Need a little inspiration to kick-start writing your best selling travel memoir? Novelist Hannah Fielding lists four places guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing
One of the most romantic places in the world, for me, is the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan in Southern Egypt. Built on a granite promontory in the Nubian Desert on the banks of the Nile, the dark pink edifice, in the style of Belle Époque villas of the 19th century, has retained all the beauty and splendour of yester-years.
The setting for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, the hotel propels you to a time and place far removed from the trappings of everyday life to enter a world of legendary people and stories. Sitting on the magnificent marble terrace overlooking the lush gardens of Elephantine Island, you have a front seat to watch the drama of nature unfold at different times of the day.
In the early misty morning, the dominant impression is one of deep-abiding peace. Your view is that of feluccas, the romantic wooden gull-winged lateen sail boats used since antiquity, moored on the shores of the Nile; of endless fields stretching afar, peppered with tiny villages with their mud walls and winding ways fringed with palms.
At noon, under the high, scorching sun, the scenery is painted in vivid colours. You might see a barefoot woman in her flowing gown filling water jars at the edge of the river, a smiling man dangling his legs and oscillating on the back of a small donkey, a string of stately camels ambulating on a straight road bordered by cool and shady date groves. Each is a picture postcard depicting peace-abiding people living today as they had lived a thousand years ago.
And then, at the end of the day, the sunset: the hour when the countryside is wrapped in a glory of colour! One moment the scenery is a dazzling silvery blue, ochre, brilliant green and dappled shadows; the next, without warning, it is flushed to a wild crimson. In Egypt night comes quickly; the sun sets dramatically – bang – just like that below the rim of the desert. Feluccas draw in against the bank with a rattle of chains and the creaking of windlasses and the whine of great sails. The fields are empty and the smoke of little fires rises in the still air from the mudhouses.
Now, darkness has fallen and the air is hushed and breathless. The sky is a purple canopy, low hung, and the blazing stars are so close that you can almost pluck them from the sky. The shadowed paths, the flowers in the hotel’s garden and the slender masts of sailing ships loom motionless, ghostly white in the silver moonlight: the desert night delivers infinity, eternity, beauty – all those grand emotions that inspire romance.
In Spanish, Granada means pomegranate, a luscious, round, red fruit that appears on the city’s coat of arms. That is just how one of the most magnificent heritage cities seems – with a little stretch of the imagination –as you approach it at dusk by a twisting road down the mountains.
Granada is home to the Alhambra, the amalgamation of fabulous Arabesque palaces and a fortress complex built by the Moors on a steep wooded hill during the mid-14th century. Shadowed in the evening light, rising upon its reddish crag the Arabian Night’s palace is startling in its beauty and in its impact on the imagination.
There is perhaps an excess of ornamentation, but nowhere else did the Moors create such decorative art and such exuberant splendour: centuries of craft, design and technique delicately carved in stone, marble, plaster and wood, with gushing fountains and canals, a glorification of a long-distant past. Are the thin and fragile marble columns imitations of the tent poles of the desert dwellers of Arabia? Could the brilliant colours of the Arabesque speak of the patterns of carpets that were used to drape the tent interiors?
It is difficult to say which part of the Alhambra is the most superb and the strongest influence on the imagination. In the Hall of Ambassadors, decorated in 152 different patterns, how easy it is to conjure up images of Moorish princes holding reception in this state room. Or picture the virgins guarded by those magnificent marble heraldic beasts that stand to attention underneath the fountain. Or still the vaulted domes, which look as if the architect was assisted by a swarm of bees.
In the Room of Two Sisters, legend has it that some Moorish maidens, idling the time away, flung some snow on the ceiling, and that as it hung there the architect came in and swore to make the snow eternal, hence the two large slabs of white marble that form part of the floor.
According to the great Moorish poet Ibn al-Khatib, who was born in Loja outside the city and lived in Granada, the Alhambra was built for emirs to while away the time in an enchanted mansion in the arms of three princesses (Ayishah, Zurayyah and Morayma), at the sight of whom, say Arab legends, all the passionate poison in a man would change to limpid water.
Here, within these silent walls of the Alhambra, where the shadows and echoes of the past confront one at every step, where the ghosts of emirs, slaves and beautiful princesses move through the corridors with silent footsteps; here in this wonderful and mystery-laden atmosphere dwells romance.
Another wonderful place where romantic stories bubble to the surface for me. The town overflows with antiquity. The skyline of gentle domes and spires is only the beginning – the winding lanes and ancient buildings around green quads are clear-cut, refined, dream-like. With wonderful outlines meeting the eyes at every turn, the sheer weight and variety of history is overwhelming.
Add to the mix small groups of bright young people, a mosaic from all parts of the world, hurrying from one ancient building to another, and an hour in a coffee shop watching this scene delivers more story ideas than I could ever properly explore.
But there is so much more to Oxford than just the ancient buildings. One of my favourite activities here is to take a punt on the River Cherwell, drifting lazily on a summer afternoon, watching the sun catch the water and set myriad jewels aflame. The skilled student standing in the back of the punt uses his pole to both push and steer; done well, it looks so completely effortless.
My favourite haunt is the botanic garden, a peaceful oasis on the banks of the Cherwell in the heart of Oxford. I love to visit in the autumn, when the leaves of the many exotic trees turn vibrant colours of yellow, orange, amber and even crimson. I sit under one of those trees, breathe the pure air and gaze in peaceful silence.
Oxford is a place for walking. Wandering from college to college, visiting the Bodleian Library and making my way slowly back to the Old Parsonage Hotel – a blissful way to spend an afternoon surrounded by the picturesque romance and beauty of an age, and all I want to do when I get back to my hotel room is write and write and write.
I have not travelled extensively in the United States, but after seeing the beautiful aerial images of Yellowstone captured by satellites and ‘Earth from the Air’ photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, I was keen to explore this area of natural beauty. I hadn’t anticipated, however, how inspirational I would find the trip.
We stayed in Wyoming, where the people were so very welcoming and the dinner platters vast. The drive across the state to the park itself was amazing – such wide expanses left to nature’s will, so different to England and to France. There was a sense of abandon and freedom, and at once I found myself calling to mind imagery cast by the great American writers; Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ whispered to me.
The landscape in the park was like nothing I had seen on my travels through Africa and Europe – wild, rugged, rocky. The lakes were such a deep blue, indigo, framed by forest-green trees and grey, majestic mountains whose tops looked to pierce the sky. Such a juxtaposition of colours took my breath away – every shade of blue and green and yellow imaginable blurring together to symbolise The Great Outdoors.
At the legendary Old Faithful Inn, we stopped for a break.Such a beautiful hotel, the log construction nestling in beautifully amid the scenery and the fireplace – wow, 85 foot! Outside, we waited in anticipation for the nearby geyser, Old Faithful, to erupt. Pretty much to schedule, up it went – a spectacular spout of water and steam shooting high into the air.
Though we explored the park extensively, I am sure we left plenty of the 9,000 square kilometres undiscovered. Still, I had a head full of the sound of rushing water and the scent of pine trees and the sight of the brown fur of a bison against the green grasses of his grazing ground.
Henry Miller once said, ‘One’s destination is never a place,but a new way of seeing things.’ In Yellowstone, I found a new understanding of America – its peoples, its landscapes, its creatures, its history – and every thing I saw made me want to pick up my pen and write.