When we said we were going to Iran for our holiday, the most common reaction was a wide-eyed stare and mutterings about was it safe? I hastily explained that Iran is the old Persia not war-torn Iraq. A few people responded with envy and comments about the amazing ancient Persian palaces and gardens that they’d seen on television.
For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by Darius the Great, King of Kings and master of what was the world’s largest empire. He’s one of my great heroes. I’d read so much about Persepolis said to be one of the most spectacular palaces ever built, and wantonly burnt to the ground by Alexander the Great, that it was a place I longed to visit.
Several years ago, we went to Uzbekistan to see the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Accompanying our tour was a historian, an expert in Islamic architecture, who brought those magnificent places and the great figures in history responsible for their creation to life adding considerably to our experience. We were lucky enough to have her on our trip to Morocco and she is the inspiration for my protagonist in the Aunt Jessica series; although the wonderful Diana is nothing like Aunt Jessica as a person. When we learnt that Diana was accompanying a trip to Iran it was a no brainer.
We landed in Tehran and here we visited the Treasury which contains the world’s most expensive crown jewels. I’ve never seen so much glitter all in one place. Another must see in the country’s capital was Golestan Palace (Palace of Flowers) every inch of wall, ceiling and floor covered in detail. Had Louis XIV seen the hall of mirrors he’d have torn down Versailles and started again.
One of the things that stood out for us all as we travelled around the country was the friendliness of the people. Everyone from small children to the older generations said hello and wanted to have their photos taken with us. I was struck by just how beautiful the young women are as are the men and the children are a delight.
From the beautiful city of Shiraz, we travelled to Persepolis, the highlight of the holiday. Alexander the Great’s petty act of vandalism burning down the richest city in the known world – though not before he’d packed 2,500 tons of gold, silver and jewels on 3,000 camels plus a caravan of mules to send home – did have one advantage. As the fires licked the magnificent carved cedar ceilings, a thick layer of ash carpeted the floors protecting the delicate carvings on the wall.
In addition to palaces came the inevitable mosques – very different from those we’d seen in Uzbekistan and Morocco. When it comes to architecture, it would be hard to beat Isfahan, the last major city on our tour and the most impressive.
On one side of the main square, second only in size to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, is the palace of Shar Abbas II with its superb frescos, opposite what was built as the family mosque. From the third floor of his palace, the king would watch polo matches, a game which had its origins in Persia as a training exercise for the cavalry troops of the king’s guard, and mock battles.
At the top is the spectacular Friday Mosque – a huge edifice with a network of courtyards and vaulted halls behind. It’s balanced at the far end of the square by the entrance to the bazaar recognised as the most exotic in the Middle East.
Another of the trips that stood out for me was in Yadz which boasts a huge mud brick fort which predates the coming of the Arabs and Islam. The city has the largest number of Zoroastrians, followers of the world’s oldest monotheistic religion in Iran. I knew a little of Zoroastrianism from our previous trip to Uzbekistan and it’s fascinating to see the similarities in belief with the three Judaic religions. Apart from a visit to a Fire Temple and a small but fascinating and informative museum, we climbed to the top of one of the Towers of Silence where the dead were exposed to the heavens to be consumed by vultures. Apart from the impressive site itself and the magnificent view from the top, I shall long remember the climb from the resulting aching thighs it caused. The steps were incredibly steep (as are so many in Iran – the palace was almost as bad though far fewer in number) and in places I needed help. Anything that requires me to lift my foot higher than knee height is a definite struggle and, at a mere five-foot-tall, that meant a vast number. The Ancient Persian loved steps!
Would I recommend Iran as a destination? 100%. No reservations whatsoever. The sites were 5*, the hotels were superb, food was high quality and ridiculously cheap, the people friendly and not once were we pressured to buy in the markets or shops. Although it’s a huge country and we travelled most of it by coach, we had the most comfortable vehicle ever. A standard sized coach but with only 25 seats – eight rows of fully-reclining double bucket seats and a line of single seats on the left – with extending leg rests and plenty of leg room.
It will probably be some time before I get round to writing the next Aunt Jessica and Harry Mystery. The first draft and preliminary rewrites of ‘Undercover Geisha’ are now complete and the manuscript is with my editor. The next novel will be another Fiona Mason Mystery. I have a few ideas bubbling for her to take her coach party around Britain looking at places associated with Jane Austen. There are definite advantages to putting a little distance between my exploration of the book’s setting and the actual writing, but one of the greatest perks is that you can relive the holiday as you write and savour the pleasure you experienced at the time.
My choice of holiday has often been influenced by a book I’ve read. Have you ever been inspired to visit somewhere after reading a novel set in a particular country or area? Tell me about it!