My Life In Travel: Stefan Gates, TV presenter
'Every year we spend a month in France, to cook, eat and swim'
Saturday 30 May 2009
First holiday memory?
Other than being bundled into a car at 4am for non-specific camping holidays, it was going to Japan when I was 13. Our family never went on any interesting holidays, but some friends from Japan paid for us to go and visit them. It was a real eye-opener because it was all about food for me: eating raw meat and fish dipped in raw egg – I remember that it all felt so naughty. It opened up the whole notion of food – about it being inspirational and connected to emotions.
Ideal travelling companion?
Definitely my wife Georgia. We both love exploring places through food, particularly the connections you can make with people through really simple, sensual experiences.
Our honeymoon in Bali. It was the first holiday in a long time where I just experienced the sheer, luxurious pleasure of enjoying myself. My wife and I are absolutely fascinated by food, so we explored and ate our way around the island. We had three nights at the Amankila resort, which never having experience proper luxury before, was quite mind-blowing.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
I'm quite fond of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. When I was four or five, I was photographed there with my sister for the cover of the Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy. It's a really strange, apocalyptic, disturbing image of silver-haired children crawling up the rocks. Ever since it's been one of those places that I've had a strange fascination about.
What have you learnt from your travels?
That it's a wafer-thin sliver of fate that divides us all. However, having worked in refugee camps, I came to understand that when you really spend time with people – especially through the intimate connection of eating together – you realise how similar we are. I remember being in a camp in northern Uganda where people were having the same conversations as I do around the breakfast table.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
I'm a gastronaut so I eat! Every year we spend a month in France and I cook, eat and swim. It fills me with joy.
Greatest travel luxury?
My MacBook Air. I write all the time while I'm away and it's a huge luxury because it's beautiful and light.
My favourite books to take abroad are by Ryszard Kapuscinski; he was an extraordinary writer. I also take all the issues of the Economist that I haven't managed to get through.
Where has seduced you?
Afghanistan. I was expecting life to be really gruesome and it was incredibly tough, yet I found the code of hospitality and honour made travelling the most wonderful experience. We were invited to dinner by a man and only discovered half way through that he was a Taliban leader. He really looked after us, even though we were the enemy. The Afghans are wonderful, warm and lovely people.
Better to travel or arrive?
Definitely arriving, unless I'm travelling by train – mainly because the BBC has a very strict expenses policy, so we're always in economy.
Worst travel experience?
Visiting Chernobyl. The earth and the air just feels bad and riddled with something gruesome; there is a palpable tragedy floating in the air. We also had the most miserable guide called Dennis. Driving away from there was one of the best experiences.
The hotel in Chernobyl, which is really just a big stack of portable cabins for visiting scientists. It looks apocalyptic and has the worst restaurant in the world where they serve a slurry of cabbage and fat. It's a stinking, depressing hell hole.
I took Georgia on a surprise trip to Barcelona but beforehand had convinced her it was highly likely she'd be going on a cycling holiday in Norfolk. As we got on the plane she was horrified because she'd bought cycling gear with her. My notion of us having a romantic weekend was gradually shredded. For our first meal I ordered pigs trotters and didn't realise they are basically bone and skin and complained to the manager. He politely told me that no, you just eat the skin. The holiday was in tatters by this stage, it was just miserable.
The Gandamack Lodge in Kabul. It's a very simple, unobtrusive hotel with lots of character, but the main thing is that it's away from the big, target-practice hotels. It feels like a refuge and importantly it also has a bar. It's more about the release of tension than the luxury.
Favourite walk/ swim/ride/drive?
My favourite cycle ride is from my house in Islington to the BBC, along the Regent's Canal. It's full of ducklings at this time of year and you go past London Zoo where you can wave at the warthog. It's absolutely beautiful and feels like a bit of secret.
Best meal abroad?
A kebab shop in Charikar, just outside Kabul. They make kebabs out of lamb meat, fat and testicles and grill them on the street, which is full of people holding AK47s with no indication of whether they are friend or foe. You look over the Hindu Kush mountains and it's a real cacophony but it feels like it's the place to eat a kebab. The Afghans cook lamb like nobody else and everything feels exactly right. All the sensual pleasures are working together in exactly the right way.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
Get out the photos of my family out then head to the markets. It's where I get the measure of a country: the combination of noises, people, smells and sights.
Going skiing fills my heart with joy and I haven't really been able to do it for a while because my kids have been a bit too young. I think next year might be the first time I can take my daughter Daisy which I'm really looking forward to.
It has to be New York. I've only ever been for short, relatively glamorous trips which is very fortunate.
My summer holiday in Languedoc, cooking, eating and swimming.
Stefan Gates' series 'Feasts' continues on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC4. He is also speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday 6 June (cheltenhamfestivals.com).
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