Angela, globetrotter behind the fantastic Chasing the Unexpected, is going to share her own very unique insight into this lesser-known travel destination while throwing in some top class photography from her wider travels. We’re really looking forward to this one, we hope you are too!
1. Hey Angela! Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in Iran?
I originate from Italy, but already from early age I’ve been developing a true love for travelling. I was 13 when I crossed the equator for the first time, and since then I never stopped moving, with my parents first, then by myself. I decided to study journalism because in my mind it was the profession that more than any other involved constant travelling, but after working for newspapers, magazines and news agencies I realized most of the time it was the average 9-5 office job, hence not what I was yearning for. This is how I decided I needed to go freelance, be location-independent and travel where and when I felt like to. The beginning was hard, and it still is, but little by little I’m getting there!
Chasing The Unexpected came about after two years I was blogging on another platform. I started blogging mainly to showcase my writing and publish the articles rejected by other media, but soon after I was enjoying so much that I started researching the unusual and colourful for my own site rather than pitching it to other publications. Following this philosophy, I launched Chasing The Unexpected, to have a space entirely devoted to overlooked angles and the little known traditions.
I think every country has its hidden gems, but probably due to the lack of awareness, I particularly enjoyed my first trip to Iran and am already thinking about making a second one, hopefully this year. Although I considered myself a critical reader and somehow immune from mainstream hype, I won’t deny I slight preoccupation when I was landing in Tehran. I was worried my clothes weren’t appropriate, I feared my hair would show from underneath the hijab (Islamic headscarf), I was afraid I would do something that would attract police attention, in a nutshell, I was afraid to be constantly breaking some implicit social rule. In the end I was glad no police was looking at me and my hair could freely show like that of many fashionable Iranian girls.
2. What made you choose to travel to Iran and what were your first impressions?
I was invited to Iran by an NGO of cyber-activists in occasion of the International Digital Media Fair that takes place every year in Tehran. While I immediately accepted the invitation, aware that I couldn’t miss such an occasion to see a country where I wouldn’t have probably traveled on my own, I can’t deny an initial anxiety. However, my first impressions were positive in that the atmosphere was very relaxed and rules are not heavily enforced, especially on foreigners.
Iranians are extremely friendly, and one of the first things they ask is if we like Iran. Hospitality is sacred and foreigners will never feel unwelcome.
3. How much money can someone travel around Iran for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
I think the most expensive thing in Iran is accommodation, but mainly in Tehran, because as soon as you get out of the big city you can still find nice hotels for affordable prices. Accommodation costs in Tehran go from a minimum of 50-70USD for a three-star hotel up to 250USD.
Food prices can vary too, going from 60USD for the most expensive restaurants offering Iranian traditional food and live music at night in north of Tehran, up to 7USD for a cheaper restaurant and a local meal like kebab with salad as a side dish. The cheapest meals are to be found in fast food places. I’m a big fan of all nuts, so I was very pleased to see they were cheap, as well as saffron, of which Iran is the world’s biggest producer, very expensive in Italy and the rest of Europe.
The cost of transport with an agency or if you book a taxi is around 200-250USD for a two-way journey Tehran-Qom-Kashan, which was my itinerary. The cheapest way is by bus: for example, from Tehran to Qom and from Qom to Kashan is 2USD each trip.
In general it’s possible to travel by bus, train and plane around the country, but in some areas a taxi or specialised tour operators are required due to the hostility of the environment or the lack of public transport.
4.What is the local cuisine like? Did you find yourself trying new things or pining for the familiars of home?
Iranian cuisine is wide and diverse, with a great use of herbs and spices that make the dishes delicious. Very popular is rice combined with veggies and meat, often beef and chicken. I’ve always adapted to local food in any destination I’ve been, and Iran was no exception. It’s a huge country and they produce a great and diverse quality of veggies, so dish options are numerous, culinary traditions changing also depending on the area.
They have many different veggie-based dishes, so also for vegetarians it shouldn’t be a problem.
5.What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in Iran and why?
When I was in Iran I attended the IDMF, International Digital Media Fair, that takes place in Tehran every year in October. Many countries have their stall there and showcase and sell their products. They also hold interesting workshops, so if someone is to travel to Iran around beginning of October I would definitely suggest to check this out.
I haven’t had the chance to attend any other event or festival, but as far as I know universities and other institutions and companies organise many events such as to promote their natural products or local handicraft. Iran is huge, so I’m sure there is always something to see and attend.
6.What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
Due to current political situation, Iranian culture, traditions and general lifestyle are widely unknown to most people and ignored by media all around, and this is one of my favourite things about travelling there. There are countless things I like about Iran, its history, art, culture, friendly people. It literally is a treasure trove to be uncovered.
My least favourite thing is having to wear a veil: I’m not used to it, I’m clumsy, it keeps falling off and when it’s hot I feel like automatically taking it off. Although, after I left Iran, it did feel weird walking in the street without it!
7.What things do you focus on most when you blog about this country? Why do you choose these things?
Being Iran such a huge and diverse country, I don’t have one specific focus. I wrote about history, religion, architecture, ancient towns and open markets. I do have a soft spot for local markets, this is why I insisted to go see the one in Tehran, and glad I did, it’s one of my most popular posts! Next time I go to Iran, I’ll make sure I’ll visit more markets, I’ve heard the ones in Isfahan are beautiful and showcase much of their local crafts, so they’re not to be missed.
8.What’s one thing you can’t travel around Iran without?
As I said before, since the hijab is mandatory, it’s impossible to travel around Iran without, but that’s for women. In general it’s always good to have a map and a dictionary you can show when you need some info, I haven’t found many speaking-English people, and since their alphabet is Arabic, I wouldn’t venture in trying to use it.
You can buy everything in Iran, but the one thing you must bring from home is enough cash for all your expenses during the whole trip. Iran is under heavy economic sanctions, and although this implies that visitors are very likely to buy truly Iranian goods, the drawback for foreigners is that they can’t withdraw cash from local ATMs. This is why it’s mandatory to bring cash, either Euro, pounds sterling or dollars, that can be exchanged at the airport, at the many banks and agencies scattered all over Tehran, and often at the hotel itself.
9. What kind of response have you had to your blogs about Iran? What post had the most interest?
I’ve had a great response, both from my old readers and by gaining many new ones. People are clearly curious about Iran, especially because it’s not exactly in the top ten of world’s most popular travel destinations, however a huge response came from Iranians themselves, who loved reading the impressions of a foreign traveller about their country.
I’ve also had some hostile responses accusing me of defending the Iranian regime and suggesting I should be ashamed of publishing my photos wearing a hijab, but that’s part of the trick, different people, different opinions.
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone told you before you started travelling in Iran what would it be?
Probably that it was so cheap, I would have brought more cash and a bigger suitcase!