Falling for the most beautiful blue city of all

When I google “beautiful blue tile city” two names come up every time – The city of Esfahan in Iran, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Sorry Google, you are wrong – the Blue Mosque is gorgeous but it’s no city!

My feelings for Esfahan were short and sweet. The city did no wrong, I would love to have spent more time in Esfahan but instead I ended up having a whirlwind sightseeing dash in a rented taxi. Why? On entering Iran we were given 7 day visas, and at the time it was conventional wisdom that it was easy to get visas extended in Esfahan. Not that day though, our request for an extension was denied, and we had four days left to cross the country and depart into Pakistan.

Did we want to test what would happen if we overstayed our visa’s in Iran? No! So we decided to spend the rest of the day in Esfahan, dash to Persepolis the following day and then drive in shifts for the remaining days to make sure we got through the Baluchistan desert to the border in time. Our nice slow overland trip had suddenly become a race.

But in spite of that mad dash it was impossible not to notice the historic but modern city centre of beautiful blue tiled buildings, enhanced with graceful squares, wide tree-lined boulevards and stunning bridges. It seems everything old and beautiful in Iran is known by many names. We headed straight to Naghsh-i Jahan square, (also known as Imam square) to see the Friday Mosque, (or Masjed-e-Jameh) with it’s many gates, halls and domes.

The Grand Bazaar is right next to the mosque, very handy. There are few things that will excite me more than a grand bazaar, souk or medina, but I did have one big constraint. In 1990, it was illegal to take a persian carpet out of Iran if you were a foreigner, so I could only look, not buy. As a carpet lover, and frequent buyer in my travels, that was hard, really really hard. And I did have money to spend. Not my usual state of affairs as a backpacker but it happened like this.

On entry to Iran, we were required to catch US$100 at the official exchange rate. On reaching Esfahan the previous evening, we had gone to the bazaar to exchange money at the real rate. I changed another $50, at about 20 times the “official” rate. And then I had a problem, the wad of notes they handed over was about 4 cm thick and was really difficult to stuff discretely into my money belt. I thought it would last me another 10 days and some market shopping.

Now without the visa extension I pretty much needed to spend it all in one day – Thomas Cook were not going to exchange it back in London!. And I couldn’t buy a carpet. Ah, the agony. So we scurried around the beautiful Grand Bazaar, and I ended up buying a huge pile of locally printed table clothes and napkins (I know, what every backpacker needs!), lots of hand made leather accessories, and a few souvenir blue and white tiles.

Martyrs Cemetery, Esfahan, Iran
Martyrs Cemetery, Esfahan, Iran

A much more sobering stop was at the Martyrs Cemetery,  a huge symbol of the devastation of the Iran/Iraq ten year war. Row upon hundreds of rows of tombstones with pictures of the young men of Iran who had fallen. When the family hadn’t been able to supply a photo, there was a picture of the Ayatollah instead. It was ironic that the reminder of the Iran/Iraq hatred made us feel relatively safe to be in Iran while the first Gulf war was being waged next door in Iraq.

Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, Iran
Khaju Bridge, Esfahan, Iran

And we watched the sunset behind Khaju Bridge, with it’s rush of water and it’s beautiful repetitive arches, I really really wished I could stay in Esfahan longer – damn that visa.