fabulous bowl of fresh pomegranate seeds. I was also offered candies and cookies and oh my goodness … Camellia was as bad as her husband…. I am seriously going to waddle home.
Anyway, Camellia was absolutely lovely, although somewhat hesitant to speak English. I told her that her English was far, far better than my Farsi and that she just needed to practice. Camellia showed me a book she was using to help her with her English skills, and she told me about the online classes she was taking to improve her English. It always shames me when I see the effort people around the world make to learn English, and I have such limited multi-lingual skills. (And I had certainly been envious of the students we met in the ice cream shop who picked up roots and moved to Tehran to learn Farsi.)
So after an hour visit, Baham told me it was time to go. I said goodbye to Bahman’s beautiful family, thanked them profusely for having me to their home and we were off and running again.
Next stop was the National Jewels Museum. Yayyyy. Shiny things! And yep did we ever see some shiny things. We pulled up to the large iron gate at the Bank Melli and went past multiple armed guards and numerous layers of security to get inside the museum. We walked down the staircase and into a dimly lit room filled with yet again more armed guards, but what I saw inside dazzled my eyes. Numerous display cases filled with THE most amazing diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires. Now I have seen the crown jewels in London, and I have seen the jewels of the Russain Czars and Czarinas in the Armory in Moscow … but those are peasant jewels compared to this place.
There were crowns and necklaces and bracelets and rings and sabres and pottery and furniture all encrusted with enormous, dazzling gems. One of the most stunning pieces was the largest uncut diamond int the world: the Dary-ye Nur (Sea of Light) pink diamond weighing 182 carats. In addition, there was the Kiani Crown made for Fath Ali Shah in 1797 featuring a huge sapphire in the middle from which a fan of sapphires eminated making the crown look like a small peacock. It was insane. Then there was a giant Globe of Jewels made in 1869 featuring 51,366 precious stones with the world’s seas made of emeralds and the world’s lands made of rubies (except that Iran, England and France were set in diamonds). It was ridiculously over the top extravagant. And yes, we saw the Peacock Throne built in 1798 by Fath Ali Shah (this guy really had it in for precious gems) and encrusted with 26,733 gems. (FYI this is not the original Peacock Throne plundered from the Moghuls in India. That throne was hacked up by rebellious soldiers and the wealth spread amongst themselves.) Nevertheless, this throne was brilliant.
As Bahman and I walked around, we immediately began to pick out the jewels that best “suited” our tastes. I looked at case after case of loose diamonds and what on their own would have been absolutely fabulous (ie 2 or 3 carat diamonds) looked like peanuts in comparison to the stones around them. At one point Bahman pointed out a diamond necklace for me and I kind of gave him a “what do you take me for” look, shook my head and pointed to another case with a stunning square diamond surrounded by emeralds. And so it became a game of one upsmanship and just plain silliness. “Dawling you would look so elegant wearing this diamond, ruby and turqoise sword”. “Thank you my dear, but I already have one that is on display over there … I think I would prefer this diamond encrusted turqoise water pipe”. “You know Bahman, I can’t figure out why they won’t let me have just one of these diamonds. They won’t miss it.” “I know … let me see what I can do for you.” “You know Deborah these sapphires in this necklace would match your eyes.” “Yes, but the diamonds are so small I would much prefer this huge canary diamond necklace over here….”
By the time we reached the end of the display we were laughing so hard that the folks around us were actually staring at us, and many, I am sure, simply thought we had just plain lost our minds. (Although, I actually think the guards were quite amused by us because I caught one of them smiling at me and shaking his head.)
The sad part of all this .. no pictures allowed. But trust me when I say that the National Jewels Museum is THE most dazzling display I have ever and likely will ever see.
So with jewelry shopping (or wishing) done, we found Hamid and got back in the van for a drive to my last stop: the National Museum of Iran. As we left the Bank Melli, which housed the jewels, we drove past many beautiful buildings. I was told by Bahman that a number of these beautiful buildings were palaces of Iranian nobles in a former life, but were now used as banks. Huh? And we thought Wall Street was bad!
