The Complete Guide To: Travels with Agatha Christie

Some writers' voyages are all in the mind, but Agatha Christie's passport was covered in exotic stamps, and inspiration often came abroad
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The Independent Travel

How far did she travel?

Born and brought up in Torquay, Agatha Christie enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle of those with independent means. When she was six, however, money had started to run short, so the South Devon house was rented out and the family moved to the cheaper locale of the South of France for the summer. The cross-Channel ferry from Folkestone to Boulogne was Christie's first taste of foreign travel. It developed into one of the passions of her life, and many of the places she visited made a vivid impression on her.

One of the writer's biggest trips was a journey around the world with her first husband in the early 1920s – all undertaken by sea – during which she visited South Africa, Australia and North America.

When her unhappy marriage unravelled, she began visiting the Middle East, later spending long periods in Iraq with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. There, she helped on some of the digs in which he was involved, cataloguing and photographing whatever he found, and restoring some of the pottery. Many of the artefacts discovered by the Mallowans are still on display in the Mesopotamian rooms at the British Museum (020-7323 8181; www.britishmuseum.org), which opens daily 10am-5.30pm, admission free. The Middle East galleries are open until 8.30pm on Thursdays.

Life on the Nile?

Christie's first visit to Egypt consisted of three months in Cairo for her coming-out season, during which she spent her time at parties and dances, making occasional, reluctant visits to the Cairo Museum, and refusing to visit the Nile. She stayed at the Gezira Palace hotel on Saraya El Gezira Street (00 20 2 2728 3000; www. marriott.co.uk), an ornate 19th-century Islamic palace that became a hotel, and is now run as the Cairo Marriott. It was another 20 years before Christie discovered the delights of the Nile region, the burial chambers in Luxor and the temples along the river banks.

Unlike Linnet Ridgeway, the heroine of Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie avoided any shooting incidents. On reaching Aswan, she installed herself at the Old Cataract Hotel (00 20 97 231 6000; www.sofitel.com) on Abtal El Tahrir Street, overlooking the river, where she wrote her best-selling mystery set on a Nile paddle boat. The Old Cataract is a splendidly atmospheric place, perched on a rock facing the southern tip of Elephantine Island. Even if you don't stay there, it is worth popping into the terrace bar for a cocktail and a panoramic view of the Nile. Double rooms from ¿149 (£106), including breakfast. Get there in the next five months if you want to enjoy its old-world charm: on 1 April, the hotel closes for two years while the old building undergoes complete modernisation. The management insists, however, that the character of the building will be retained.

Few modern cruise passengers need shore-based accommodation in Aswan, since most river trips begin and end in Luxor, or continue further south to Lake Nasser. Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk) is one of a number of operators offering Nile cruises, usually lasting a week or longer; some combine the cruise with a visit to Cairo and the pyramids.

Was the Orient Express murder?

Apparently not. Christie used the leading trans-European service several times when travelling to the Middle East, describing it as "the train of my dreams". The first time she made the trip, she was travelling alone to visit some friends in Iraq; her itinerary involved a connecting train, the Taurus Express, from Istanbul to Damascus, and then on to Baghdad.

These days, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; www.orient-express.com) is a radically different entity, using historic carriages for itineraries that normally cover only a small fraction of the original route; its main business is travelling from London to Venice. But on several dates next year, it will cover the ground from Paris to Istanbul. The complete journey will cost £4,350 one-way, based on two sharing and including meals, but excluding hotel accommodation in Paris, Budapest and Bucharest. Travel to Paris is not included.

The "ordinary" main-line service known as the Orient Express continues to operate, but is a shadow of its former self, shuttling between Strasbourg in eastern France and Vienna. You can use it as part of a longer itinerary to make the journey to Istanbul; an agent such as Trains- europe (0871 700 7722; www.trainseurope. co.uk), for example, can sell a sequence of tickets covering the whole journey.

From Istanbul, a weekly service carries passengers on to Aleppo. Departing from Istanbul's Haydarpasa station, on the Asian side of the Bosporus, on Sunday morning, it arrives in the Syrian city early on Monday afternoon, a journey of some 29 hours. The journey costs £39 for a single-berth cabin. There are four daily departures from Aleppo to Damascus, five hours away. (The continuation of the service to Baghdad was suspended in the late Eighties; current Foreign Office advice is to avoid all travel to Baghdad and the surrounding area.)

Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express at Baron's Hotel in Aleppo, once one of the most famous hotels of the Middle East. Now somewhat faded, it is evocative of a time when travel was an adventure, and it is still a good place to stay, offering single rooms from $45 (£22), and doubles from $55 (£27). Situated on Baron Street (00 963 21 211 0880), it is conveniently located for exploring the city's great citadel and souks. It is a couple of blocks from the Aleppo Museum, where relics from many archaeological sites, including those excavated by Christie's husband, are on display.

