A head scarf-clad female border guard stamps our passports after 45 minutes of queuing in the foreigners' line in Tehran's international airport, together with Iraqis, Lebanese, and precisely one other European guy who is just transiting on his way to Vienna. Welcome to Iran; a moment we were not sure would ever arrive.
When we started planning our trip, two countries were on the itinerary from the very beginning: Iran and Ethiopia, thanks to the fact of us having good friends living there. Eric has been living in Tehran for eight months but we actually saw him as late as April in Tokyo, when our visits randomly coincided.
We were never quite sure whether we would end up going to Iran or not given the political situation but we got our tickets and visas and hoped for the best. As we were approaching the date, things seemed to "improve" and on 13 June, we got on our flight from Delhi to Doha and then on to Tehran. Beggars can't be choosers and not many airlines will take you to Tehran, but Qatar Airways was so good that it established itself as one of our favourite airlines!
Having arrived at the airport, we queued for a long time and were chatting away with friendly Iraqis and Lebanese people in the queue for foreigners. Eventually it was our turn and they let us in - we were in Iran!
Eric had kindly organised for a driver to meet us, an unprecedented luxury for us, which already set the bar for our stay with him. Immediately we started noticing the contrasts to India - a clean car, a well paved motorway from the airport, no animals wandering the streets, no homeless people, no litter... Just so organised! Despite it being after midnight, however, the roads were full of cars, and we ended up stuck in traffic jams. We would see much more of the extremely dense traffic in Tehran during our stay.
Seeing Eric again was fantastic. It is amazing with the kind of friends you can see anywhere and anytime and it still feels like you met yesterday. Eric had bought some tunnbröd (Swedish bread) and Swedish cheese and we immediately ventured up to the lovely roof terrace in Eric's apartment block for a snack and a chat. With us was also Eric's friend and colleague Anders. We enjoyed the view of the sprawling lights of Tehran as far as the eye could see, and the dramatic mountains that rise from the north of the city.
A long day of travelling couldn't stop us from enjoying a Swedish snack on Eric's roof terrace
It's difficult to describe how nice it is to be in someone's home after such a long time on the road. Eric has a lovely place and it was awesome to have more than five square metres to move around in!
Next day, Eric picked us up around midday and we went to the Swedish embassy for a look around and some traditional Persian lunch of rice, mutton stew and minty yoghurt. We were extremely well received by the embassy staff and it confirmed what Eric already had told us, about people being very happy when visitors come to Tehran.
Lunch at the Swedish embasssy - no head scarf required here
Next we went to the Niyavaran Palace Museum, the complex where the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his family, spent their last ten years in Iran. We first went to Sahebqaranieh, the Shah's special office and later to the residence. It is all surprisingly intact - maybe it's been kept to show the decadence of the Shah and his family. Either way, if felt like time travel back to the 70s (1979 to be precise). The place was full of highlights, but maybe the Shah's wardrobe was our favourite.
The Shah's special office building
In "the Ambassador's Waiting Room" there were photos of the celebrities who had been there, including Nixon, Hitler, Mao, De Gaulle, Queen Elizabeth II, Eisenhower and Ataturk. Now also Grant.
The shah was a hypochondriac and therefore had a dental practice installed in the office!
Outside the the Niyavaran palace- the Shah family residence
The Shah's wardrobe...
...and Fara Diba's wardrobe
In the evening we went to a leaving party for three guys of the Tehran expat community. Little did we expect that one of our biggest nights out so far this trip would take place in Tehran but this is the case - we had a brilliant time. It was great chatting to the other expats and amazing to hear how they all seemed to love Tehran and the Iranians. We were consistently told what a friendly people they are. We got back to Eric's around four in the morning - very unexpected!
Before leaving Brussels we had met Fariba, of Iranian origin, who was visiting our good friend Olga. When she heard we were going to Iran she immediately offered to put us in touch with her family and we eagerly accepted. We had, prior to our visit, been e-mailing with Fatemeh (Fariba's mum's cousin) and she had invited us for lunch at her house in Tehran on the Friday. We had heard things about Iranian lunches and knew that we were very unlikely to leave hungry. That would prove to be satisfyingly true.
We took a taxi across town to get to Fatemeh's place. Tehran sprawls so widely and traffic is so bad that it took about half an hour to get there even though it was on the same side of the city as Eric's apartment. On the way we got to enjoy the legendary crazy Tehran taxi driving style (drive fast, brake late if at all, switch lanes at random, and dart through any gap in traffic to get ahead). Iranian addresses are vague and GPS nonexistent, so when we got to the street, we had to call Fatemeh to direct the driver to the door of her apartment building - apparently numbering buildings would be too simple for Iranians!
Fatemeh and her family gave us the warmest welcome ever when we finally tracked down their building. There was Fatemeh and her husband, Ali ,their son Amir and his wife Mariam and daughter, as well as Fatemeh's brother, also Ali, Fatemeh's daughter, and Fatemeh's uncle and aunt. The size of the family gathering was quite overwhelming! They all spoke very good English so we managed to have lots of good chat. We sat down around two and didn't stop eating until five hours later, when it was time for us to leave. Needless to say, the food was all delicious, and served in very generous amounts!
