Escapism

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Iran: Love songs in the shadow of a bridge

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The Zayandeh River, which flows throw the central Iranian city of Isfahan, provides a romantic oasis for residents and tourists alike to visit. Photo / Jill Worrall
The Zayandeh River, which flows throw the central Iranian city of Isfahan, provides a romantic oasis for residents and tourists alike to visit. Photo / Jill Worrall

It's evening in Isfahan, central Iran. Although it's autumn, temperatures are still balmy and the banks of the Zayandeh River which flows through the city are buzzing with life.

Isfahanis love their riverside parks, but so too do Iranians from out of town. Maybe because Iranians seem to be more night owls than early birds and perhaps because the romance of the river at night appeals to the Persian soul, evenings are the favourite time to come here.

Ever since my first visit to Iran five years ago, Isfahan's river has captivated me too.

No matter how exhausting the day might have been taking our groups around the city's multitude of treasures, my friend and group guide Reza and I always manage to stagger down here at night when our work is done.

First there's the walk down one of Isfahan's busier shopping streets, past stores selling the latest in skinny jeans and t-shirts, and resisting the temptation to stop for French fries or cream-freezes (younger Iranians, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, are enthusiastic consumers of takeaways).

Then there's the brief dice with death crossing the intersection with the congested boulevards that border the river.

As I thread my way through the traffic I usually mentally pause to ponder the irony that although so much of the world regards Iran as dangerous, bristling with fundamental terrorists and rampant mullahs, it is in fact remarkably safe for tourists.

Crossing the road is about as perilous as it gets, with the possibility of a tea and kebab overload a close second. The latter is often the fall-out from Iranians' overwhelming hospitality ("eat more" is a common refrain).

In front of us is the Si-O-She Bridge, or Bridge of 33 Arches. It was built in 1602 at the command of Shah Abbas the Great and is a favourite hang-out for Iranians of all ages.

The bridge is now traffic-free and is always thronged with promenading couples, gaggles of giggling girls and huddles of spike-haired, ultra-cool young men.

Don't be fooled by the prerequisite head coverings worn by the women; although there are some in more conservative black veils in Isfahan in the evening you're more likely to encounter sparkly headscarves, beneath which are artfully made-up almond eyes, glossy lipstick and - at ground level - the latest in high-heeled boots.

Each of the 33 arches on both sides of the bridge is floodlit and one of the best ways to enjoy the bridge is to dip and duck along the narrow ledges that flank the main thoroughfare high above the gurgling river.

Down at river level, at one end of the bridge and dispersed over several of the pier foundations, is a tea house.

We usually try to secure one of the rickety metal tables closest to the water and until a few years ago would sip glasses of black tea while smoking qaylan (hubble bubble).

However hubble-bubble, by city authority decree is now hard to find, especially in very public tea houses like this one, and sadly the tea is now served in plastic cups.

Still, it is tea under the arches and when there's sufficient water in the river, a fountain shoots up a tall jet downstream adding to the ambience (if not totally replacing the forbidden pleasure of a puff of apple-flavoured tobacco).

Fortified with tea we set off down one of the riverside paths. Iranians are champion picnickers so on the grassy banks whole families are tucking into vast feasts spread out on carpets. Some even bring their own braziers to grill kebabs and heat charcoal for their own hubble-bubble.

The aroma of cooking lamb and the waft of orange-flavoured tobacco drifts along the path with us and around the exercise stations that Isfahanis used to work off their picnic excesses.

I am intrigued to watch a young woman in full-length chador studiously working out on a stepping machine.

Rollerskaters, joggers and pedestrians share the pathway, and when water is plentiful, there are often pedal-boats out in the water too.

Eventually we reach the second of Isfahan's most treasured bridges, Kaahju. This is another 17th century masterpiece and can be crossed on two different levels.

The upper storey is the more elegant walkway of the two but down at river-level is more fun. When the river is in full flow it is exhilarating to perch on the stepped abutments as the water rushes through the narrow channels created by the arches.

Perhaps best of all, under the arches themselves has become the place for impromptu concerts. Men of all ages take turns to sing, their voices echoing through the stone chambers, their audience sometimes hidden in the shadows.

Before we return through the now emptying streets we will lean against the still-warm stones of Shab Abbas' bridge and listen to the lilting melodies rising above the murmur of the Zayandeh.

Reza translates some of the songs' meanings: "People might think Iran is very different but songwriters here have the same concerns," he says.

"These are songs of love, lost love, found love, broken hearts..."

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