My hands-down (hands-in!) favourite feed in India was the Thali. These ‘set meals’ were always the best value and represented an assortment of typical, local food of the area, varying enormously between states and regions. Thali’s were always the most popular choice in cafes and restaurants so you were eating the freshest food, albeit often a mystery as to what would appear on the table in front of you. Thalis are incredible value, in Thokkilangadi, Kerala, we paid the equivalent of 45p for a Fish Thali, with as much as you could eat.
The word ‘Thali’ can be translated directly as the Hindi word for ‘plate’ or ‘tray’, on which the set meal is served. The only choice you generally have is Veg, Fish or Non-Veg, with vegetarian being the most common. As everything is prepared and bubbling away in huge pots in the kitchen, your meal is presented in minutes.
The meal is like a colourful, symmetrical, work of art; sometimes the selection of curries and dahls are ladled into small, round, individual, metal bowls, sometimes piled carefully directly onto a round metal tray or banana leaf, occasionally into pre-formed plastic trays. On the side, pickles, chutneys, sauces, salad, salt, fresh chillies, onion and yoghurt raita are carefully placed. Some Thalis include a desert also, a tidy portion of syrupy Gulab Jamun, sweet semolina rice, ice-cream or sticky Jilabi.
If you’re hungry, the Thali is a delight as once you’ve emptied one small bowl, it is re-filled; in busy restaurants men with narrow metal buckets filled with Sambar, Dahl and Curry fly round the floor ladling out top-ups to every table. Cutlery is not an option, locals expertly mix the components of the Thali together with deft fingers- food unanimously tastes better when eaten by hand.
Variations are endless, in the south rice is a more common accompaniment whereas breads feature more heavily in the north. Thali’s reflect the wide-ranging cuisine of the country, coconut-based down south with fish, and creamy, meaty curries in the north, every time is a surprise and a delight with no tough menu decisions to be made.
There is simply no better way to start your day in the South of India than feasting on one of the regions fresh, mouth-watering breakfasts. Roadside, beachside, village, town or city, tiny cafes, restaurants and street stalls churn out simple breakfast staples to a steady flow of hungry morning diners. Varying from a simple shack with a single steaming pan of Idli to a shiny modern canteen with a Dosa list as long as the monster pancakes themselves, breakfast is a meal not to be missed when in the southern states.
Dosas are thin pancakes made from fermented rice flour batter, they can be crispy and plain (Saada Dosa), stuffed with spicy potato curry (Masala Dosa), made with semolina flour (Rava Dosa), a pile of thick and fluffy dosas with lentils (Set Dosa) or white and watery (Neer Dosa). Flat, round, rolled-up, triangular or conical, the Dosa shape is often as diverse as its filling. The same rice flour batter is also used to make Uttapam, a thicker crepe that often has onion or tomato mixed in with the batter.
Ubiquitously served with fresh coconut chutney and Sambar, the chutney is often so fresh we once waited for the guy to climb a nearby palm tree to cut down the coconut to make it. Sambar is a watery, spicy lentil-based vegetable stew which is synonymous with south Indian dishes, dunking your Dosa or Idli into a small metal bowl of piping hot spicy liquid is a standard part of the breakfast routine.
Idli are soft, white, steamed lentil rice cakes, like round fluffy pillows of deliciousness waiting to be dipped into fiery Samba and velvety coconut chutney. Vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from lentil or chickpea Dahl, deep fried so they are fluffy and light on the inside and golden and crispy on the outside. Sometimes served alongside Idli, they are also dipped in the universal Chutney and Sambar.
With plates of Idli or Vada costing as little as the equivalent of 30p and a Dosa around 50p, breakfasts in the south were fast, fresh, inexpensive and utterly delicious, we miss them already!
Only a few kilometres from one of the worlds most visited monuments, The Taj Mahal, lies the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on the peaceful Yamuna River.
The centre houses and cares for 211 Indian sloth bears, all rescued from the horrendous former practice of ‘dancing bears’.
Historically, Indian Sloth bears cubs were stolen from their mothers, their muzzles pierced with a red-hot iron poker and a rope attached through their nose to force them on to their hind legs to ‘dance’; first for Mughal Emperors, then for local crowds and tourists. The bears endured a life of pain and suffering with health problems, cramped cages and poor food.
