Novelist Hannah Fielding grew up in Alexandria. Her world of travel includes Egypt's best beach. And it's nowhere near the Red Sea
Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean – which are you?
Definitely ocean. I have lived most of my life next to the sea. I grew up in a house in Alexandria where my bedroom had three windows looking over the Mediterranean. Later, when I came to England, my husband and I bought a house that is only ten minutes away from the sea. And in France, where we live for half of the year, our house and its gardens overlook a beautiful bay that is so blue in summer it can be hard to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins.
What was your first great travel experience?
I was 15 and my parents, my sister and I took a cruise on the Nile in Egypt between Luxor and Abu Simbel, Nubia, before this great temple’s relocation. In those days Lake Nasser had not yet been created and Abu Simbel stood on the banks of the Nile, all but intact since the 13th century BC. While the boat glided dreamily on the Nile, I was drawn by the utter tranquility and sense of history, surrounded as I was by an ancient world of ruins and the age-old scenery of fields and villages where people were living as they had lived a thousand years ago.
What was your favourite journey?
I think visiting Seville, Spain, during the Semana Santa, the Holy Week. It is a most emotional experience that no one should miss.
What are your top five places worldwide?
Aswan, Egypt: a felucca trip on the Nile at sunset is a most romantic and soothing experience.
Le Mont St Michel, Brittany, France: a place of wild beauty, full of ghosts of thousands of years of history.
Cadiz la Joyosa, Spain: a white and blue town of pale domes and spires that sing of the sea.
Kenya: for its unequalled safari parks and its fabulous sunsets.
Portofino, Italy: because it is quintessentially Italian and embodies all I love about Italian music, fashion, food and the beautiful language.
Name a special place to stay.
The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan is an opulent Belle Époque style villa built on the banks of the Nile. Many famous people have stayed there, including Sir Winston Churchill, King Farouk, the Aga Khan and Czar Nicholas II. From the luxurious bedrooms the views of the Nile, of the picturesque surrounding countryside and of the lush garden of Elephantine Island are mind-blowing. In this captivating and mystery-laden atmosphere dwells much of the romance of a past, exotic age, yet with all the comforts of modern times.
What three items do you always pack?
A notebook and pen, my MP3 player (I can’t live without music) and a book.
Which passport stamp are your proudest?
Most definitely the Swiss stamp I was given on arrival in Geneva in 1968. My family had been forbidden to travel for ten years under the regime of the time, and this was my first trip abroad since I had been a child.
Which passport stamp would you most like to have?
I am compulsively nomadic – there are so many countries I have still to visit. The romance of travel will never fade from me. I think China is calling next. My father was a great collector of Chinese porcelain, and I love it too; and I have always been fascinated by Confucius and his philosophy.
What is your guilty travel pleasure?
Shopping for unusual items at the local marché aux puces (flea market) near my home in France. I’m especially drawn to glassware; it’s an exciting day if I spot a vase by Lalique, Baccarat, Daum or Schneider sparkling in the sun.
Which do you prefer: window or aisle?
Aisle. I get fidgety during long flights and like to move around.
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
My husband of course; and if he is not available then my younger sister. We’ve had wonderful times and great laughs over the years.
Best meal on the road? And your worst?
Surprisingly enough, the best meal I’ve had was at the Restaurant de la Gare at Geneva train station. It was my father – who was a great gourmet – who tipped me off about this restaurant. They make the best steak tartar in the world.
Worst? In a café off the motorway in Yugoslavia, between Austria and Greece in 1979, where I was presented with some sort of evil-smelling stew.
Most surprising place? And your most disappointing?
Kenya. I found it a most romantic and inspiring place, hence my novel Burning Embers. Most disappointing? Holland. Amsterdam was the only place where I cut my journey short; when I visited, almost 30 years ago, I found it dirty and down-at-heel.
Where do you NOT want to go?
Afghanistan, or any other war zone.
Who/what inspired you to travel?
As a little girl my parents took my sister and I on trips to Europe, which were magical and inspirational for a romantic like me. But after the 1956 war in Egypt almost everyone was stopped from travelling. As I grew through my teens the desire to travel boiled up in me. I don’t think I ever recovered. Two or three times a year I reach for my passport and we’re off.
What do you listen to on the road?
I carry my MP3 player around everywhere. I have an extensive collection of songs from all over the world, ranging from the late 1940s (music that my parents introduced me to) to the present day.
Does any song take you back to a particular place?
Oh yes! Julio Iglesias takes me right back to my travels through Spain, and Peppino di Capri and Mina to my travels through Italy. Most of the songs I listen to take me back to one place or another. My MP3 player is full of nostalgic memories.
What do you read when you travel?
Always a romantic novel, and a book about the place or the country I am visiting.
Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity?
Of course! Around every corner. It simply astonishes me how kind people are to travellers visiting their country.
What is the most impressive/useful phrase you know in a foreign language?
Ana masriya zayak wa batklam araby zayak. When my English husband and I visit a market in Egypt, the local people talk freely about us because they assume that I’m a foreigner and that I don’t understand what they’re saying. I love to see their expressions change when I tell them, ‘I’m Egyptian like you and I speak Arabic as you do.’
What is your worst habit as a traveller?
I do NOT know how to travel light!
Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?
I’d make up a story from my imagination – undoubtedly a passionate romance set in a warm country.
When and where in your travels have you been happiest?
Travelling with my teenage children and a whole bunch of their friends on skiing holidays to Courchevel and Méribel in winter, and to a rented villa in the hills of the south of France, where we eventually bought a house.
What smell most says ‘travel’ to you?
Not a smell, but a shockingly long row of suitcases by the front door.
Given a choice, what era would you travel in?
In the 50s, by boat on the cruise ship Paquebot Esperia that used to travel the Mediterranean. After answering this question I searched on the internet for the Esperia and found a postcard on eBay showing the ship that was stamped Italy–Egypt. I bought it immediately – a bargain at ten dollars.
If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, which would they be?
Marsa Matrouh, 250 kilometres west of Alexandria for its miles of unspoilt, sugar-white sand and its limpid turquoise waters; Paris for its grandeur, its art, its architecture and its food; and Geneva for its cleanliness and situation in a country where everything works and service is unequalled.
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