Saturday, June 22, 2013

Kashan: Mansions and Mosques

FAQ #9: You're a vegetarian. Will there be anything for you to eat?

A: According to Lonely Planet and many of the sites I visited, not really. According to my own experience, yes, but (there is always a but) it helps if you like eggplants. Most restaurants, even in the more remote villages, have large multi-item salad bars, which are intended as starters, but usually have a sufficient variety to allow you to make a substantial meal out of just the salads. If you want a hot meal, then a penchant for that omnipresent purple vegetable does come in handy. There must be a hundred different stews devised around the eggplant and I believe I tried most of them.

One myth that was quickly vanished for me was that I was going to have no trouble finding falafel, hummus, tabouli and other foods that I routinely associate with the Middle East. Apparently, these things never really made their way onto the Persian table. The one exception was in the bazaar in Tehran, where one lone vendor sold falafel sandwiches (served not in a pita but on French bread) commonly referred to by Iranians as a "dirty sandwich" for its inherent messiness (as in "Are you really going to eat a dirty sandwich from a street vendor?" A: Yes)
Our next stop, the last one before we returned to Tehran, was most likely chosen because of its geographical location.  It sits between Ishfahan and Tehran and is reportedly known for it bazaar, a fact that I can not to speak to as we were there on a Friday and that baby was locked down. This left us with not a whole lot to see and loads of weekending Persian tourists from both major cities clamoring to see what little there was.

We began at the Khan-e Tabatabei, a 19th century mansion built by a wealthy carpet merchant. The house, with its intricate stucco relief work is a sight to behold, but doing so while clamoring for a spot with dozens of other sightseers, particularly after two weeks of having nearly every attraction to myself, was a bit disconcerting.  

A bird enjoying a sunny day.

The same bird really enjoying a summer day.
Occasionally, there would be a break in the traffic and I would get a chance to jump in there, but for the most part this was the exception and not the rule.

Nearby is another mansion, the Khan-e Boroujerdi, built as a result of possibly one of history's most effective stall tactics.  Wealthy carpet merchant #2 approached wealthy carpet merchant #1 (the owner of the previous mansion) and asked for his daughter's hand in marriage.  The father, who either did not really care to have this guy as his son-in-law or was a bit too attached to his little girl, agreed but only under one condition.  His daughter could not downgrade in the manner of living she was accustomed to, therefore her suitor would have to build a mansion at least as lovely as the father's before he could wed her.

Number 2, also known as Bouroujerdi, clearly succeeded (and I would say surpassed the mark) but not before eighteen years of construction had passed.  It is not known how the parties felt about this protracted engagement but I am guessing he probably could have stopped work around year fifteen and still fully complied with the terms of the agreement.

It was in this house that I met a visiting Iraqi family who told me of the many beautiful sights I should visit in their home country.  They insisted that, despite the news coverage I'd seen, Iraq was safe and open for tourism.  Their Iranian host listened in to this conversation for a couples of minutes before decisively declaring "No, Madam.  Here you are safe. Do not go to Iraq. They will kill you."  As I walked away, they were still debating the likelihood of my surviving that particular adventure.

After visiting the two mansions and a fairly nondescript garden, we returned to the hotel to wait on the evening's activity, which was to be a cooking lesson at a private home. Two hours in, fomo kicked in and I had the hotel hire a taxi to take me to the Masjed-e-Shah (or Shah Mosque, now renamed the Imam Mosque).

The mosque, created by Shah Abbas II, the man responsible for most of Ishfahan, is not as ornate as some of the others I visited, but is stunning in its simplicity.  The driver, who I worried had not understood that he was to wait for me, instantly allayed my concerns by parking the car and escorting my around the mosque, acting as my bodyguard, purse holder and occasional photographer.

From the mosque, it was straight to cooking school, where I was to learn the wonders of the eggplant.  The only problem is that most of these dishes take quite a while to prepare, so in reality all of the cooking was already done by the time I arrived. Seeing as I am not the most culinary person (and by this point, I was well on my way to developing a pronounced aversion to what was becoming my purple nemesis), I was ok with this.

In lieu of an actual class, it was more of a leisurely dinner in a young couple's home.  The next day, we were to reach Tehran, which was where Yasna would leave me to begin another tour, so this was also our last night together.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for being such a gracious host and a pleasure to travel with.  This was truly an unforgettable adventure.

If anyone reading this would like to hire her, let me know and I will happily pass along her information.

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