In 1996, research carried out by the non-governmental organisation Wildlife SOS revealed 1,200 dancing bears in India. Over the next 12 years, Wildlife SOS achieved the incredible task of rescuing and rehabilitating more than 600 bears until the last dancing bear was rescued in 2009.
We had a tour around the rescue centre in Agra, where groups of rescued bears roam in large enclosures, each group cared for by dedicated keepers. Their health is continually monitored as years of abuse and malnutrition, plus the physical scars of their nose piercings and canine teeth removal can cause them ongoing problems.
In a sad reminder of their past lives in servitude, their noses still show tears and holes where their ropes were tied and some bears still sway repeatedly, still haunted by years spent in confinement.
A visit to one of the centres two kitchens revealed the enormous scale of feeding over 200 large mammals; huge vats of wheat and millet porridge with honey and milk sat ready to be distributed to the bears for one of their three daily feeds, alongside boiled eggs, fresh fruit and cooked vegetables.
It was amazing to watch these majestic animals, finally free from their lives of painful performance and torture, now able to enjoy social interaction, good food, natural behaviours and a life in peaceful nature.
It’s an incredible success story for conservation and animal welfare in India and demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short space of time by dedicated and passionate individuals Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani and their team. Volunteers from around the world come to the facility to give their time to help feed and care for the bears, as well as raising awareness and much-needed funds for the ongoing work of the organisation.
Despite the trade in dancing bears being over, the threat of poaching of Indian Sloth Bears still remains. We met ‘Elvis’ who was recently confiscated on the border with Nepal on his way to China where there is still a lucrative market in bear ‘parts’ for medicine. Fortunately he was rescued in time and is now in quarantine at the centre where he is doing well.
You can visit the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and even arrange to spend a day with keepers to learn more about their work caring for the bears; http://wildlifesos.org/agra-bear-rescue-facility or follow their fantastic work with wildlife on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wildlifesosindia
As we travel overland we often notice quirky idiosyncrasies about the world around us. It’s no mystery that India is unlike any other country and respectively our observations here are quite unique. In Kerala state in particular the Indian definition of ‘cool’ has seemingly manifested itself in the shape of a slightly overweight, smiley, 30-something, moustached - ‘Kerala Man’. The trustworthy Kerala Man ‘look’ is literally plastered everywhere in Kerala and is used to sell all manner of products from movies and diamonds to politics.
About 5 years ago I came across a video on Youtube of an Indian guy hand-painting the gold pinstripes onto the petrol tank of a Royal Enfield motorcycle. In a country where traditional skills often haven’t been mechanised: the skill, craftsmanship and mastery of the brush was something sincerely Indian and completely fascinating to watch.
India’s relationship with the British built Royal Enfield Bullet began in 1949 when the Indian Army ordered Royal Enfield Bullets for border patrol use. The bikes were imported in kit form from the UK and assembled in Chennai.
Before long Enfield India Ltd soon developed and opened a production factory completely independently under licence in Madras. The 1955, Indian built Royal Enfield Bullet model remained almost unchanged for years and the Madras plant produced over 20,000 Bullets annually.
The Bullet is now produced in Chennai and has the longest production run of any motorcycle having remained continuously in production since 1948. The Bullet marque is even older, and has passed 75 years of continuous production.
The company has now reached cult status within India and has begun to cash in on its celebrity as the Indian economy grows. Trendy outlets selling the Retro Street range of Bullets can also sell you colour coordinated helmets, leather jackets and knitwear to complete the look.
Yoga is big business in India, wander around the tourist hubs of Goa and Kerala early morning and you will see many committed souls in designer yoga pants, clutching their rolled-up mates under their arms, faces full of serenity, smugness yet definitely a little self-regret as they file to ashrams and yoga centres for a few hours of uplifting uncomfortableness.
Invited by a fellow road-trip enthusiast to stay at his family’s Ayurveda resort, I was presented with the opportunity to attend a dawn yoga class. So many people do this weird spiritual stretching that I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. I was reassured by staff and fellow guests at the resort that “yoga was about your own personal abilities, with no competition or stress” and that the teacher was “not aggressive” and the class “suitable for beginners and all abilities… just do things at your own pace”. These people, I would like to point out, were not at the 5.45am class and based on their advice had never attended one.
