With UNESCO Heritage Site title, pretty flower boxes, and winding mud lanes, the online search of Masouleh presented a very picturesque picture. I tried going there on my previous Iran visits, but Masouleh always eluded me. Late evening arrivals or heavy rain marred those trips and so on my last Gilan visit in 2013, I dedicated a whole day to the lovely historical village. Founded in the 10th century AD, Masouleh was located near the southern coast of the Caspian Sea and comprised of 2000 inhabitants, one bazaar, and eighteen mosques. The elevated location in the misty Alborz Mountains rendered it lovely, nippy weather and the Masouheh-Rood-Khan river flowed through it. Beautiful waterfalls surrounded the village and lush forests enveloped it from all sides. Masouleh is very popular with local Iranian tourists and although foreigners rarely stumbled into it, the little village was a bit over-commercialized.

Masouleh from a distance

The old houses of Masouleh

Its popularity was due to Masouleh’s fantastic architecture and it was perhaps the most famous historical village in entire Iran. Masouleh buildings, which were built into the mountains, were interconnected. The dusty yolk yellow houses formed tiers and the courtyards, as well as roofs served as streets and pedestrian areas for the entire village. The yellow colour came from a special clay coating that each Masouleh house was painted with and the locals claimed it to be for better visibility during fogs. The old preserved adobe buildings were two stories high and a narrow maze of winding lanes connected them. The houses were photogenic enough in their own right and the Iranians, keeping their penchant for finery in mind, further decorated them with wispy lace curtains, profusely blooming flower boxes, carved wooden lattices, and twinkling strings of fairy lights.

Kolucheh, a circular cookie from Fuman

Kolucheh, circular cookies of Fuman

Initially founded in 1006 AD, the old village shifted from its original spot many times over the years and the ancestors of Masouleh frequently moved up and down the Alborz Mountains to escape attacks from neighbouring communities. Today, it stands 60 kilometers away from Rasht and the drive from there, through the cool, refreshing mountains of Fuman is very photogenic. The Fuman district is very picturesque and the local cuisine of Masouleh is famous all over Iran. Out of these, Kolucheh cookies are most popular and no visitor ever leaves Fuman without sampling at least one of the crunchy circular delights. Thus, on a clear bright morning, armed with a bag of freshly baked cookies and ambitious Ashkan at the wheel, I too set out to explore Masouleh. The drive was lovely and for once, we managed to navigate the hilly roads without getting lost.

The pretty Fuman countryside

The pretty Fuman countryside

It was a very beautiful countryside with glassy creeks, green banks, dancing daffodils, and quaint farmhouses. Procession of ducks waddled noisily along the creeks and grass was crowded with fragrant herbs. An abundance of flowers grew wildly and masses of wild roses created fragrant boundaries along the road. Dark pine clumps stood at a distance and there were forests all the way to Masouleh. I heard the village, even before we reached there and the rain-swollen Masouheh-Rood-Khan river gushed noisily. However, it was not the river noise that traveled to us down the mountain roads; but rather, cranky traffic horns and murmur of human voices. They were from the crowd of Iranian domestic tourists who were visiting Masouleh and summer break drew them in hordes.

Pretty yellow houses of Masouleh

An atmospheric ancient village

A big, chaotic traffic mess awaited us at Masouleh and we struggled for more than an hour to get a parking spot. Masouleh was filled to the gills at the time of my last visit and we faced a real parking nightmare. Due to its fragile architectural layout, motor vehicles were not allowed inside the village and people left their vehicles in a frenetic hurry. Constant rain too added to the mess and we had a dirty, squelchy walk up the cascading slopes. Masouleh, however, was breathtakingly unique and the lovely old village did not fail to deliver the promised magic. The heart of the village was most crowded and complete with cubby hole souvenir shops, restaurants with hanging wooden porches, and a colourful bazaar, it was a photographer’s delight. Delicious smells of Masouleh’s famous bread insinuated through the air and fog mingled with sweet sheesha smoke. It was a very popular place to take souvenir photos in traditional garbs and the narrow alleys throbbed with colourful skirts and lacy shawls.

