Iranians mostly stink at running hotels. The maddening inefficiencies and amateurish missteps found even in 5-star outfits are tragic (and often comical) examples of an ancient culture struggling with something essentially foreign.
But receiving guests at home and connecting with strangers eye-to-eye, well, that’s as Iranian as it gets. Persian hospitality at home is a force of goodwill that can outshine any alleged hotel luxury.
That’s why when I’m on the road, I’m always on the lookout for locals who have opened their homes to foreign tourists.
My latest find in the “homestay” category is the family estate of Ramtin and Tina Shohrat (SHOWH-rat) in the town of Taft, 24 km southwest of Yazd.
Ramtin (RAWM-tin) was studying for a Master’s in tourism in Tehran when he talked his father into refurbishing the family’s 100-year-old estate that had been abandoned decades earlier and was on the verge of disintegration.
The result is the year-old Nartitee Ecolodge, with the capacity for 20 guests in six rooms and a communal bathroom of very clean multiple sinks, toilets and shower stalls.
Saeideh and I arrived in mid-March, late, tired and anxious from a long drive, but thrilled to have made our latest escape from Tehran.
We found the young couple waiting on us into the night, all smiles, offering us hot tea from a samovar and a box of the famous Yazdi pastries.
We sat facing our hosts in a giant main room still wearing our jackets and winter caps because only the bedrooms are heated. We didn’t mind, though. Somehow the smiles and the sweets made up for the cold.
The walls of the home were entirely covered by kahgel (KAW-gel) – a mixture of mud and hay that used to be the primary construction material for most rural homes in Iran. It’s beautiful, soothing, remarkably durable, a great insulator, and smells good when it gets wet.
The drinking water was served from kuzeh – earthenware pottery of ancient times.
Our room was windowless and cave-like and entirely covered with kahgel. No beds. Just bundles of bedding to open and spread on top of the Persian rug next to a gas heater. To my shock, instead of getting claustrophobic from being in a windowless room – once at a Barcelona hotel, I threw a temper-tantrum when I was given a windowless room – I slept like a baby.
“It felt like sleeping inside a womb,” Saeideh said the next day.
In the morning, we ate with our hosts in a long dining hall again covered entirely with kahgel and partly lit by a stream of sunshine pouring in from a tiny round skylight above.
It was probably the best breakfast I’ve had in Iran. Nearly everything on the kalamkari table cloth, including a variety of jams, halva, cheese and butter, was homemade. No 5-star hotel can match that anywhere in Iran.
Between cups of tea, Ramtin and Tina entertained with stories about their year-long adventure hosting tourists from all over the world – many Iranians and Europeans; no Americans as of yet.
Behind them and pretty much in every room hanged a depiction of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster because the family is Zoroastrian, like many others in Yazd Province. Most are the descendents of the Zoroastrians who fled here after the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 AD.
One room sits unused because it is the “room of meditation”. And all the walls bear splotches of a white plaster-like mixture, which are applied in an annual blessing ceremony.
And occasionally Tina cleanses the home with smoke from a burning mixture of sage and other herbs favored by Zoroastrians – something like the “sacred smoke bowl blessing” (a.k.a. smudging) of Native Americans.
Ramtin, a certified tourist guide, gave me a map and planned a self-driven sightseeing tour of Yazd. “Let’s see how far you can get today; the rest you can do tomorrow,” he said.
Great hosts, a womb-like cave for a bedroom, a fantastic leisurely breakfast. What could top all this? we wondered as we stepped out into the sunshine.
Well, the next surprise was the bagh (BAWGH – Persian for garden) in the back. Tina opened a wooden gate and we stepped into a glorious menagerie of blooming fruit trees.
In the street outside, lined with other estates’ kahgel walls and blooming trees, we faced yet another wonder: a giant rocky mountain jutting out in the horizon, like a mythical wild beast.
I turned to Tina, who grew up in Tehran and followed her husband here into her first rural living experience, and blurted out: “This is incredible. This is an amazing place you live in.”
She just smiled with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. More than likely she is now used to such exclamations by visiting guests.