The teacher, a young, slim Indian man, was sat crossed-legged at the front of the class, egotistically in front of a large portrait of Buddha in the same position. The room was lit only by a small candle at the front. I sat in the far corner at the back, alongside three perfectly-toned European women. Everyone lay down and the three women covered themselves with floaty, ethnic-patterned scarves (should have done my research, thought lycra and mat was the total checklist)… surely not a scarf for warmth, this is South India? Mosquito’s maybe, I was struggling to hold my hands in the gyan mudra position without the odd swipe at my bare ankles to deter the blood-thirsty buggers. Until now, the lycra leggings in my clothing box served only the purpose of an extra layer under trousers in sub-zero temperatures so at least they were getting extra wear.
We all sat up, crossed-legged and the teacher began humming and chanting. The three women joined in, chanting and humming in unison. I closed my eyes and cringed, hoping they would soon stop this kind of trendy Hindu humming.
One of the reasons for choosing at 5.45am class was that it was dark, therefore surely reducing the humiliation factor. Once the spiritual singing was over, the teacher turned on a small light in the far, back corner of the room. My far, back corner. Now in my own personal spotlight he made a beeline for me and asked if I knew “something something Samsara” I managed to whisper to the instructor that it was my first time trying Yoga, clearly giving him an “I’m inexperienced, not crap” look. And that will be a definite no to the ‘something something samsara’.
The other women launched expertly into some kind of routine under softly, sung instructions from the teacher; standing with hands ‘praying’, stretching arms above head and bending backwards (slightly unnerved by the fact the women in front of me was now looking at me, despite her body still facing the opposite direction). There was leg lunging, back-arching, arm-stretching and head twisting. Each position I successfully managed to achieve was pushed expertly into the pain threshold by the teacher; knee a little bit further over (ouch), leg a bit higher (ouch), chest closer to the floor (ouch). Even my ‘relaxed’ lying on my back was changed to widen my legs (seriously even I wouldn’t have touched my feet after 2 months wearing only flip-flops adventuring round India).
Every time I closed my eyes I would hear his feet echoing on the wooden floor coming towards me to contort my body into more pain. How could I inhale and exhale deeply when I literally held my breath whenever he walked past for fear he would actually try and tie me in a knot. It is not easy to attain the perfect position in line with the universe when your head is twisting in line with the person next to you so you can copy them.
Even before sunrise, the Keralan backwaters are stiflingly hot and humid so now with hair stuck to my face with sweat I was hoping he didn’t move any clammy, sticky part of me for both our sakes.
We lay on our backs and lifted alternate legs into the air, momentarily impressed with my straight (yet shaking) leg I noticed the woman in front of me had managed to hook her foot to the back of her head. Lying stretched out with back arched unnaturally our Indian instructor encouraged us to “try and look at the ceiling” I admit I was stretching more to try and look at the clock on the wall (only half way, another 45 minutes to go).
I have never been able to ‘clear my mind of thoughts’, especially difficult when the yoga hall is above the kitchen and you can smell the mornings Sambah cooking and I’m more focused on what’s for breakfast rather than aligning my Chakras.
Inhale downwards dog… exhale upwards dog. What?!? When I was up, they were down, when I was stretched out in a leg lunge, they were already in a tight ball. I found myself crumpling in a heap when he wasn’t looking, then straining to obtain physical, contorted perfection when his gaze turned to my direction. This is supposed to be relaxing?
This actually hurt, I was relieved when the dogs of all directions slowed down and the session seemed to be winding down. Back in our lotus-like sitting positions we were instructed to cover our right nostril with our right thumb, then breathe out rhythmically and forcefully through the opposite nostril. Repeated several times with each nostril, then both nostrils together, until you resemble something of an asthmatic pig trying to free a stone wedged up its nostril. Or maybe that was just me.
It was difficult to know if the people around me were actually enjoying what they were doing. I certainly felt good at the end of the class, but mainly because it was over. As the sun rose over the misty backwaters, my attention veered to try and identify the bird I could see wandering across the grass from the window… birdwatching, now that’s actually a relaxing hobby that I can get up at unearthly hours for. Keep your mat, I’ll stick to my binoculars.
