My Life in Travel: David Starkey, historian and television presenter

'For a good holiday, you need someone to hate'

First holiday memory?

My memory of childhood holidays is uniformly awful. I was born in 1945 – in what appeared to be a mini ice age – so my first recollection was getting extremely wet on Morecambe beach.

We had to wear those dreadful plastic pac-a-macs to keep the weather off us. But they, of course, didn't recognise that the human body perspires, so you finished up being wetter inside the thing than you would've been if you hadn't been wearing it. I came to rather dislike holidays.

Best holiday?

There was a time we used to hire rambling old farmhouses in France and invite the most amazing collection of people to stay. My favourite was in Bourg-Charente. It was a splendid illustration of what keeps a holiday together. Everybody says you must have very compatible people for a holiday to be a success, which is not true at all. What you want is somebody that absolutely everybody hates. It acts as a complete unifier.

We had this wonderfully ludicrous, ultra-right-wing conservative, who persisted in trying to foist his beliefs on everybody. It provided a laugh a minute.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. The setting is simply incomparable. It's a combination of how beautiful Woodstock is, the fact that there's a terrific hotel at the Feathers and the park itself, which is sublime. The architecture is extraordinarily theatrical. It's like a piece of Handel music that's been frozen in stone.

What have you learnt from your travels?

I very rarely travel simply because it's a holiday and almost always do things because I'm filming. Earlier this year, I travelled for the first time to Portugal with work and was absolutely bowled over. I went to Sintra, which is almost as beautiful as Ravello on the Amalfi coast. There's this unbelievably dramatic cliff with views towards the sea, an extraordinary microclimate and a sensational hotel called the Palacio de Seteais.

Holiday reading?

I never read on holiday. I spend my whole life reading and writing, so the last thing I want to do for leisure is read. I find it an effort even picking up a guidebook when I'm away.

Where has seduced you?

Ravello and the Amalfi coast. It seduces everybody. It even softened the heart of Gore Vidal, and we never knew he had one. It is just beautiful beyond belief. You can be sitting in an exquisite restaurant having sensational food and there's this absolutely dramatic vertical drop to a jade-blue Mediterranean below.

Better to travel or arrive?

Air travel is absolutely vile. You've got to do anything you can to mitigate it. I make sure I have at least a couple of glasses of champagne, followed by a few bottles of claret during dinner, and a good brandy after so that I can sleep it off.

Worst travel experience?

Finding myself stranded in a mini hurricane in Key West, Florida. I was travelling alone and it was a very miserable, isolating experience. Luckily, Key West made up for it afterwards – it's a very enchanting, lovely place.

Worst hotel?

A place in Arundel, West Sussex, when we were filming. It was dirty; they had polycotton sheets, a lumpy mattress, a huge room with a ridiculously small bed and awful food.

Best hotel?

The Hotel Amigo in Brussels. It's part of the Rocco Forte collection. I thought it was sensationally run and the rooms were brilliantly designed with stunning bathrooms.

I felt a bit excited about the place and they served wonderful Italian food in the restaurant.

Favourite walk?

The one I take every evening when I'm at home in Kent, with my dog, along South Bound Road up to Covert Wood. It's really just a Kentish lane with long views of the Eden valley and that absolutely quintessential gentle English landscape that I love. The whole purpose of travel is always to enjoy home more.

Best meal abroad?

The one I remember most vividly was in Bologna. I ate steak Robespierre – filet cooked with a reduction of balsamic vinegar – at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was absolutely stunning.

Another favourite was on my first visit to Venice, many years ago. I found this little restaurant on the water where I had baby cuttlefish and squid cooked in front of me. It was one of those revelatory meals.

Dream trip?

South Africa. Some of the views of the Cape look rather wonderful and, of course, the weather's never bad. I doubt whether I'll ever make it, but one still dreams.

Favourite city?

I'm awfully fond of Rome. In many ways, it's surprisingly unbeautiful. But, still, there's a combination of grand history and contemporary chaotic vigour, which always makes it very appealing.

Where next?

I've just finished filming and I'm looking forward to a long stretch at home and many more walks up to Covert Wood in Kent.

David Starkey is the curator of 'Royal River: Power, Pageantry & the Thames', a new exhibition that opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, on 27 April (rmg.co.uk).

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