Proud of the Persian culture
Boasting an ancient and sophisticated culture, Iranians speak Farsi, one of the oldest living languages, and most speak an impressive level of English, which they are not shy about practicing with you.
They are quick to inform you that they are Persians, not Arabs, and will gladly tell you just what they think of the country's tenuous rapport with Saudi Arabia.
Given Persians' long-standing tradition of being well-traveled and very well-educated, a strong national identity and pride prevails. The notion of beauty and poetry is everywhere in a country that is both exotic and comfortable with an underlying nuance of sensuality.
Iran is more than twice the size of Texas and mostly desert. But it is also a country of great beauty, natural and man-made: high, arid mountains, rural villages of adobe homes, some of the world's oldest (and painstakingly restored) archaeological sites and flourishing modern cities that are millennia old.
There is even a popular ski resort an hour's drive from Tehran. Roads are good, and our bus was modern and comfortable, though bathroom stops were a succession of "squatty potties" that kept us yearning for the elusive Western toilet.
Tabriz, a former capital in the northwest area of the country, made for a beautiful introduction to Iran. Its massive and ancient bazaar (some parts of the 2.75 square-mile market date back a thousand years) evokes the city's history as a classic stop along the Silk Road, with a section dedicated to handmade carpets, each a masterpiece of skill, once written of admiringly by Marco Polo.
A day excursion brought us to tiny Kandovan, a kind of Cappadocia in miniature.
With its notorious traffic and visible extremes of wealthy haves and impoverished have-nots, Tehran is surprisingly modern in places, with hotels, art galleries and a clutch of fashion boutiques that would not look out of place in Europe's capitals.
"Tehran's impressive museums make the city an absolute priority," Lucas said. "In particular, the Crown Jewels as well as the newly opened Islamic section of the National Museum," which had reopened months before our arrival after an extensive 9-year renovation.
We drove past the former American Embassy, the "nest of spies" that was the site of the 1979 takeover by Iranian student revolutionaries who held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year. It is kept as a sort of museum of the revolution with anti-American murals still covering its outside walls. (Anti-American slogans in general, we were told, referred only to American policy and not the American people.) The British embassy reopened just weeks after the nuclear agreement made news, following a four-year closure; in response Iran reopened its embassy in London. There is no talk of the American Embassy reopening any time soon.
Our only domestic flight brought us to the desert capital of Yazd, a fascinating city known for its mud-brick historic quarter, towerlike buildings traditionally known as wind catchers, and its pre-Islamic fire-based Zoroastrian religion symbolized by a flame that is said to have been burning since 470, transferred from its original site in 1940.
Exploring the cultural heartland
Refined Shiraz is the fabled heartland of Persian culture. With a long history of literary, artistic and intellectual patronage, it was the seat of the 18th century capital once famed for its vineyards, which no longer exist.
Iranians love Shiraz for its beautiful gardens and for being the city of love and poetry. Much of the latter is due to the revered 14th century poet Hafez, whose parklike tomb is a popular meeting place for groups of friends or young couples who come and read to each other the poet's verses of love.
Shiraz is also the base from which to visit Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the largest empire that ever existed, dating to 515 B.C. It was destroyed in 330 B.C. during Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia and disappeared beneath the desert sands until it was excavated in the 1930s.
The sprawling site is tainted with infamy today as a result of the shah's ostentatious commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, staged in 1971 for an astounding $90 million ($516 million in today's dollars). This over-the-top attempt to instill nationalistic pride backfired royally.
Esfahan, also commonly spelled Isfahan, is Iran's real showstopper and was appropriately saved for our last stop on the itinerary.
I thought maybe I could live in Esfahan, with its wide, tree-lined avenues and dreamy bridges. The vast Imam Square is its gem, one of the largest in the world, site of some of the most significant achievements of Islamic architecture and extravagant decorative work, all within strolling distance. Tourists are few and welcome, though incidental, in the ancient bazaar, where most shoppers are Iranian, prices are modest and bargaining is gentle.