No-one forgets their first day in India- a full on sensory onslaught of sights, smells, and sounds with the volume and colour saturation turned up to maximum. Then add extra glitter and bells. Our journey started in Mumbai (our car was to join us later than planned due to the logistical minefield that is Indian customs). Mumbai is a heaving metropolis with millions jostling for space on the cramped island peninsular. It’s worth spending a couple of days in the city, striking colonial architecture gives the city a grand, old-fashioned feel alongside modern, luxury buildings along sweeping Marine Drive. The Iconic Gateway to India and Taj Palace Hotel dominate the seafront where crowds of tourists gather and mingle at sunset. Family groups huddle round snack ‘chaat’ on Chowpatty beach and boats chug to and from the Gateway, ferrying visitors out to nearby Elephanta Island with incredible rock-cut caves and with carved temples.
So the journey begins, for us travelling in our trusty Toyota Hilux ‘Bee-bee’ we bumped slowly along Maharashtra’s chaotic and crowded roads, swerving round cows and rickshaws in a constant cacophony of horns beeping. Travel options are varied and include private taxis, local and tourist buses, trains or brave the Indian roads yourself and hire a car or motorbike. For short distances 3-wheeler auto-rickshaws veer and bounce through urban backstreets- every transport medium is recommended for the full Indian tour experience.
This stretch of our travels in India would see us travel the south-western coast from Mumbai, all the way to the southernmost point of the country at Kanyakumari.
We paused in Goa state at Agonda and Patnem beaches, a far cry from the hippy-heyday but an easy introduction to South India as the state attracts tourists in their droves. Tie-dye and techno beats fill the beach huts and restaurants with idyllic sunsets over the horizon.
The next state on route is Karnataka, our first stop Gokarna where pilgrims flocked to visit the ancient temple, wrapped in orange lunghi skirts and dutifully bearing offerings of coconuts, pink lotus flowers and butter lamps.
Moving inland we weaved our way into the hills to India’s highest waterfall at Jog Falls then camped amongst Malabar Hornbills and Barking Deer in Sharvati Wildlife Reserve. Emerging from the jungle and back down towards the humid coastal plain we visited Murudeshwara, the world’s second largest Shiva statue looming over the coastline, shimmering silver in the sunlight overlooking a bustling temple complex of devout pilgrims offering gifts and prayers at his feet.
Another important stop on the pilgrimage trail is Udupi, at dusk one of the huge temple chariots on wheels loomed around the inner courtyard of the temple complex in a procession of drummers and young masked boys cartwheeling through a path of fire.
We crossed into the coconut palm-fringed state of Kerala, the northern coastline is largely deserted with gorgeous sandy beaches backed by wooded hills inland. We were fortunate enough to witness the extraordinary event of Theyyam in the tiny village of Parassinikadavu. Before sunrise, in a modest temple on the banks of the murky river, elaborately-dressed priests become possessed by the Hindu God Shiva and enact a series of offerings through dance to the heady repetitive beats of white-cloth wearing temple drummers. The atmosphere is electric as the drum beats intensify and accelerate to a climax of trance-like movements from the priests wearing towering, decorated headdresses, thick orange body paint, with silver eye patches and jangling embellished skirts.
The natural environment of Kerala state is jaw-dropping, both inland and along the coast. We ventured into the pristine forests of the Western Ghats and took a jeep safari into Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, an area rich in wildlife. Spotted Deer peep shyly from the forest, Indian bison, Langur monkeys, Malabar Squirrels, numerous bird species and the highlight- a group of 3 wild elephants crossing the track in front of us.
Briefly entering Tamil Nadu state we visited the regal city of Mysore, the main attraction of the city being its outstanding palace with magnificent halls and pavilions ornately decorated with colourful carvings, paintings and stained glass. Winding our way through the rolling hills of lush tea plantations with colourful villages clinging to the bright green slopes we passed the hill station of Ooty. Further south, the town of Munnar is also surrounded by tea and the tropical jungle hills bursting with spice gardens; cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, pepper and cloves growing wild.
