If central Paris, with its many eye-catching bridges crisscrossing the Seine is the City of Love, then the majestic, ancient city of Isfahan in central Iran could well be the City of Picnickers.
The 400-kilometer Zayanderud river runs through Isfahan and on most nights there are families, couples and groups of friends gathered on its wide, welcoming banks to watch the sunset.
On hotter days the locals bring watermelons, placing them in one of the many howz – turquoise colored pools of water – dotted along the river and in the city’s nearby parks and then share around the cool, refreshing watermelon just as they've done here for centuries, smh.com.au reported.
Isfahan’s population of close to two million people makes it the third-largest city in Iran behind Tehran, 450 kilometers to the north with a population of nine million people, and Mashhad in the northeast of the country, which has a population of three million.
The warm, dry climate in May (while vacationing there this year) meant the temperature was not uncomfortable, as long as you take advantage of shade when and where it becomes available.
One of the best places to keep out of the sun is the bustling, magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a World Heritage Site which, at 560 meters by 160 meters, is one of the oldest and largest public squares anywhere in the world.
The entire perimeter of Naqsh-e Jahan Square is lined with the many shops that make up the Grand Bazaar, where you can buy anything from jewelry to handmade Persian carpets, antiques and exquisite termeh, the handwoven decorative cloth that’s found in so many Iranian homes.
Walking through the bazaar, particularly the area known as Mesgarha, there’s a constant ‘tink, tink, tink’ sound ringing out as craftsmen shape copper pots, jugs, plates and bowls with their hammers. Walk a little further and you come across yet more craftsmen, this time molding iron into decorative pieces, often used for Shia religious ceremonies.
At the south end of the bazaar is the Imam Mosque and it is a must-see for anybody fortunate enough to visit Isfahan. Inside, the eye-popping, glorious color of the thousands of tiles decorating every inch of the walls and ceilings have an enormously calming effect.
On one side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square with its wide veranda overlooking the entire area below, is Aali Qapu Palace, first built in 1519 during the Safavid Dynasty. Today its six levels are a reminder of where Isfahan’s monarchs once entertained visitors from far and wide across the Middle East, its many rooms still attracting hundreds of sightseers, like myself, each day.
Si-o-Se-Pol is the largest of the 11 bridges crossing the river and one of the city’s most popular with tourists and locals. As day turns to night the lights on Si-o-Se-Pol shimmer in a golden glow on the vast river, which this year stopped flowing for many months as Isfahan and the surrounding area had a prolonged dry spell.
On this part of my trip through the interior of Iran, venturing from Tehran to Shiraz, I’ve treated myself to a night in Isfahan’s celebrated Abbasi Hotel, an ornately decorated 400-year-old building, most recently renovated in 1950.
First built as a caravansary to provide lodgings for those traveling vast distances across the unforgiving Persian plateau, Abbasi Hotel is now a modern, upmarket oasis for travelers to this extraordinary part of the world.
The lush, expansive garden features a grand fountain, ideal for relaxing by while enjoying some faloodeh, a traditional Persian dessert, similar to a sorbet with rose water.
* Martin Boulton is the editor at The Age and shortlist editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.