My Life In Travel: Joanna Lumley, actress and broadcaster

'You could hear lions in the garden at night'

First holiday memory?

My father was in the Army so I was born in India, came back to England by ship after the Partition, then went straight to Hong Kong and Malaysia.

My first real memory is travelling by armoured car when I was about six from Kuala Lumpur up to Fraser's Hill. It was measurably higher than where we were in the swelteringly hot city and suddenly we were up amid tall trees with monkeys in them. The great thrill was that it was cold enough to wear a cardigan – I'd never worn one before.

Best holiday?

Strolling through the Swiss Alps in the summer with my husband. It was during filming for On Her Majesty's Secret Service near Mürren. There was no snow but just waist-high meadow flowers and the great Jungfrau mountain opposite. I spent many happy weeks there.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

Dumfriesshire in Scotland. We have a cottage there, high up on a hill. You can see nothing except larks and buzzards, sheep and grazing cattle. There are gorgeous walks and wild winds, snow in the winter, hot sun in the summer. It's empty and so very beautiful.

What have you learnt from your travels?

Roll your clothes up when you pack. They come out slightly less squashed and dreadful-looking that way. Also, take an army of plain black, white and khaki clothes – they're a lot more durable and you can always put on some vast orange wrap or green necklace and still look quite glamorous.

Ideal travelling companion?

I don't like sullen travellers or people who complain. I need someone who's interested. I travel a lot with film crews. The ones I'm with at the moment, who filmed the Nile journey with me for ITV and the Greek Odyssey, programme, are ideal. They're always polite and enthusiastic.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

Culture vulture, though I don't mind rolling up my sleeves and getting a bit of bronze occasionally. I discovered you could get pretty much all of those things in Greece, island-hopping by ferry, climbing mountains and eating great food.

Greatest travel luxury?

I always have a huge shawl with me. You can wrap it around yourself if you're sleeping rough; make it into a pillow; or give yourself an extra layer of warmth. I have several chests full of them at home.

Holiday reading?

If you're in America, you might want Hemingway. In France, some Agatha Christie. Always have an autobiography of someone who's been to your destination. And, if you haven't read any Patrick Leigh Fermor, he's a good companion.

Where has seduced you?

Syria. I was doing a travel piece for a newspaper and it was the most spellbinding, majestic and thrilling place. There's an ancient city called Palmyra, in the desert northeast of Damascus, which is about as grand a place as you're ever likely to see on earth.

Better to travel or arrive?

I believe the journey is a destination in itself. I was virtually born in a suitcase and started moving as soon as I can remember. It's heavenly to arrive, but travelling is the real magic. The idea of gypsies, caravanserai and travel books have always thrilled me.

Worst hotel?

A place in Uganda where we stayed while filming the Nile series. We traced the river from the Mediterranean to its source, through five great African countries. In Uganda we had to spend one night in a hotel that didn't seem to have any food; there was no water and no electricity. We were fairly desperate.

Best hotel?

Also in Uganda, on the banks of the river. Outside it was just like the Garden of Eden. There were hippopotami pods and birds of every size and colour. You could hear lions and elephants walking through the gardens at night. It was paradise.

Best ride?

Going up a hillside from Paro in Bhutan on a small pony towards a little pagoda. It was on top of a high hill surrounded by pine trees. I remember looking across a vast valley at the Tiger's Nest monastery clinging to the rocks a mile away. It was sublime.

Best meal abroad?

A place in Sicily. My husband and I drove out of Catania in a little rented car into the hills. There was a little roadside café with Formica tables and a big television set in the corner – everything that makes a place look rather unpromising. But they served the most perfect, fresh food: beautiful sliced tomatoes doused with basil, garlic and olive oil.

Dream trip?

St Petersburg. I went to Moscow in 1966 when the whole of Russia was in the grip of the Cold War. It was very hostile and anxious, with queues everywhere and nothing in the shops. I'd love to see the great waterfronts and palaces of St Petersburg now the whole thing is over.

Favourite city?

I adore Siena in Tuscany. I love the ancient streets, the food and all the different contrade (districts), which each has its own steed for the Palio horse race that happens in July and August each year.

Where next?

I'm off to open a school in Nepal. Then, the next trip is for a documentary where I'm hunting for Noah's Ark in the mountains of Turkey and maybe Iran.

Joanna Lumley is an ambassador for one of Viking River Cruises' four new Longships, which launched in Amsterdam this month (vikingrivercruises.co.uk).

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