Anyway, our drive to the National Museum took us past the the Iranian Parliament, one of the oldest mosques in Tehran, numerous upscales stores and shops and lots and lots of people. When we reached the museum, Bahman told me that I could make my way around the museum on my own while he made some calls. Perfect.
So the National Museum of Iran houses some of the more important finds from Persepolis, Chogha Zanbil and Shush. I wandered around the various displays of pots and earthen ware at the front of the museum. And as I moved towards the back of the museum, the sites became more impressive. I saw a winged lion, a beautiful panel from the Apadana Palace at Persepolis, a carved staircase, a glazed tile work of an archer from Shush dating to 5,000 B.C and a bull dating to the Elamite era and 2,000 B.C. The display of ancient artwork was amazing and simply awed me.
Before I knew it, it was 4:30 and it was closing time. The kind folks working in the museum allowed me to linger a little longer and as we were walking out, Bahman pointed out the strangest exhibit in the place. The “Salt Man” from Zanjan in a glass display case. It is believed the man was a miner who died in the 3rd or 4th century A.D., but because he was found in a salt mine, he was “preserved” and looked in remarkably good form (apart from the bit about being dead and all).
We walked back to the van from the museum and I was extremely sad to know my tour of Iran was over. Or at least I thought it was over. Bahman told me that no tour of Iran was complete without a quick pass by that famous American landmark … yep the closed U.S. Embassy. So as the sun set, we made our way back through central Tehran and Bahman told me to get my camera ready. And then there it was … that famous building and some rather uh … shall I say interesting “free speech/First Amendment” signs about America. I just had to laugh. But wait … there’s more.
Bahman told me he had one more thing to show me. He asked me if I had ever seen the huge anti-American sign that CNN uses in most of its broadcasts about Iran. Nope. Can’t say as I have. Uh check that … now I actually can say I have. A couple minutes later we drove by the building with the massive sign … and rather than describe it, I will let the picture speak for itself. Needless to say, I laughed all the way back to the hotel.
By this time it was 5:30. My flight did not leave until 4:15 a.m. However, we had to leave for the airport at 11:45 since it takes an hour to drive to the airport, and I was supposed to be checked in 3 hours before my flight. (Yea no sleep for me until the 16 hour flight home.) I was already packed so Bahman suggested we go across the street to the teahouse. Perfect.
So one last time Bahman and I shared tea and yep that waterpipe. This time it was peach and this time … yep I really enjoyed it. Once I admitted this, it got quite the laugh out of Bahman. We spent the next couple hours chatting. It was a wonderful way to spend my last night in Iran.
Before I knew it I was in the van on my way to the airport. My heart was breaking at the thought of leaving the country and the wonderful people of Iran When we arrived at the airport I could hardly contain my tears. I said goodbye to my trusty driver Hamid and then Bahman walked me to door of the airport to go through security and bag screening. He gave me a big hug, a kiss on the cheek and told me we would meet again. I was having a hard time controlling my tears so all I did was nod my head.
I stood in line at security and the distance between me and Bahman grew. I turned to look back towards him a couple times and he was still there with a little wave. I waved back, blew him a kiss and then I stepped into the security zone. Goodbye dear friend. Goodbye Iran.
In closing this blog, I implore anyone who thinks of Iran with nothing but negative connotations to open your heart and your mind to a country teeming with rich history, incredible scenery and wonderful hospitality. If you have ever considered visiting Iran…. DO IT! Please do not let politics and retoric from any side of the ocean cloud your perception of what I found to be one of the most amazing and shockingly misunderstood countries in the world. The average Iranian person is warm, caring and decent, and they are deeply aware of and hurt by the harsh opinion the rest of the world has of their nation. I am heartbroken at the thought of how these beautiful people are suffering under the weight of extreme sanctions, and they deserve our thoughts, our prayers and our humanity.