Kerala is famed for its backwaters and as we slid away silently from the jetty near Kottyam on the still waters, our narrow wooden rowing boat gently gliding across the calm surface, it is easy to see why people travel to this watery paradise. The sound of melodic Bollywood drifted across the water from a small cottage, a lady washing the previous night’s pots and pans at the bottom of steps to the dark water. Vivid flashes of electric blue Kingfishers dart across the surface, elegant white Egrets tiptoe through the shallows and camouflaged Pond Herons creep across mats of floating water hyacinth. Stunning cerise water lilies burst floating from the margins as a flame-orange sun rises high over the misty rice paddies.
At Varkala an idyllic sandy beach stretches as far as the eye can see from a high cliff vantage point, surf rolling in from the Indian Ocean.
No trip to Kerala would be complete without sampling the intense dance-drama of Kathkali, one of the world’s oldest forms of theatre. In Trivandrum, a flamboyantly dressed actor leaps onto the stage, face painted thick with green paint twitching and gurning to the fast drumbeats, haunting chants and clashing cymbals.
As we crossed into coastal Tamil Nadu, villages are dominated by ornate and beautifully bizarre gateways leading to pyramid-topped temples bursting with colour and intricate carved statues of the many deity manifestations.
Our final point on our southwestern Indian coastal voyage was Kanyakumari, the most southern point of India where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean meet. Watching the sun set from this ‘land’s end’ point seemed a fitting end to this stage of our overland journey, as the moon simultaneously rises over the iridescent water we looked forward to our onward travels back North.
This article originally appeared in Envoyage Inflight Magazine where we have been guest travel writers for the last year or so. Back issues are available for download using the Newstand App on iPhone and iPad.
Envoyage is the in-flight lifestyle magazine for Aurigny, the Channel Islanders' airline, voted Best Short Haul Airline by Which? readers in 2013. To find out more click here.
Tehran is an incredibly vibrant, modern city with L.A-esq elevated highways, an impeccably clean and advert free metro system and a whole host of well-maintained parks and gardens. Throughout the city you can’t help but be astounded at the amount of gigantic murals, mosaics and sculptures all strategically placed and implemented with precision.
Mural painting has long been part of Tehran’s urban background. Prior to the revolution of 1979 the government would emblazon blank walls with their messages. During the revolution both the Shah and the revolutionaries that would eventually topple him used blank walls to propagate their ideas and messages. During the Iran-Iraq war, under the direction of the new prime minister, murals began to appear depicting heroic battle scenes. In post-war Tehran memorial murals of soldiers killed in the war dominate the skyline often looming down over highways from surrounding tower blocks, the faces of the martyrs ascending to heaven!
Thankfully the city’s now colourful image is in part thanks to Tehran Municipality’s Beautification Organization. Since 2004 this non-governmental body has commissioned over 800 murals with the idea of ‘beautifying’ the city. Many of the paintings are colourful, abstract and overtly non-political.
The remaining paintings, most of which have been completed by one prolific artist, are more surreal. With over 100 paintings under his belt Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s huge optically confusing dreamlike masterpieces have come to worldwide attention. His paintings are so popular in Tehran that he has fallen victim to imitators who try and mimic his style.
Ghadyanloo’s mastery of trompe l’oeil is hard to emulate; his paintings, often reminiscent of the dream sequences in Vanilla Sky or Inception, have a wry lucid wit about them. Buildings fold in on themselves; a painted sky merges with reality as flying cars offer a glimpse at a utopian future while gravity-defying humans walk in circles. If an imitator comes close to replicating his style he is certainly not likely to be able to duplicate Ghadyanloo’s wit.
Large grey facades are intersected with glimpses of clear blue skies leaving the unbroken concrete city skyline feeling airier and open. This expression of light and space can be seen as an optimistic glimpse of the future or a visual manifestation of a new attitude embraced by many Tehranis, either way these paintings dominate space that was previously only claimed by the government.
The account of the Iranian Royal Family prior, during and after the revolution of 1979 is an interesting one.
My interest in the story comes through my love of architecture. I’d previously learnt that Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi had studied architecture and after visiting her personal library at the Royal Palace of Niavaran I was curious to find out more. Unexpectedly I discovered that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation had three buildings registered in Iran; two of which were commissioned by Princess Shams Pahlavi, the deposed Shah's sister and her husband, Mehrdad Pahlbod - the then minister of culture and art.
The remaining building, The Damavand Higher Educational Institute, also has an inspirational story attached to it, one that will have to wait for another blog!