Masouleh village center

A pretty commercialized village

Vendors sold preserved sweets and fruits all along the bazaar and tea houses served endless platters of smoking oily kebabs. Handwoven and knitted textiles of Masouleh are also very popular throughout Iran and village women from their adobe homes displayed their handicrafts for sale. In the midst of all the colourful panorama, there was the famous Masouleh fog. It rolled in and out like dense clouds of cotton and temporarily obscured everything in sight. Strangely, rather than diminishing the village’s charm, the fog heightened the atmospheric effect and the misty red silhouette of dancing poppies against the yellow adobe buildings created surreal magic. Ashkan and I walked all over the village, taking in the sights and sounds of its bazaar heart before finally melting away from the crowd. We climbed higher, crossing over people’s roofs and terraces, and sat down at a quiet clearing to watch the spectacle below. It was in the “off tourist” zone, where the villagers were in no rush to sell or solicit anything and they had time to talk with us.

The evening falls on the village

Thus, we rested on someone’s roof and enjoyed Masouleh away from the frenetic touristy crowd. Handwoven woolen dolls smiled from rows and old flour-dusted grizzly men took out trays of fresh bread from earthen ovens. Youngsters grouped together to play chess and small children traveled up and down the hilly slopes, on their fathers’ shoulders. It was very relaxing, with only the sounds rising up from the bazaars like a faint roar and soon dusk rolled in with the fog. With deepening twilight, the beautiful village became more magical and lights lit up the mountain like circlets of diamonds. Soon inky darkness drowned Masouleh and only the green lights of the village mosques stood out like beacons. The bazaar, however, became livelier with the maturing evening and the visitors reveled in bright lights and accompanying music.

Return to Marivan by the Caspian Sea

It was perfect, a beautiful finale, befitting the lovely historical village and we walked down to join the merriment soon. The bazaar resembled a mini medieval carnival and all the restaurants were busy serving dinner to the visitors. Delicious smoke of grilled meat, sharp orange charcoal flints, and roasting eggplants filled the lanes of Masouleh, and gossip and laughter increased in crescendo. Nothing makes a heart gladder than the infectious joy of happy vacationing families and Ashkan and I lingered to cherish the moment. Both of us were on the road, away from our families and for one brief moment, we managed to communicate our homesickness, without uttering a single word. Post dinner, we left Masouleh, before the mountain roads got crowded with returning traffic, and soon, the cool breeze of Fuman disappeared in the darkness. En route Anzali passed quickly in a blaze of ship lights on the dark wavy sea and soon our drab hotel arrived.

The loneliness of solo travel is real

Our recent breakthrough in communication put us in good spirits and Ashkan chatted with me in Persian. Being exhausted to the bone, I bade him a quick goodbye and proceeded to my room. Yet sleep eluded me and the Caspian Sea night made me restless. All around me, vacation rentals and hotels reverberated with happy noises of families spending time together and I heard their murmur from my balcony. It was one of those travel moments when I missed my family a lot and wondered if my restless nomadic soul, would ever grow roots at one place.

Masouleh Travel Tips

  • How to Reach – Masouleh is about 90 minutes from Rasht or 45 minutes from Fuman by savari or shared taxi. Both Rasht and Fuman are easily reachable from Tehran by bus and the drive from Rasht to Tehran via Qazvin takes about six hours. There are also buses to Tabriz and Hamadan, which take about nine hours.
  • Things to do – Hiking in the Alborz mountains and neighbouring areas is one of the things to do in Masouleh and the region is very beautiful with waterfalls, streams, meadows, and virgin forests.
  • Staying and Eating – There is a hotel around Masouleh and the village has some very good restaurants. Alternatively, it is possible to stay in a village homestay and experience rural Iran life. Masouleh is famous for food and Mirza ghasemi (egg and aubergine stew) is a must-try.
  • What to Buy – Shopping too is a lot of fun there and it is a great place to relax.
  • Other things to do – Simply rest at one of the terrace restaurants, breathe in the fresh mountain air and watch the mists roll across the wildflowers. You can also get a souvenir photo taken, dressed in a traditional costume.

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