Many travel guides to Iran offer this advice when it comes to Tehran: Get out of town as soon as you can. Seek out the prettier spots the country has to offer.
Bad advice, in my opinion. Sure, Tehran is humongous, overcrowded, and noisy. The air is practically unbreathable. Crossing the chaotic streets requires nerves of steel and a strong sense of calculated risk. (Drivers don’t stop just because a pedestrian happens to stand in the way). But Tehran offers a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity, from the chic European-style boutiques on Vanak Square to the traditional (and fragrant) spice markets in the bazaars.
The Tehran neighborhood that best represents this blend of old and new is Darband. Once a separate village, whose name means “closed gate,” this district has long since been incorporated into the metropolis. It is a maze of narrow streets, snack shops, and restaurants wedged tightly between the city proper and the Alborz Mountains. A tourist paradise, Darband is also a popular destination for the locals, particularly the young, hip crowd. But watch out for the enterprising shopkeepers who try to charge for premium curbside parking spots. The fact that the streets are public doesn’t stop them from trying to make an extra, not strictly legitimate profit.
The higher reaches of this sloping neighborhood mark the starting point of a popular hiking trail that winds up the side of Mount Tochal, crossing streams and bordering deep ravines. Tehranis are big on exercise in the fresh air, and nowhere in the city is the air clearer and cleaner than in Darband. Tehran is the only city I know of where you can walk straight from the city into the mountains without driving long distances into the countryside.
Lower down, the trail is lined with restaurants that the locals call ghaveh-khaneh sonnati, or traditional coffee shops. Don’t be fooled by the name; you’re more likely to find tea than coffee served here. The tables, known as takhts, have no chairs, and you sit right on a carpet spread over the top (shoes off, please). Tea arrives on round trays and comes with saffron-scented nabat (rock candy on a stick), and a side of fresh, syrupy dates.
My favorite time to visit Darband is at night, when the lights of the coffee shops on the mountain twinkle far above your head and the air is filled with the crackling of charcoal fires and the smoky aromas of grilling lamb and chicken kebabs. The glow of lamplight from snack shop doorways, where tables are piled high with jars of brined fresh walnuts and dried berries glistening in a bright red syrup, adds a festive spark.
I like to find a takht next to the stream that runs beside the trail and engage in my favorite hobby: people watching. The flow of humanity along the trail is a cross-section of Tehran society: conservative women in black chadors, who amazingly manage to avoid tripping over the hems of their voluminous cloaks and go tumbling into the stream. The young and hip also manage to negotiate the rough path safely in stylish heels, brightly colored headscarves, and clingy, thigh-length tunics—just barely within the parameters of Islamic modesty laws. The lovers at the next table hold hands and feed each other sticky dates (a no-no in an Islamic society where dating is officially banned, and yet couples routinely ignore that particular rule). Nearby, a group of friends, men and women mixed, share an apple-scented smoke from a ghalyan, or hookah, which is also banned, yet readily available for rent from any teahouse. Rules can be flexible in this part of Tehran.
On a recent trip to Darband, I saw a sight that expressed everything this neighborhood means to me. A donkey, staggering under the burden on its back, stood outside a small refreshment shop. A man was busy unloading its cargo of plastic water bottles for sale in the store, necessary refreshment for those hikers off on a trek into the mountains. It was winter and the mountain trail covered with snow, but I yearned to grab a few supplies, shoulder my day pack, and head for the hills.
Do you know a favorite spot that perfectly reflects the character of a particular city or region?