Of the two properties commissioned by the Princess, the summer residence known as Mehrafarin Palace in Chalous, is incredibly difficult to find any information on. My understanding is that it was never completed due to the revolution and I’m uncertain of its location or if it is actually still standing.
The most prestigious and spectacular of the two palaces, the Morvarid Palace, also known as ‘Pearl Palace’ in Mehrshahr, Karaj was completed in the early 1970’s and then promptly abandoned shortly before the revolution of 1979.
After the revolution the majority of the complex was occupied by a local Baseej Militia chapter who neglected its upkeep. For a very brief period of time the palace was open to the public but has been closed for many years and the uncertainty of it’s future has been greatly debated on the internet as photographs of its disrepair circulated.
Through a few carefully orchestrated enquiries by our film crew we were privileged enough to organise a visit to this truly remarkable building.
Frank Lloyd Wright is considered by many to be one of the most influential architects of the 20th Century. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation was set-up after his death in 1959 to manage his estate. As part of the foundation the Taliesin Associated Architectural practice was founded by Wright’s protégé and son-in-law William Wesley Peters to continue Wright’s architectural vision.
The Pearl Palace was designed primarily by William Wesley Peters, but undoubtedly Charles Montooth, Frances Nemtim and Cornelia Brierly contributed to the design. Associated senior fellow at Taliesin, Thomas Casey served as chief engineer and spent a considerable amount of time in Iran.
It is my understanding that when the Princess was presented with the original drawings she was so emotionally moved, because they had envisioned the Palace that she dreamed of, that she burst into tears and had to leave the room to collect herself.
Nestled into a large site over low-sloping hills adjacent to a small artificial lake, the palace is not what you’d typically expect a Princess’ palace to look like! The building is a study and exploration of the circular form. As we explored the space I struggled to spot a straight line or a room consisting of four walls.
The large central space was once covered by a huge tetra-dome Plexiglass matrix, the framework of which still exists, creating a huge greenhouse-like area filled with fountains, pools, gardens and communal spaces. Unfortunately now exposed to the elements many of the concrete steels have started to corrode and water damage is prevalent throughout the building.
Off this central space, satellite rooms are accessible by an internal incline, which gently ascends in a spiral, reminiscent of the ramp in Wright’s most famous building, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The building clearly fits into Wright’s ‘organic’ architecture ethos, “form and function are one”. Offices, reception rooms, family living room, dining room and bedrooms are often joined in a very natural and fluid way through a series of ramps. The integrated spaces produce a coherent whole that feels incredibly natural to navigate. The large shell-like forms clearly echo nature and mimic the Fibonacci spiral, also poignantly named ‘The Golden Spiral’.
The building features uniformly placed diamond shaped wall lights throughout, on the interior and exterior, in its full illuminated glory the building must have looked somewhat UFO-like. Some interior spaces are lit through natural daylight bounced through small Perspex domed skylights in the ceiling.
The interior decorations are not overly typical of other Wright buildings, although the spirit of some of the decorative elements and the applied proportions are greatly reminiscent. Unlike other palaces of the Pahlavi era, traditional Iranian carpets and decoration are missing in Morvarid Palace. Instead contemporary 1970’s design is prevalent throughout, including an incredible Plexiglass staircase. The fixtures and fittings were selected to suit Iranian taste, moving around the building we are constantly dazzled by golden chainmail curtains, glittering geometric crystal chandeliers and perfectly proportioned golden coffee tables; one ‘entertainment’ room even features a Perspex billiards table!
In typical Iranian style nothing is left undecorated with the exception of the frequent application of Plexiglass and the occasional raw concrete surface, unlike characteristic Iranian pattern and tile work, the surfaces are generally covered in flat colour, predominantly gold! Lots and lots of gold!
The lavish interior, including numerous bars, hot tubs, saunas and a full size cinema, reeks of 1970’s hedonism. It’s easy to imagine a ‘Boogie Nights’ style party going on in the space or a Xanadu-esq roller disco. The Princess’ private bathroom with a matching golden toilet and hot-tub, rumoured to be filled with milk, are extravagances that feel more Hollywood than Iran.
The Princess demanded everything should be specially designed. Much of the furniture is integrated into the spaces including the Princess’ circular bed. Sham’s even commissioned John Hill who designed a golden silk bedspread that reportedly cost $25,000.
