My Life In Travel: Jane Birkin, singer and actress
Saturday 09 July 2011
First holiday memory?
The Isle of Wight with my brother and sister. We stayed in the least chic part of the island, with black sand on the beaches. We were completely free; at seven in the morning, we were off on our bikes. Brook beach was the best, near Compton Bay, with the shipwreck out at sea. It was the very best of childhood wildness and parents not being too much of a bore.
Istanbul with my daughter. A marvellous man called Aziz drove us around. We visited the sunken palace at the Basilica Cistern and the Hagia Sophia; and we ate at all those enchanting outdoor restaurants and drank coffee at Pierre Loti's café. We saw carpets being woven, visited the spice market and went to the Topkapi Palace. We couldn't believe the beauty of the place and the kindness of the people.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
The Isle of Eigg, off the West Coast of Scotland. I remember taking a night train up there from London to Skye as a teenager with my family. We rented a cottage with no television, only sheep everywhere and huge scope to be bored. But somehow it worked wonderfully.
Ideal travelling companion?
A child. I took my youngest grandson, Roman, to Egypt when I heard that they had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun's wet nurse in Saqqara. There was no point in going on my own, so I scooped him off with me. It made it so much more exciting.
What have you learnt from your travels?
My father was a painter so I was encouraged to take a sketchbook everywhere. Cameras are perishable but I still have tonnes of sketchbooks from all the trips I've ever been on. It gets you by when you don't know what to give people as a gift; drawings are good souvenirs.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
I'm a culture person. It's usually a jolly good trick to pick up a local tour guide. They can tell you all the anecdotes that make a place interesting. I'm one for rushing off to museums at the crack of dawn, eating fabulous things on terraces for lunch and enjoying long dinners on balmy evenings.
Greatest travel luxury?
Earplugs. I've melted candles before and poured water on to bits of cotton wool to stuff in my ears. In a place like Turkey, I would have been lost without them. The sounds of the streets are marvellous in the daytime, but at night I need to rest.
Where has seduced you?
Samoa. I'd just done a film in which I played Robert Louis Stevenson's wife – so I went to find his grave there. We were welcomed immediately by the most beautiful people I've ever known. It was exactly how Stevenson described in his accounts. Samoa and its wonderful people are not to be missed. There's complete innocence there and total generosity towards foreigners.
I've taken Marcel Proust on every voyage but never reached the end. I think it's always good to read local authors or relevant books. In Egypt I studied hieroglyphics and read everything about the mummies.
I've been in Paris for 40 years and walking here is still what I like best. If you're young, it's fun to sit on the Pont des Arbres and eat your sandwiches. The Jardin des Plantes is the most beautiful garden; it leads from the Mosquée de Paris to the Seine and is full of wonderful medicinal and tropical plants. You can also manoeuvre your way beneath Paris through the catacombs and come up by the Eiffel Tower.
Better to travel or to arrive?
I don't much enjoy travelling, but I have always longed to take a slow train to Russia. I'd like to go alone – like writers do – with only a pencil and piece of paper as company. I'd take my sketchbook and note down all the wonderful details of other travellers.
I generally don't like big, flash hotels. I'm usually happy to sleep on the floor with a rucksack. The Hôtel des Maronierres in St-Germain-des-Prés in Paris is really sweet though.
Best meal abroad?
Japan. The first time I went with Serge [Gainsbourg] in the Seventies, we had never eaten raw fish before. One of the best things you could do in Tokyo was to go the Tsukiji market: all the fish came in at 5am and an hour later it was rolled in sushi. You could eat it completely fresh.
I'd like to return to Samoa, before it's too late and the islands sink. I'd kidnap one of the grandchildren again. A new one is about to be born in a few weeks' time – she doesn't know what she's in for yet.
Venice. I went there 13 years in a row, always with Serge and always at the same time of year in September. We would spend a week trotting around. Sometimes it was sunny, but when it rained it was even better – there were planks across St Mark's Square. It was the most wonderful time to go.
I'm going on tour in Japan, Hong Kong, America and Indonesia and taking my sketchbook with me.
For more information on Jane Birkin's projects, see janebirkin.net.
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