My Life In Travel: Actor Simon Callow

'I remember pebbles, Punch and Judy, and lovely postcards of the coastline'


First holiday memory?

Being taken by neighbours to the seaside at Hastings or Battle, to stay in a caravan. I remember pebbles, Punch and Judy, and lovely postcards of line drawings of the coastline. That must be my first aesthetic memory because they were so beautiful.

Best holiday?

A couple of years ago, I stayed at La Gazelle d'Or near Taroudant in Morocco, which was extraordinary and mysteriously beautiful. It's near the town where Orson Welles shot Othello, and because I've been writing about him for years, it was important for me to see it. The rooms are large and exquisitely appointed, with a great log fire in the middle and a sunken bath. There's a hammam nearby where you can get beaten up by burly women, and a wonderful restaurant with peacocks wandering around. It's very exotic and calming, with a backdrop of mountains.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

I was overwhelmed by Penzance a couple of years ago. I stayed at Jean Shrimpton's hotel The Abbey, which was wonderful, with views of St Michael's Mount. The Cornish Riviera suggests being abroad, and that's what it feels like – rather exotic. The train journey along the Cornish coast is beautiful.

What have you learnt from your travels?

I'm not very good at launching myself on a place and not knowing where I'm going, so I like to plan ahead. The worst thing is finding yourself in a hotel that isn't pleasing, because you need somewhere to retreat to at the end of the day. I'm lucky because my work has taken me all over the world, and armies of people have organised hotels and travel for me.

Ideal travelling companion?

I'd love to travel with Sir Richard Burton, because he was fearless, knew 29 languages and was a master of disguise. Despite having a huge moustache, he managed to get into Mecca disguised as a woman. On the other hand, it's great to travel with people who know nothing because you can discover things together. It's also important that your companion has to have a reasonably high threshold for discomfort.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

As I get older, I increasingly look for a holiday on which I can collapse. I just came back from Mykonos, where I go pretty much every year. It has all the charms of any Greek island, but there is also a branch of Nobu there! I'm directing The Magic Flute in Holland Park next year, so I took my libretto of that with me to read on the beach.

Greatest travel luxury?

I have a reasonable sound system, and usually take my computer, too.

Holiday reading?

I read all the time, but I take about six books with me when I'm on holiday. However, in Mykonos I left my spectacles in my room one day so I couldn't see a thing and just had to sit and think, which was awfully nice. It was one of the most enjoyable days. Otherwise, I like a variety of classics, as well as current affairs, such as Ed Husain's book The Islamist.

Where has totally seduced you?

Italy is deep in my soul. Just outside Florence, up on the hills, there's a beautiful farm called Fattoria Il Milione di Brandimarte, in a village called Giogoli. They press olives and make wine, and animals roam about the place, and you can rent an apartment there. Everyone meets up in the main house for supper. It's just heaven.

Better to travel or arrive?

These days, arriving is something I long for because air travel is a horror. I took my first flight in 1959, when I was nine years old, and it was terrifying because I was going to Africa and we had to stop to refuel three times. Planes weren't pressurised in those days so it was a bit of a vomit fest. However, passengers were regarded as intrepid voyagers and treated with such respect, so it was a real thrill. There was great courtesy, which of course doesn't exist anymore. It's very hard not to feel like cattle these days, and potentially homicidal cattle at that.

Worst travel experience?

I had the most horrifying experience while filming in Zagreb during the communist period. I took myself off to Vienna for a few days by train, and I had booked a first-class seat only to discover that first class didn't exist. I found myself in a sleeping carriage with a couple who were passionately attracted to each other. On the way back, I flew, but fog forced us to land early in Split. I was put up by the airline in a hotel room that was directly over a disco. When I went out and walked through the town, I was pursued by all of the town's people who shouted and threw pebbles at me – I had no idea why. When I told the designer of the film, he said it was because they thought I was Jewish.

Best hotel?

The National in Moscow. My suite was walnut-panelled and had a grand piano in it, and it overlooked Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral. It was truly fantastic.

Favourite walk/swim/ride/drive?

I walk whenever I can, particularly along Regent's Canal in north London, near where I live. I try to do that as often as I can.

Dream trip?

Having dipped my toe into India a little, I would love to go all the way across it. And I'd like very much to go up into the Atlas Mountains, -because everything I have read about them sounds so fantastic.

Where next?

To Moscow, to work on a documentary about Russian composers. I'll probably stay at The National, and after that I'll be going to St Petersburg, which I'm very much looking forward to because it's somewhere that I have wanted to visit for a long time, but have never been to.

Simon Callow will appear tomorrow at 6.15pm at the Garden Theatre, Cheltenham, as part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.com). Tickets cost £8

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