The regions west of the Caspian Sea bordering Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey will shatter your preconceptions of Iran. Along the Caspian coast, the air is soft with humidity, and paddy fields, grape vines, mulberry trees and olive groves create patchworks of green. Away from the coast, the snow comes early and heavy, leaving the dramatic peaks of the Zagros covered in thick white and roads closed from November to March.
An ethnically diverse region, Iranian Azerbaijanis, called Azaris, dominate in this area, speaking a language that's more Turkish than Persian. In Gilan Province you'll hear Talesh and Gilaki, while Kurds, still wearing traditional dress and speaking Kurdish, also call this part of Iran home.
The region has always had a strong Christian presence. The Aras River, which forms the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, is the Bible's River Gihon, while Ilan Dag, or Snake Mountain, is where Noah's Ark supposedly crashed on the way to Ararat. St Stepanos' church, founded in the first century by Saint Bartholomew, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, is a key site in the Christian heritage of Iran.
The northwest lacks the iconic sites of other parts of Iran so is largely overlooked by first-time visitors to Iran. This means you get to explore a diverse range of locations – including four World Heritage Sites – almost alone. How wonderful!
What to see
Shrine of Sheikh Safi od-Din
No one who has seen the interior dome of Sheikh Safi od-Din's 14th-century shrine will ever forget it: cascading layers of muqarnas, or vaulting, in gleaming gold, emerald green, indigo and burnt orange, it's a masterpiece of opulence.
The wonderful Chini Khaneh, or China Room, was built in 1612 to house the royal porcelain collection. Most of the ceramics were lost to the Hermitage in St Petersburg when Russia invaded in 1828, but the honeycombed gilt niches will still have you looking up in wonder. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it's western Iran's most stunning Safavid monument.
This well-preserved fortress is the sort castle storybooks are written about: perched at an elevation of 2,300m on a remote mountaintop, it was the stronghold of warlord Babak, a Robin Hood-like figure who resisted the Arab invasion till the mid-9th Century.
It's a steep climb up to the castle, but well worth the effort. Check the weather reports first, though, as snow can make it inaccessible till early May.
By mid-11th century, the valley of River Alamut was dotted with a chain of impregnable fortresses built by the Ismaili community. Led by the charismatic Hassan al-Sabbah, the mysterious Ismaili Assassins were highly trained men willing to sacrifice their lives for their leader. These young men spread terror among the Crusaders and Muslim military leaders as they committed high-profile assassinations to protect their own community.
The ruins of Alamut Castle stand in a dramatic crag above the cherry-farming village of Gazor Khan. A steep climb up to the ruins offers fantastic views of the surrounding scenery.
Said to have been founded by Khosrow Arshakid of Armenia in about 220AD, Tabriz has been hit by such severe earthquakes since that no pre-Islamic structure remains. Before quakes took their toll, the Kabud or Blue Mosque of Tabriz must have been a jaw-dropping site; it's still a must-see with its tiles of the richest lapis lazuli blue. The World Heritage Site of the Tabriz Bazaar, the largest covered bazaar in the world, is a magical place in which hunt out spice, jewellery, silverwork and carpets.
This ancient Zoroastrian fire temple has an Indiana Jones quality to it: built on a hill around the rim of a volcanic crater, it's cradled by a ring of undulating mountains. The water, poisonous with sulphur, that pours from the crater's 'bottomless' pool would, more than 1,500 years ago, have fed an Anahita-style water temple. The 'eternal flame' in the temple was provided by natural volcanic gas that was directed through ceramic pipes.
The spiritual centre of Sassanian Persia in the 3rd Century AD, Takht-e Soleyman is a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of Burrows&Bird's favourite sites in all of Iran.
St Stepanos' church
This attractive rust-red church was founded in 62AD by Saint Bartholemew, Christianity's first martyr. The oldest surviving part of the structure, however, is from the 14th Century. A World Heritage Site, the church has well-preserved exterior reliefs including Armenian crosses, angels and saints.
Set in a wooded glade and backed by dusty cinnamon rock mountains, it's a prime spot for local visitors to enjoy a tranquil family picnic.
Usually included as standard on itineraries to this part of Iran, at Burrows&Bird we recommend stopping in this ancient troglodyte village only on week days. On Iranian weekends (Thursdays and Fridays), hundreds of visitors come from Tehran for a day out of the city making it quite crowded.
Kandovan's charms are rapidly fading under an excess of rusty signs advertising shops and homestays, and other commercialism spurred by tourism. The village does, however, have a luxury hotel built into the caves that may offer a more peaceful experience of living in such surroundings.
TABRIZ – Iron Age Museum
Earthquakes did not affect what was till very recently hidden underground, however, as Iran's most exciting new museum so evocatively shows: The Iron Age Museum has been erected above a 3,000-year-old burial site. Wooden walkways between the graves give you an unforgettable bird's-eye view of the remains in situ.
TABRIZ – Azerbaijan Museum
Another outstanding museum in Tabriz is the Azerbaijan Museum, with its staggering collection of ancient artefacts. The top floor displays a re-weave of the famous and stunningly beautiful Ardabil carpet, the original of which is displayed in London's Victoria & Albert Museum.