Some of the fantastic food we were served at Fatemeh's house and enjoying eating together
We have heard a lot of Iranian hospitality but were still overwhelmed by the friendliness we were met by. Fatemeh's family were all very interested in us, what we do, our travels etc. Fatemeh's family were all keen travellers themselves and seem to go abroad a lot, often visiting family members in the US and Europe. They have a family pharmacy business, are all university educated and have a beautiful home. We felt very privileged to be invited to spend time with them at their regular Friday family lunch (Friday being the sabbath here).
It is difficult to write anything that doesn't manifest our ignorance when it comes to Iran and its people, but we were surprised by how culturally close we felt in talking to Fatemeh's family, much more so than in for example India. When it came to popular culture we seemed to have the same references, and Fatemeh's brother Ali turned out to be a great connoisseur of film - American, European, even Swedish, old, new etc. Their home also felt very familiar to anyone from Europe. The view from the balcony is impressive - you can really see what a huge place Tehran is.
View from the balcony
We were told that the construction of this building started 15 years ago. When the company building it didn't manage to sell any of the apartments in it, they ran out of money and just stopped. It seemed like a perfect analogy for Iran - unrealised potential
One of the few things that was different was the food and that was to our delight! Also, Iran is fantastic when it comes to fruit. We had the most amazing fresh fruit and berries, both before and after the meal. We we also served different fresh fruit juices before eating - the sour cherry juice was especially good.
Iran is great for fresh fruit and berries
The meal consisted of so many dishes that it is hard to remember and describe them all, but we kicked off with an excellent very thick, creamy chicken soup. We were then served perfumed rice topped with pomegranate pieces, chicken cooked in different ways, beautiful roasted potatoes and carrots, crispy burned rice, and a sour green sauce made with vegetables. The flavours and the freshness of the ingredients - especially the fruits and vegetables - were remarkable. The food was washed down with a minty yoghurt drink and fruit juice.
After we could take no more, a selection of olives and pineapple pieces were brought out to finish with - we were told this was a palate cleanser, and one taste made clear why. Both the olives and the pineapple rings had been soaked in different types of vinegar, making them extremely sour. Our hosts laughed as Grant's eyes almost popped out when he took a bite of one of the pineapple rings. It was the kind of sour flavour that is so strong it makes you sweat and weep at the same time. We were told that Iranians like to finish a meal with sour flavours where Europeans prefer sweet flavours. In fact, the sour flavour - especially of pomegranate - seems to be present in a lot of Iranian cooking generally.
Having said that Iranians prefer sour to sweet, our hosts did then produce some beautiful Iranian baklava, which we somehow found space for as we sipped on some post-lunch tea.
Nice cup of tea after lunch, served in beautiful Persian style
After lunch, we were shown various books about the sites of Iran and the art of Persian carpet making. Our hosts asked us if we would like to take a snooze - a room had been set aside for us if we wanted. We said no thanks, we were fine, slightly taken aback by the offer- not realising that the Iranian siesta is an institution. We retired instead to the sofas for more chat, but some of the family members did take themselves off to various bedrooms for a post-lunch snooze!
At around half six, when we started to mention that we had better get back home and leave our hosts to enjoy their evening, Fatemeh insisted that we have some of her cold coffee. Of course we couldn't say no. When it came out, together with yet another cake - this time a fresh fruit cake - we couldn't believe our eyes! More food! It was just as delicious as the rest though, but after this we were pretty sure we wouldn't have to eat anything for a long time.
Ali kindly offered to drive us back, but before leaving we made sure to get a group shot with us and Fatemeh's family. We can't emphasise enough what a great time we had and how impressed we were by their hospitality AND by the amazing food we were served! As if that wasn't enough, we were also given a beautiful book about Iran by Fatemeh - a fantastic souvenir of our visit.
Helena and Fatemeh
The next day (and here we skip the sad experience of watching Sweden getting beaten by England) Eric took us for a drive up into the mountains north of Iran. Our destination was the ski resort of Dizin. The scenery was incredible. As you will see from the photos some of the peaks reach over 5,000 metres and still had some snow on them.
The mountains north of Tehran
Eric's excellent car
We stopped at a couple of viewpoints along the way. People always seemed happy to see us and started chatting and asking how we liked Iran. We had a great cup of tea and a lovely vegetable soup just south of Dizin, looking out over the mountains.
View over Dizin from our tea and soup stop
This guy, who Eric dubbed the Iranian Indiana Jones, makes...
... a mean vegetable soup...
...and great tea
This guy had been a working for the Iranian foreign service and invited us to his place by the Caspian Sea - we sadly had to decline!
The skiing in Iran is apparently very good. The hotel in Dizin was nice and clean but very much a blast from the past. The 1970s was still going strong there, albeit champagne is no longer is served in the Champagne Room.
Old school deco in the Dizin hotel
Welcome to Dizin!
The next day, it was time for us to say goodbye to Eric, at least for a few days- it was time to discover the rest of Iran! Our stay in Iran couldn't have started any better and we are already looking forward to coming back for some more chilling out on Eric's roof terrace!
Our favourite spot in Tehran