Did she visit Syria with him?

Yes – and she had enormous affection for the country and its people. Christie accompanied her husband on a number of archaeological digs, including those at Tell Halaf and Tell Brak, where Mallowan excavated the so-called Eye Temple; many of the items he found were marked with an eye symbol. When the couple didn't use the Orient Express to reach the Middle East, they travelled by sea from Trieste to Beirut, and then overland through places such as Palmyra, a magnificent Roman city in the desert. Highlights of the site include the Great Colonnade, with the huge Temple of Bel at one end and the camp built by the emperor Diocletian at the other.

When Agatha and Max visited Palmyra, they stayed at the Zenobia Hotel (00 96 331 591 0107; www.zenobia-hotel.com; doubles from $111/£56 with breakfast), a small place that is ideally situated close to the Roman ruins, just outside the modern town of Tadmor where most of the accommodation is located.

Many of the places Christie visited in Syria, including the Phoenician city of Ugarit, are included in the Ancient Syria tour proposed by The Traveller (020-7436 9343; www.the-traveller.co.uk), departing 1 May next year. The 17-day tour, accompanied by an expert lecturer, costs £2,350, including flights and half-board accommodation.

Other favourite destinations?

Christie called Esfahan in Iran – then Persia – "a fairyland city", with its rose, blue and gold colours, beautiful coloured tiles, and "lovely fairy-tale buildings". It is still a fascinating place, with souks and waterways, mosques, palaces, and a vast central square. She visited the city on the way back from Iraq, travelling through Tehran, the ancient city of Hamadan, and Shiraz, a medieval city and the Persian capital in the 18th century. Christie drew on her experiences there and used them as the setting for a short story, "The House at Shiraz", featuring her detective Parker Pine. Tailor-made tours of the cities of Iran can be organised by Steppes Travel (01285 880 980; www.steppestravel.co.uk).

Agatha Christie had other favourite destinations, too. Even as an old lady, after a lifetime of travels, she described New Zealand, which she had visited with her first husband on their round-the-world tour, as "the most beautiful country I have ever seen". They visited Wellington, then crossed over to the South Island, where they stopped at the small port town of Nelson (now a city). From there, they travelled south-west to the Buller Gorge, now a centre for jet-boating and gold-panning, and down to Kawarau Gorge, another former gold-mining area not far from the popular resort of Queenstown. Tailor-Made Travel (0800 988 5919; www.tailor-made.co.uk) can arrange a similar itinerary. u o A little closer to home, Christie described Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, as the ideal place to go in the winter.

Did she write there?

While she was in the Canary Islands, Christie wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train. She first went to Tenerife, where she stayed just inland from Puerto de la Cruz – in La Orotava, a small colonial town full of churches and attractive mansions, situated at the foot of a mountain. But neither the climate nor the quality of the swimming – from a sloping, volcanic beach – appealed to Christie. After a week in Tenerife, she moved to the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria and the resort of Las Palmas (frequent ferries connect the two islands).

It is now considerably easier to reach Gran Canaria than it was in the 1920s; among a choice of airlines, GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www. ba.com) flies there from Gatwick daily, except Tuesday and Saturdays from 5 November; and Monarch (0870 040 5040; www.flymonarch.com) operates a flight to Las Palmas every Monday from Luton. One-way fares start at £45.

Despite the writer's apparent dislike of their island, the people of Tenerife are holding an Agatha Christie festival ( www.agathachristie.es) this year in Puerto de la Cruz, in the foothills of Mount Teide, marking the 80th anniversary of the writer's first visit to the Canaries. It runs from 23 November to 1 December, during which time there will be an exhibition of Christie memorabilia, the unveiling of a statue by her grandson, and the naming of a street in her honour.

Any other Christie festivals?

Torquay has an annual festival to commemorate its most famous daughter, which includes talks about the writer, street performances, film screenings and writers' workshops. This year's festivities included a Murder Mystery Ball at the Grand Hotel, where Christie spent her honeymoon. This imposing four-star establishment (0844 502 7587; www.grandtorquay.co.uk) still dominates the seafront. The programme for next year's festival will not be announced until the spring, but it will take place around her birthday on 13 September. If you can't wait that long, there are plenty of Christie connections to be discovered in and around Torquay.

