Friday, October 21, 2016

That Was My Iran

It all began with a headline. British Airways to resume direct flights from Heathrow to Tehran. Such magic, mobilizing words. Eight months later, we were on the flight.

I blame my professors. Both the Editor and I had studied History and International Relations. That Iran had re-opened to tourism meant we could finally see the monuments and antiquities of those great empires and civilizations while observing contemporary life in one of the Middle East’s most important political actors. Once the idea was planted, we had to go. But how?


You can’t just pick up a rental car at Tehran airport and drive around the country. For starters, your itinerary has to be pre-approved by the authorities in order to acquire a visa, a ‘not fun’ process filled with complexity. Also, driving in Iran is best left to the locals. In short, for this trip, we needed support.

We knew that Steppes Travel, a tour operator in the UK with British Museum antecedents, was offering small group travel to Iran. We liked their offering. Surprisingly, the price difference between going with a group and travelling solo with our own guide and driver was not hugely prohibitive so we chose to be on our own. Of course, we weren’t. We were almost 24/7 with our guide and driver.  Here is where our calculation that Steppes would have good relationships in Iran paid off.

Steppes local provider, Pasagard Tours, was flawless in its delivery, especially in providing our brilliant guide, Navid Ghods, and our excellent driver, Houman. Navid’s passion for his country’s history and culture, his attention to detail, his concern for our comfort and wellbeing made our trip truly exceptional. Anyone who has seen me incompetently crossing busy roads in London would appreciate the death-defying efforts Navid had to exert to get me safely across the streets of Iran. No matter how I try, I cannot imagine a more perfect leader, teacher, protector and friend.

And finally, a word on dress.  I worried a lot about this topic before travelling but in the end, it was no big deal. Yes, women have to keep their heads and the curvy parts of their bodies covered but you can buy good looking scarves (cotton is best, they don’t slide around) and tunic-like tops to wear over your regular trousers. They don’t have to be black. Most importantly, your efforts to be respectful are appreciated and it certainly adds an element of the exotic to your visit.


With 10 days to spend in the country, we travelled the classic tourist route of Tehran, Kashan, Abyaneh, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Na’in and back to Tehran. Sound like a lot of driving? It was - almost 2,000 kilometers to be exact. For anyone planning a trip, there is a case for flying back to Tehran from the south and skipping the long road trip back. But, I don’t know. I never learned anything about a country from an airplane.

So what were some of the highlights of the itinerary? So many, too many, the whole trip was a highlight but here goes:

Tehran is a modern megalopolis, chaotic, congested and exhilarating. We didn’t fall in love with the place but it’s a great place to start with wonderful museums and palaces, especially the Golestan Palace complex.

The Fin Garden (Bagh-e Fin) in Kashan, was lovely and filled with Iranians enjoying themselves in the splendid surroundings. Some believe that it was from Kashan that the three wise men from the east followed the star to Bethlehem. I like to think that’s true and in any event, it shows the importance of this city in ancient times.

·        Abyaneh, a 2,500-year-old mountain village with its own culture and customs where we saw our first Zoroastrian fire temple. We took a wild ride through the countryside in a recalcitrant Land Rover that took half the village to start. We loved it.

·        Elegant Esfahan, we loved it too, perhaps because with a major river (alas, completely dry at the time of our visit), tree-lined boulevards, magnificent mosques and palaces, a grand old showplace hotel, the Abassi, All Saviours Cathedral in the Armenian quarter and much more, it felt a bit like Europe from a bygone era.  Here we had an interesting conversation with a mullah and spent an evening at a mountain top restaurant with a group of madcap, partying ladies. I now know some serious Iranian dance moves.

·        In Shiraz we visited gardens and the shrines of poets. You have to love a society that reveres its writers.   Persepolis was a grand experience enhanced by an older gentleman who passed us muttering something akin to, “that son of a bitch, Alexander” who burnt the place to the ground in 331 BC. The staff at the excellent Homa Hotel was particularly accommodating.

·        In Yazd, a desert city with winding streets and alleyways, we fell in love with wind catchers (badgirs), ingenious towers that capture and funnel cooling breezes throughout buildings. Sunset at the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where, until the 1970s, the bodies of the dead were picked clean by vultures, was unforgettable. The Moshir Garden Hotel was totally brilliant with unique Persian décor, a romantic courtyard, parrots and a midget in livery working reception.

·        In Na’in, there is an older gentleman tucked away in a back room of the very interesting Pirnia House and Ethnographic Museum who weaves kilim rugs and coats and hats out of camel hair. His work is amazing and the prices reasonable so if you are heading for Na’in, save room in your suitcase and budget for an authentic piece of Iranian craftsmanship.

And then we were almost done. As Houman drove us back to Tehran – sure, a long slog but better than Interstate 95 - I thought about Iran, the last 8 months of planning, the effort involved in getting the visa and the nervousness we sometimes felt about the whole thing - after all, a British-Iranian mother had recently been jailed for 5 years on undisclosed charges – and then I thought about what we had encountered here, the richness of every single day’s experience, the warm reception we received everywhere, the splendor, the contradictions and the sheer pleasure of it all. Was it one of the most rewarding trips we have ever taken? Yes it was.  

There is a travel quote from Jawaharial Nehru that I like a lot that seems fitting for the end of this post.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

That was my Iran.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Marvellous Margot House

Margot Tenenbaum, my favourite Wes Anderson character, was the inspiration for my new favourite hotel in Barcelona – Margot House. Like Ms. Tenenbaum, the hotel is private, stylish and interesting. Numerous smart touches make this a very special place. For one, the location on the busy Paseo de Gracia. The fact that this very remarkable hotel is located on the second floor (no signs) gives it that secretive Margot touch.

