My life in travel: Misha Glenny
'I walked into an open sewer in Iran. I felt I'd be happier dead'
Saturday 21 June 2008
First holiday memory?
A Spanish fisherman shoving a live crab in my face when I was about four years old. We were in San Vicente on the Atlantic coast, near San Sebastian. My father was head of European sales for Wedgwood, so we often went to Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Prussia Cove, on the south-west coast of Cornwall. We went pretty much every other year, and still go, so it's cumulatively the best holiday. It hasn't changed much since we first started going.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
Prussia Cove is probably my favourite place by dint of familiarity. I feel at home in Oxfordshire because I spent my teens there, and I quite like Scotland, particularly Edinburgh and the west coast.
What have you learnt from your travels?
I've spent most of my life travelling; you learn a lot more about where you are if you absorb the culture and accommodate your behaviour to it, rather than imposing yours on it.
Ideal travelling companion?
My wife, Kirsty Lang. We travel together a lot and she's great. One or two of my male friends have been great companions over the years, too.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
Two weeks on a beach makes me go stir-crazy, so I like being able to explore a city. I also like vegging with books.
Greatest travel luxury?
Making sure that all the electrics I travel with can be recharged. I'm slightly obsessive about it.
I get through lots of books. I enjoy non-fiction and good, serious novels, but I mainly read history and current-affairs books. But I sometimes use holidays to read a fun book that's not too taxing.
Where has seduced you?
Prague, which I started visiting in the Seventies and where I lived under Communism in the early Eighties. I feel I understand Prague better than a lot of people because of that experience. In some respects, it was more beautiful back then than it is now, because it was unsullied by commercialism. I thought Brazil was fabulous, too – I went to Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio. It's such a vibrant society. In a world that is hurtling towards species destruction, I found it was remarkably optimistic.
Better to travel or to arrive?
To arrive, definitely. I bloody hate travelling.
Worst travel experience?
As an 18-year-old, I drove to Kathmandu and back with three friends. On the return journey, our 4x4 was falling apart, and by the time we reached Tehran, we were all suffering from various forms of dysentery, we were homesick, we'd run out of money and were generally miserable. I remember walking through the streets one night, which, at the time, had open sewers. It was twilight and I walked straight in to one. I felt I'd be happier dead.
As a child, I went on a spectacularly ill-conceived family holiday to Denmark. We stayed in a motel that backed on to a fish-processing factory, which had been recommended by the AA as a delightful hotel. My parents got us up at 1am and we left straight away, without paying. It was a dramatic, spy-like experience for a six-year-old. Later on, during the holiday, my father broke off the gear stick; one of my brothers was nearly arrested; and my younger brother got stuck halfway up a cliff and we had to call the mountain-rescue service.
One in Peje, Kosovo. I stayed in an absolute hole in the early Nineties, when it was under Serbian control and there were riots going on. The floor in the communal bog was awash with muck. It was totally miserable, flea-ridden and nobody gave a damn.
The Gritti Palace on the Grand Canal in Venice. It is like paradise.
Favourite walk/ swim/ride/drive?
I love hurrying through the backstreets of Prague. I know all the short cuts and they're all fantastically beautiful and interesting. There's an element of showing off involved, because I avoid the tourist crowds. Just outside the centre, in the much less visited residential areas, you can still find great old bars that sustained everyone during the Communist period.
Best meal abroad?
A four-hour blowout at Travinia in the Napa Valley, California. It was the best Italian food I'd ever eaten, including in Italy.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
Secure a map and spend the first half-day orienting myself. I hate being in a new place without a map.
I'd like to visit Iceland, just because I find Scandinavia a really fascinating region. They project a completely unified image to the outside world, while hating each other bitterly. I'm intrigued about how Iceland fits in to all that.
Prague, but Rome comes a close second. I like Palermo a lot, too, but that mostly stems from my Mafia interest. New York and San Francisco are also great cities.
Belgrade, and then the Parati Literary Festival in Brazil.
'McMafia: Crime without Frontiers', by Misha Glenny, is published by The Bodley Head, £20
'More From Our Own Correspondent', edited by Tony Grant and featuring Misha Glenny, is published by Profile Books, £8.99
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