Give me some clues

Visitors can take a walk along the "Agatha Christie mile", the route of which passes Beacon Cove where she used to swim as a child – in those days, men and women bathed on separate beaches – and the aforementioned Grand Hotel. Agatha was baptised in All Saints Church, which has a copy of her baptism certificate on display. And next summer, when it reopens following an extensive restoration, Torre Abbey on Kings Drive (01803 293593; www.torquay.com) will once again display a number of her personal effects, including family photos and her original typewriter. The Torquay Museum at 529 Babbacombe Road (01803 293 975; www.torquay museum.org) also has a collection of Christie memorabilia, including an original manuscript, complete with scribbled notes. The museum opens 10am-4.45pm Monday-Saturday, 1.30-5pm on Sunday from mid-July to September. Admission costs £3.

Can I see her home?

The grounds of Christie's Devon holiday home, Greenway, with its magnificent woodland gardens, are opened to the public. She shared the house, in Galmpton near Brixham, with her second husband for nearly 20 years, before passing it on to her daughter Rosalind; it is now in the hands of the National Trust. Greenway (01803 842382; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is currently closed for the winter, but will reopen in March next year. Visitors can explore the gardens from 10.30am-5pm Wednesday-Sunday. Admission costs £5.20, or £4.40 if you don't arrive by car. The house itself will open to visitors in 2009.

Christie often travelled to Greenway on the Paignton-Dartmouth steam railway (01803 555 872; www.paignton-steamrailway.co.uk), a scenic half-hour ride through the Devon countryside. This weekend is the last of the year with regular services, but there will be Santa trains operating at weekends in December. Services will then resume in April. A return ticket from Paignton to Kingswear costs £7.40 (or £9, including the ferry across to Dartmouth). The train stops en route in the village of Churston, a location in one of Christie's Inspector Poirot stories, The ABC Murders.

Did she ever go to Belgium?

Christie's decision to endow her best-known detective, Hercule Poirot, with Belgian nationality appears not to have been inspired by travels around his homeland. Her inspiration seems to have come from the community of Belgian refugees that had settled near her home in Devon during the First World War. Poirot himself was said to be a retired police officer, who had fled to England during the German occupation of Belgium. He first appeared in print in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, during which he was staying in the imaginary village of Styles St Mary in Essex, but he later settled in central London.

In the TV series, Agatha Christie's Poirot, Charterhouse Square was used to replace the fictitious Sandhurst Square on which his home, Whitehaven Mansions, was located. Charterhouse Square is now the location for the stylish Malmaison London hotel (020-7012 3700; www.malmaison-london.com).

The fictional detective was born in Spa, the original spa town, where you can still take the waters. A new establishment, the Thermes de Spa (00 3287 772560; www.thermesdespa.com), linked by funicular railway to the Radisson Palace Hotel below, offers a range of therapeutic treatments, as well as indoor and outdoor swimming pools, Jacuzzis and relaxation areas. Admission to the baths is €17 (£12), and treatments start at €25 (£18). Spa is also the home of the Belgian Grand Prix, which takes place at the Spa-Francorchamps racetrack ( www.spafrancorchamps. be). The next Grand Prix takes place 5-7 September 2008; tickets are now available from €120 (£83), but prices increase on 1 November.

False Names?

Although Agatha Christie set many of her stories in real-life locations, she sometimes disguised their identity. The best example of this is Burgh Island, off the coast of south Devon and connected to the village of Bigbury-on-Sea by a sandbar; visitors cross to the island on foot at low tide or by sea tractor, a strange contraption on stilts. The island is dominated by an elegant, Art Deco hotel (01548 810 514; www.burghisland. com), which was as popular with the 1930s in-crowd as it with today's visitors looking for a stylish break in unspoilt surroundings. Christie stayed there, and obviously spotted its dramatic potential. Although it never appeared as itself, the hotel was the model for the Jolly Roger on Smugglers' Island in Evil Under the Sun, and the setting for the island house party in And Then there were None.

The house-party tradition is still maintained at the Burgh Island Hotel; guests are expected to dress for dinner in black tie or evening dress, and there is live music and dancing during the meal twice a week. Rooms are available from £320; the Christie suite, which has two bedrooms, sea views and a balcony, is £340. Prices include dinner, bed and breakfast; Saturday-night guests must book for at least a two-night stay.

'An Autobiography' by Agatha Christie (published by HarperCollins, £8.99)

The mysterious affair at harrogate

When her first marriage broke down, Agatha Christie disappeared from her home and checked in to the Swan Hydro Hotel in Harrogate under the name of the woman with whom her husband was having an affair. She was finally uncovered by a young journalist, Ritchie Calder, who had used some of the constructs in Christie's books to deduce her likely moves; the events were portrayed in the 1979 film Agatha, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.

The hotel, now renamed the Old Swan, is still flourishing on Swan Road (01423 500055; www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk/oldswan), where double rooms start at £88, not including breakfast. Appropriately, given its history, the Old Swan is going to host a Murder Mystery evening on 16 November, combining drinks, dinner, and death. You have been warned...

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