“ Address: No. 8 Malahi Alley / Vali-e-Asr Square / Tehran / Iran „
In November 2006, we stayed at the Kowsar Hotel in Tehran at both the beginning and end of our two week tour of Iran. The hotel is classified as a 4-star and must once have been worthy of that accolade but today it's looking tired and shabby and desperately in need of a bit of love and attention. However, I rather doubt it'll get it in the short term - it's not in the area of town that attracts the high-spending business travellers and there's no great need to upgrade things for tourists like us. After all, as only around 3000 western tourists a year visit the country, and almost all of them are on organised tours, there's not really a busy and competitive market for the tourist dollars.
The hotel is located on Shahid Malaee Street, near to Vali-e-Asr Square, not that it really matters as I doubt you'll know where that is, and I can't help much. I only ever knew I was almost there when I recognised a couple of the big murals that decorate the sides of local buildings. I wouldn't be able to find it on a map - unless there was a big star and an arrow saying 'You are here'. The street is very narrow and most of the times our bus dropped us on the main drag and we walked up to the hotel. The area is OK - there are small businesses, residences and even a small college.
The entrance of the hotel is set well back from the road - you go through an archway and there's a car park/courtyard before you reach the main part of the hotel. There's a small barber shop by the road and an office with a man who'll arrange a taxi for you but not much else. Entering the hotel, you can see that it must once have been quite grand. The walls are hand painted with pretty floral and bird designs, there are lots of sofas and coffee tables, rugs and chandeliers and a long reception desk. To one side of reception there's a Chinese restaurant and the main restaurant lies to the other side.
Our guide checked us in and someone brought us some syrupy looking drinks. We were arriving mid-morning after an overnight flight so it was nice that our rooms were made available to us straight away. The guide warned us about the temperamental lifts - more later - and so we stuffed all the luggage in the lifts and ran up the stairs to meet them at our floor.
The rooms at the Kowsar are large and quite nicely laid out. You enter into a small lounge area with a couple of arm chairs, a cupboard and a fridge. Then you pass along a corridor with the bathroom to one side and come into the main bedroom. This was quite a common room layout during our tour and my guess - it's not more than a guess so take it with a pinch of salt - is that people like to gather in their rooms to socialise rather than go to the public areas. If you are with family and friends, then the ladies can take off their head scarves and their long manteau-coats and relax a little more - behaviour that's not allowed in a public room.
Our room had a TV with BBC World Service, two single beds with a small unit between, and a desk/dressing table with a stool. There were nice little touches like slippers and shoe horns and the bathroom had more than the minimum toiletries - for example a toothbrush and paste were included. The bathroom itself was OK with a bath with a shower over, a loo, a bidet and a sink.
Now to the bad news. The wallpaper which was golden in colour with a linen-like texture was stained in places, torn in others and well past its best. The carpets in the room were deep red, clashing spectacularly with the deep pink curtains and dark red bedspreads and the carpets in the corridors had clearly been of good quality once-upon-a-time but were now badly stained. The curtains just wouldn't meet in the middle and it was impossible to get the windows to open without rattling. If we opened our window, it seemed to slide into the window space of the room next door. The pillows were like bags of cement and the aircon was broken - it just stirred up the hot air. When we asked why the air con was not being fixed we were told that it really shouldn't be hot at that time of so they weren't planning on doing anything.
On our return to the hotel the bathroom had a broken loo seat which we had to fix ourselves, the tiling was damaged and the grouting was really dirty and discoloured. The tiles on the ceiling of the bathroom showed plenty of evidence of years of leakages.
We had our first Iranian meal in the hotel at lunch time and it pretty much set the scene for the entire trip. Half the items on the menu weren't available and this pretty much left several variations on a theme of kebab or the ubiquitous small fish that gets translated as trout. There was just one dish for me - the aforementioned little fish - and this was served at a good temperature but accompanied with cold chips and vegetables. It was as if all the accompaniments had been sitting waiting for someone to order a main dish. The bread looked interesting but was all horribly stale
Breakfasts were always a bit bland and unexciting although they filled a space and kept us going for the morning. On our last night at the hotel we decided to try out the Chinese restaurant, only to find it was closed - no explanation, all the lights on, nice smells emanating, but no activity or signs of life, other than from the fish in the aquarium.
Yes, we got stuck in the lift - I know, all those warnings but just once in a while you think 'it won't happen to me'. It did and I should know better - I've got stuck in lifts at least three other times in a wide variety of places and circumstances. Hubby and I and two other members of our party got stuck somewhere between the second and third floors. The piped lift music - an unforgettable medley of orchestral interpretations of The Carpenters' Greatest Hits - had probably not been changed since the Revolution and we had a good chance to hum along whilst we waited for a rescuer who didn't understand English but had clearly been fixing the lift several times a day for many years.
===What else does the Kowsar offer?===
Well it's hard to be sure what's real and what's fantasy but according to the info in our rooms, there ought to be a coffee shop and a tea house in addition to the Chinese and Iranian restaurants. There's a 'sports club' which I assume is a small gym as well as a sauna, steam room and Jacuzzi out near the barbers shop. I didn't use any of these but would expect that they are strictly segregated with the ladies only getting access when the men are unlikely to want them. There can be no mixed hot-tub fun in Tehran hotels. There's a barber shop and apparently a small bookshop and an internet room. And of course there's a prayer room - probably for people whose friends and family are stuck in the lift.
===Perpetuating the Party Line on the evil of America===
On our last night we did a bit of channel surfing and found a very interesting Middle Eastern TV station that offered back-to-back showings of US programmes - but strictly only those that showed the 'Evil Empire' in the worst possible light. Cue an evening of 'Supernanny USA' (evidence that the American's don't respect family values and can't bring up children) and 'How clean is your house?' with Aggie and whatsername finding disgusting American apartments and homes to attack with their usual gusto. What fun!
====Do I recommend?===
It's not a bad hotel - I wouldn't have chosen it myself, I'd have balked at the $80 a night room rate, but despite the fading beauty of this old girl (I mean the hotel please, not me) it's completely adequate and not unbearable. So if you find yourself booked in there on a tour, don't despair, but if you are claustrophic, take the stairs.