The air was hot and heavy by the banks of the dried up river, and the sound of deep, resonating singing pulled me forward. Forward towards the arches of an historic bridge. In the cool shade of those arches was a small group of locals surrounding a lone male singing a mournful, mesmerising song. It was exotic and utterly bewitching!
I had been walking beside the Zayandeh River to photograph the many historic bridges which cross the river just outside the historic core of Esfahan, the number one tourist destination in all of Iran. In an instant an ordinary travel experience became one that was completely unexpected and random, an experience that was truly memorable.
Experiences like that are the highs of travel. Unique, extraordinary and capable of transporting you, maybe even transforming you.
But unfortunately travel isn’t always about those highs. There are also plenty of times when it’s frustrating and bloody difficult, and as a solo traveller these hard times are amplified as you, and only you, have to deal with it. I know that first hand! These are the lows of travelling.
For a long time I’d been looking forward to visiting Esfahan. Compared to Athens and Rome, and romantically known as Half-the-World, it was hard not to have high expectations for Esfahan.
“Isfahan among those rarer places,
like Athens or Rome,
which are the common refreshment of humanity”
– Robert Byron, author of The Road to Oxiana
But my visit to Esfahan got off to a bad start. I arrived in Esfahan in the late evening after my bus from Shiraz took all day. Night fell as I took a taxi from the bus station to the hotel I’d carefully selected. On arrival I was told it was full!
Not to worry I thought to myself as I recalled another good option just minutes away. But no, they were also full!
With night well and truly having taken hold and memories of reading that Esfahan has insufficient hotel beds for the increasing number of tourists I started to worry.
Remembering a hotel another traveller I’d met had mentioned I decided to try my luck there. Another taxi ride across town I arrived feeling pretty anxious. Thankfully they had a room available, a triple I could have for the price of a double! Despite it being well over my budget I decided to take it for the night unsure of what other options I might or might not find.
First thing the next morning I went in search for alternative and more affordable accommodation. Happily I found a simple but decent priced room nearby for the next four days. While relieved I’d solved my accommodations problems I still felt unsettled. I had perhaps been close to having nowhere to stay the night as a solo female traveller!
Trying to push these unsettling thoughts from my mind I headed towards Naqsh-e Jahan Iman Square, the centrepiece of Esfahan. The square was impressive in an understated, not showy way.
On all sides the huge square was lined with elegant arcades interrupted by a beautiful mosque here and there, or a palace. Inside the square was large manicured gardens and fountains.
Inside those mosques and within that square I discovered more of the highs of travelling.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque turned my head immediately. A facade of gorgeous blue tiles which I’m obsessed with topped with a dome of cream tiles laced by looping arrangements and fountains in the foreground it was hard not to be taken by this stunning piece of architecture.
Further along the Royal Mosque of soaring portals and millions of blue tiles was always going to leave someone like me in awe. Such space, and light and wonderful blues!
Late one afternoon I was back in the square wandering and taking in the ambience of the wonderful space. It was Friday, the holy day for Muslims, and the locals were out in force picnicking. Soon I was invited to join a large family for tea and a chat.
Along with two Kiwi travellers, already taking part of the Iranian hospitality, I was plied with tea and questioned extensively about my life in Australia. They were quite puzzled by my single status, particularly at my age, and fascinated I was travelling by myself. Their curiosity, warmth and kindness abundantly apparent.
In the evening I strolled back towards the river to discover a warm golden light shining out of each and every arch of the historic bridges. As I tried my best to capture the dark and light of these beautiful buildings I couldn’t help but think back to that man, singing beneath the arches.
There had been highs and lows travelling in Esfahan. But in the end it’s the highs that will stay in memory forever – that mesmerising singing, the beautiful arcade lined square, fountains splashing in front of a beautiful mosque and more of Iran’s infamous hospitality.
Sheykh Bahaei Hotel – This was the hotel I stayed in for my first night whilst in Esfahan. A business type of hotel it had a good bed and shower, both a godsend after getting a bit stressed trying to find accommodation!
Saadi Hotel – The second, more affordable but basic, hotel I stayed in whilst in Esfahan. Simple and only USD28 for the room with my own bathroom, plus breakfast which was delivered to your door each morning. The only downside was wifi was extra.
Restaurant Shahzrad is a must while staying in Esfahan. A gorgeous space with walls covered in Persian paintings and lovely windows plus it’s a great place to people watch. The food is excellent. I had the delicious Fesenjun, chicken stew with walnuts and pomegranate juice – one of my favourites while travelling in Iran, yum!