What is astounding about the building is that after nearly 36 years much of it has not been touched, looted or vandalised. The bed is still made and the golden silk bedspread is still in place, the original 1970’s Finnish Ball Chairs by Eero Aarnio are exactly as they were left, various wardrobe doors have been left open giving you the feeling that whoever left, left in a hurry. This may or may not be the case but the occasional knocked over sofa cushion certainly leaves you with this impression.
Unfortunately our visit was cut short due to a thunderstorm that shorted out the temporary lights that have been installed. We managed to look around a large majority of the building including the cinema of which I’d never seen any photographs. We didn’t however have a chance to look around the kitchen or the rooms towards the back of the building.
The gaudy ostentatious interior is considered by many of Wright’s fans to be an abomination whilst others consider it a masterpiece of 1970’s interior design.
It is this uniqueness, the diversity in the forms, decoration and materials that make the palace quite distinct from other Wright Foundation buildings. For this reason alone the building is not only an important part of Iranian heritage it is an important building architecturally.
In 2002, the building was recognized as important and registered by the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran. Walking around the building is mildly depressing; it is currently in need of massive repairs. Large areas of the reinforced concrete have been penetrated by water and will take a huge amount of work to repair. Thankfully we learnt that the building is now under new management. Redevelopment plans for high-rise apartment blocks on the estate have been scrapped and plans are being made to restore the building to its original state. Hopefully the new owners, who seemingly are intent on doing the right thing, can find the cash to restore this incredible building to its former glory.
During the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Iran and the U.S.A. were chummy bedfellows but in the fickle world of politics, international relationships can turn sour very quickly. Iran’s pre-revolution links with the U.S.A. are, for me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the country’s recent history.
Throughout my lifetime the media has been telling us that the Islamic Iranian government has held fairly staunch anti western sentiments since the revolution of 1979. A claim backed up by Anti U.S. paintings in central Tehran where the side of a building is painted with a downwards facing ‘Stars and Stripes’ made of dropping bombs and skulls, the words “DOWN WITH THE U.S.A.” emblazoned across it in 2m tall letters.
From a western perspective what is interesting about post-revolutionary Iran are the remnants of America’s influence that have been absorbed into everyday Iranian popular culture.
On the surface there doesn’t seem to be any internal conflict between the acceptance of western symbols of consumerism and the Islamic government’s defiant standpoint on outside influence, this was after all one of the many reasons the revolution happened.
The irony is somewhat lost that cans of Coke and Pepsi are being sipped on every street corner by Levi wearing Muslims who are happy to embrace the west. Now the process of the removal of the sanctions has begun I suspect it won’t be long before Tehran sees its first McDonalds, unless the Islamic Republic stand strong!
For me though nothing says ‘The American Dream’ like a hulking great big lump of American steel, sculpted into a 1950’s futuristic vision of what a car should look like, with aerodynamic chrome tipped fins and bullet shaped chrome bumpers; a car so huge it should probably have two licence plates! In 1959 President Eisenhower drove through the streets of Tehran to cheering crowds in just this, a silver coloured Cadillac Eldorado gifted to the Shah.
Prior to 1979 Buicks, Chevys, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths and Jeeps were a common sight in Iran. Due to it’s relatively warm climate many of these vehicles have survived in pretty good condition. For some the American cars are just a car, they just happen to still own one because it still works after all these years. For others Iran’s vintage and classic car scene is hugely popular, especially with owners of American muscle cars (Camaros, Pontiacs, Monte Carlos, Mustangs and Chargers) with many groups organising gatherings and ‘spins’.
We’ve spotted many fine original examples as well as a few stunning restored vehicles (unfortunately we've seen very few parked up to photograph). The popularity and appeal of restoration doesn’t come easy though, restoring American vehicles and keeping them running is costly. Searching for parts outside of Iran is near impossible due to internet restrictions. If you manage to find the appropriate parts it is impossible to purchase anything online as all bank dealings with Iran are sanctioned.
The classic cars are not just beautiful, powerful, well built, luxury machines, but symbols of a different time, the embodiment of freedom with bench front seats, conducive for drive-in cuddles. The vehicles themselves, full of romanticism and nostalgia represent a era in Iran that many people would probably like to see return!