“There are few countries more talked about than Iran, and few that are less well–known. Reading the news will not tell you the truth about this 3,000–year–old civilization,” says Olivier Bernier, one of the world’s pre–eminent art historians and a legendary lecturer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Raised among the intellectual elite of France, Olivier has cultivated a long résumé of scholarly pursuits that have transported him all over the globe. He counts Venetian comtesses in his circle of old friends, possesses encyclopedic knowledge of a dazzling range of destinations and has traveled so prodigiously that he has only one place left on his bucket list: Japan. Like a modern Lord Byron, Olivier is the ultimate culture traveler.
Olivier’s expertise in masterpieces and his network of connections have often led him to the frontlines of polemic destinations. He has been among the first tourists in places that conventional wisdom warns against visiting.
It is because of his unmatched expertise that Indagare has partnered with Olivier for a special program of Insider Journeys called “Opening Doors.” On these trips, Olivier will “open” new intellectual and artistic doors by transporting our members to places where they’ve never been and uncovering the history behind what they see there.
This October, Olivier will lead a trip to a destination on the precipice of change: Iran. Olivier has visited this complex country several times, and he is one of few Westerners who know it well. Exclusively with Indagare, he shares his insider perspective on one of the world’s most misunderstood countries.
Why did you choose Iran as one of the inaugural trips for your new partnership with Insider Journeys, Opening Doors?
Although Westerners have begun to go there, Iran is still a country that is rather unknown to most Americans—despite the fact that it has extraordinary archaeological sites and museums, as well as beautiful cities with impressive architecture. Most Americans are not even aware of what they’re missing, because many have spent years thinking that Iranians hate us. Personally, I don’t think there is a country in the world where we are more popular with the general public. It’s astounding! When you walk down the street in Tehran, people will actually come up to you to tell you about how much they love the United States, and that they have so–and–so family here. Being in Iran is an entirely different experience than what the newspapers and media portray it to be.
Related: Perspectives on Iran
What is the highlight of this journey’s itinerary?
It’s hard to say—but I think one of the highlights will be a visit to Persepolis, which is one of the most amazing early archaeological sites in the world. It dates back to the 5th century BCE and is staggering in scale. The other major highlight would probably be the Great Mosque in Isfahan.
Related: Just Back From…Iran
What are some hidden gems in the cities you will visit?
In Tehran, we will visit the National Jewels Museum, which displays one of the most impressive collections of crowns, tiaras, necklaces and gems in the world. We will enjoy VIP access to this museum (and to many others). Throughout the trip, we will also explore secret gardens and lesser–known architectural treasures.
Related: Member Slideshow: Iran
How is Iran misunderstood by Western travelers? Why should they go now?
Many Westerners think that Iran is a dangerous place, but it is much safer than they might expect. They worry about the differences between Western and Middle Eastern governments, but these in no way affect the ease or the pleasures of traveling in Iran—except, perhaps, for the lack of alcohol: Iran is dry.
Related: Iran Insider Trip
You have traveled to Iran several times. What is your favorite thing about the country?
Iran has some of the world’s most dramatic, beautiful landscapes. I also love the warmth with which, everywhere, foreigners are greeted by the local people. Iranians have a great passion for ancient culture, and the people we will meet are eager to show us the real Iran, not the country described by the official propaganda.
Related: Iran: In Intricate Detail
Many travelers are wary of visiting destinations that are listed as “high risk” by the national travel advisory board. What makes taking this risk worth it, for you?
When you’re visiting a destination like Iran for the first time, you’re never quite sure what to expect. The people that you meet and the places that you see turn out to be ever better than what you thought they might be, which is an exhilarating experience.
When the Paris Peace Accords were signed (ending the war in Cambodia in 1991), I decided to go to Cambodia, because I’d been wanting to visit for a long time, thanks to my interest in India. At that time, no one else was going: all my friends told me, “You’re mad; you’ll get killed!” And you’ll notice that I didn’t.
When I arrived in Siem Reap, I found myself in a destination without tourists, with only one hotel. I was the only civilian there, because the UN peace–keeping forces had just arrived—so there I was in this hotel with soldiers from various nations. There was no electricity, telephones, running water, roads, schools, hospitals—you name it, the country didn’t have it. I was told not to go out at night, because there were still Khmer Rouge in the streets. And then one morning, when I went with my guide to see Angkor Wat, I suddenly found myself entirely alone in this magnificent holy place. Now, more than 1 million tourists visit every year. I can’t even begin to tell you how great that was, and how deeply surprised I was. In these situations, you never know what kinds of unbelievable treats you will receive. In Iran, the experience will be the same: the country is a treasure trove, and every day there will bring its own thrilling discoveries.