Caravans and picnics: A legacy of roadside feasts
In many imaginations — and in the movies — the great trade routes from East to West are dotted with caravanserais, way stations built about every 30 kilometers, or the distance a loaded camel could cover in a day.
But modern travelers along the old Silk Road can see standing examples today, including a particularly fine one alongside the grand bazaar of Esfahan.
These mud-brick rooms, arranged around courtyards, were places to exchange goods and stories, and to share carefully packed foods with locals who could provide fresh produce and meat.
A twist on that tradition survives on the modern roadside — where the Persian carpets are out, and so are the picnickers.
At a riverside park I visited several years ago, they were scattered on the ground, tranquil islands of teasippers.
Across town, they were jammed together like sardines on the edges of Imam Khomeini Square.
But for most Iranians traveling by road, there’s no need to wait for a formal destination.
On any roadside, in the shade of a solitary tree or, in a pinch, on a sunny highway median, travelers unroll brightly colored rugs and sit down for a light meal.
“Welcome to the Axis of Picnic,” my smiling guide said duringmy 2008 trip to Esfahan.
It’s a playful allusion to former US president George W. Bush’s famous characterization of the country as part of the “Axis of Evil”.
Before us, everyday Iranians were sprawled and snacking, seemingly oblivious to any political winds.
My guide took his own carpet out of the trunk, and the blue-and-yellow expanse of lamb’s wool seemed large for two travelers settling down with Nescafe and snacks.
But in a culture that prizes hospitality, a modest party can blossom.
We shared earlier picnics with folks likeHossein. Ashy young man in a small village who was eager to practice English, which he spoke with a mysterious Indian accent. Later, on the road to Teheran, we would chow down with a carful of fellow travelers, all new chums — on the shady side of a gasoline station.
Legend says that Cyrus the Great, after winning a great battle on the plains of Pasargadae that would begin the Persian Empire, promptly laid out lunch for triumphant Persians and the vanquished Medes alike.
True or not, a 2,500-yearold tradition has a lot of staying power.
For modern Iranians, almost any road trip means packing at least bread and cheese, some fruit and snack crackers, says RahmanMehraby of the tourism website Destinationiran.com.
If a gas grill and a cooler live in the car trunk — and they often do— a “spontaneous” picnic can turn into a full-fledged kebab party.
“You have a saying that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive,” says Ali, a computer hardware engineer who was enjoying a long weekend in Esfahan with his wife, Sarah, and a cooler of cubed lamb, yogurt, cucumbers, tomatoes and melon slices.
“When we are in the car with our picnic,” he says, “we are always traveling hopefully.”