In addition, there is a library, a well stocked, help-yourself bar and bicycles. The breakfasts were beautifully prepared and generous. The vibe is modern, slightly Scandi but supremely comfortable and deliciously quiet for such a swish and bustling neighborhood. In fact, it feels like you are staying at someone’s fab private house who has conveniently left you to enjoy yourself with their very accomodating staff. We took over the place for my son’s wedding in July and certainly stress-tested their ‘bonhomie’. They could not have been more charming and accommodating.

I cannot say enough good things about Margot House. The owners have created a brilliant, unique experience in a fantastic city and I must congratulate them on what they have achieved.

My feelings about this hotel are similar to Royal Tenenbaum's when his fake terminal illness has been exposed and he is being thrown out of the family home:

Royal: Look, I know I'm going to be the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life.
Narrator: Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.

Photo: Me in my garden in London trying to look like Margot

Monday, January 25, 2016

Back to the Future in Berlin

According to Claudia Schiffer, “Berlin is like being abroad in Germany.” I agree with Claudia. Berlin is idiosyncratic and the best place I know to try to understand German history and culture, both of which cast an enormous shadow over this remarkable city. On every street, at every corner is an Imperial story or a Nazi story or a War story or Divided City story. The list goes on. And if you are younger than I am and interested in the new stuff, there are gay, alternative, techno and graffiti stories – all to be had for a price point considerably less than New York or London. Berlin is old and new, dynamic and depressed, hip and historic – all at the same time.

I was there recently thanks to an optimistic football/soccer supporter and a team that let him down. Convinced that Chelsea Football Club would win the Champions League, the Editor took a large apartment so that our large family could attend. No Champions League final for Chelsea. Instead we invited friends one of whom was a former resident of the great city, to join us for 4 intensive days of tourism. Caveat emptor – if you are looking for a post on the gay/alternative/techno/graffiti scene, you need another blog. We’re too old for that.

Anyway, we had a blast - the monuments, the museums, the restaurants and the coffee houses, all tied together by an efficient and user-friendly public transport system. But, it’s a big city and you have to be strategic about how you tackle it.

A great way to start is to join some kind of city tour that gives you an overview. We splurged with a guide and private car, the advantage being that we were able to pack a ton into half a day: the Victory Column, and Bismark monument, the Bundestag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler’s bunker, Check Point Charlie, sections of the Wall – some decorated - and the Charlottenberg Palace. Our guide, a Brit with a penchant for WWII and strong views on everything, was great. We saw a lot, learned a lot, and the scene was set for the rest of our visit.

Also a good idea is purchasing a Berlin WelcomeCard that includes travel on the public transport system and discounts or free entry to over 200 tourist attractions.

Cultural Highlights

The magic No Crowds moment presented itself on Sunday when we were at the Neues Museum sharp at the opening and had Nefertiti and the entire Egyptian and Trojan collections entirely to ourselves. It’s analogous to having a private moment with the Mona Lisa. Granted it was January. Actually you should go to Berlin in January if you want to avoid crowds. There weren’t any. Yes it was cold but hey, it's winter.

The Pergamonmuseum was also fairly empty, probably because the show-stopping Temple of Miletus was closed for renovation to reopen in 2020 but there is still plenty to see including the Market Gate of Liletus, the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way from Babylon.

The much smaller Kaethe-Kollwitz Museum on the Fasanenstrasse is a great No Crowds experience too, hard work but worth it. Kollwitz was an artist who devoted her career to the eradication of poverty, social injustice and the horrors of war and her work is powerful and moving.

The Neue Synagogue on the Oranienburger Strasse, is well worth a visit with an excellent exhibit on the lives of Berlin’s Jews in the Centrum Judaicom.

It’s also worth the effort to visit the Bundestag. You need to register in advance online and have your application accepted. If you can afford it, a great way to get in to the building is to eat at the Kaefer restaurant at the top of the Dome and they handle the security registration for you. The city views from the restaurant are spectacular and the photos and explanation of the building’s history in the Dome are instructive. Lunch was very good as was the experience. And when we came out there was a massive demonstration against the WTO agreement on agriculture (TIPP) with some very colorful and inventive protestors.

Sadly, the Charlottenberg Palace was also being renovated but the Neuer Fluegel & Neuer Pavilion are open and fun to see, especially if you like over-the-top interiors.

Restaurants and Coffee Houses

Because we were travelling with an insider, we ended up eating and drinking at some wonderful places. Highlights included:

The wine bar attached to Lutter & Wegner in the Gendarmenmarkt, serving Austro-German cuisine with a great wine cellar. Atmospheric.

Zur Letzen Instanz (Waisenstrasse 14-16) in the Nikolaiviertel. The oldest restaurant in Berlin with traditional German food featuring  “Man versus Food” portions. Fun.

Restaurant Heising (Rankestrasse 32), an old fashioned, French mother/daughter run establishment where you feel as if you are dining in someone’s elegant home. An experience.

The Orangerie attached to the Charlottenberg Palace for lunch. Convenient, good atmosphere and food.

And two coffee houses stand out for their old world/Central Europe authenticity and appeal – the Café Einstein (42 Unter den Linden) and Café Wintergarden in Literaturhaus Berlin (Fasanenstraaae 23) which is suppose to be excellent for breakfast.