Our writers reveal the most soul-stirring experiences from around the planet
If the past few weeks have taught us anything about travel, it is that we can’t take it for granted. No longer can we see the opportunity to head to Venice for the weekend, collapse on a Caribbean beach or even simply book a week in a Lake District cottage as a right. It’s a privilege.
So, as we re-evaluate our feelings towards travel, surely we may think differently about the places we want to go next, and perhaps reflect more on those moments that have made a particularly strong impression.
I long ago realised that I didn’t have to fly for hours in search of my travelling highs. Wanderlust had taken me around the world, but it had also made me see that I was much more interested in the landscapes, cultures and history of Europe than I was taken by south-east Asia or the United States.
For me, it’s the sound of cicadas echoing around umbrella pines and the haze of heat rising off the fallen stones of a deserted Greek or Roman site that have been among the most beguiling experiences of my travelling life. Or the soaring interior and mysterious light effects of a medieval cathedral as the sunshine filters through the clerestory windows and glitters on an ancient mosaic. These are the moments that have made me feel most intensely aware of a sense of place and of the privilege of being somewhere special.
And yet I have hardly even started to explore the great French cathedrals. Nor have I ever been to the great Roman ruins of Paestum on the coast south of Amalfi. Stuck in lockdown, it is places like this that are preoccupying my travelling plans.
So, with this in mind, we’ve asked 15 of our most experienced writers to reflect on the destinations they know and love best and the discoveries that have meant something special to them over the years.
Snug in my tent in the Serengeti, I listened to the strange pulsing cries of a nightjar in the surrounding trees. But later, when the nightjar had fallen silent and dawn seeped through the canvas, a lion began to roar not far off. I dressed hurriedly, stepped outside and eventually picked him out with my binoculars where he sprawled at full length on a granite kopje, gold mane on fire in the morning sun.
Then he rose to his feet and began to roar again through half-closed jaws, each cavernous groan expelled from somewhere deep down inside his chest, echoing over the boundless plains before dying away in a coda of coarse rhythmic grunts. What a way to start the day. That’s why I go to Africa, to see lions, not behind bars but living free where they belong, telling all the world that they are the lords of this land.
Shark Bay, Western Australia
We buy some tinnies in a bottle shop and drive off through the dusk towards the place where the red desert meets the white beach and together they slip into the ocean. It is a place of dazzling colours and clashes but I won’t appreciate that until the morning. For now, the moon casts a monochrome light as we make a fire on the beach and unroll our swags. Then we drink beer and my companion talks of his ancestral connection to this land, of the plants that are his larder and medicine cabinet.
From first light the colours of desert, beach and sea swell like music and my “brother” – he calls me that, so I reciprocate – enacts a beautiful ritual. At the water’s edge he sprinkles red sand around his splayed fingers to leave a hand stencil on the white sand that looks like rock art, but will last only a few hours. “It’s temporary,” he says. “Like us.”
Only once have I walked on water – during a hard winter in Russia long ago. The fringes of the Gulf of Finland had frozen solid, and it became possible to wander out to sea on foot. Twenty yards from the shore, the ice beneath my feet was not entirely flat; there were visible ripples on the hard surface, as if the tide had been caught in the act of rolling in.
Snow as dry and fine as sawdust moved in white whorls and eddies on the grey-blue ice. The light was bleak, anaemic, but precious nonetheless. It was the reason I was outside at all, to drink in every drop of pale sun during the short northern day. But it was bitter cold too – and that somehow made every sound crisp and clean: I could hear the frosted pines behind me popping and crackling in the breeze. It was a noise oddly reminiscent of logs in a fire, and a reminder to stop loitering on that thin lid of ice and go indoors.
The boy, who had spent the afternoon navigating me through a maze of narrow lanes, looked at the 200-rupee note in my hand and shook his head. Then he grinned, and with a little wave left me on the ghats of India’s holiest city. Described by Mark Twain as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend”, Varanasi is surreal. At dawn, devotees submerge themselves amid floating marigolds, smoke drifting from burning corpses; yogis meditate, staring into the rising sun.
Come evening, priests in saffron-coloured robes swing burning candelabras, cymbals clang, temple music blares, and children sell candles to be set adrift on the filthy, sacred river. It’s an astonishing spectacle, yet it is the memory of the boy I treasure – his mild puzzlement, as if a cash reward would cheapen whatever motive he had for giving his time. It is this – the inversion of expectation, the generosity of spirit – that makes travel in India such a transformative experience.
Pippa de Bruyn
Argentina is a vast, wide-open country, with immense skies. You have to go slowly, and overland, to really get this. I did it with Mike, a close, old, great friend. We shared a sleeper with four fun-loving Argentines for the first epic leg down to the Andes. Together, we experienced the dizzying freedom of a 20-odd-hour rail trip – the shared meals and drinks, the talk, of past and future, while toasting the perfect present.
At the backwater station of Ingeniero Jacobacci we swapped to the old and very slow Patagonian Express, to ride for another night and day through the steppe to Esquel. I hung out of the open doorway, sipping maté and watching rheas sprint across the line, and saw my friend doing the same the next carriage along. Grinning, wind in his hair, delirious with innocent joy.
I travelled the globe on a cargo ship, from Felixstowe to Los Angeles. Through brutal Libyan heat, bribing our way down Suez, via dodgy pilots in Vietnam, skimming the fringe of a typhoon in the South China Sea and across the Pacific we sailed. The seafarers were heroic men I admired hugely. Our captain was a Danish bear, gruff and formidable in the great tradition of master mariners. Tonight the Pacific was calm, almost tender in its soft might.
Tomorrow a tiny line on the horizon would become the mountains of California and our voyage would be over. The captain said: “When you get back, they will ask what it was like. They will imagine sunsets and sunrises. But they will never understand, however much you tell them, how vast the oceans are.” He was right. Until that moment I had not understood how wide is this earth, this life.
Two hours in, I was still waiting for the hand on the shoulder that would tell me to leave. The formal attire I was wearing had been hired that morning; the invitation had been extended only the previous day. I cannot dance at the best of times, let alone perform the practised steps that Austrians seem to find as easy as sleeping. And the grandeur of the Hofburg, the imperial palace of Vienna, had seeped under my skin – I was an impostor on the staircase in a rented tux. But my, the beauty of it all.
The Kaffeesiederball – Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball – is just one of the 450 such events that take place in Austria’s capital every year, but it has a magic born of a fairy tale. To watch was enough – the waltzes a swirl of coordination and care, devoutly in sync. Even as the night slipped into a 3am haze, arguments and clinches, the dancers no longer so devout, the spell stayed unbroken.
Utah’s landscape has a raw and violent power that doesn’t so much fill your heart as thrust a fist into your gut. I’d been driving its twisting Highway 12, an official “All-American Road”, all afternoon. Every time I rounded a corner, I laughed out loud, giddied by the sheer force of each new scene revealed. Hulking, pink rock fortresses appeared more extraterrestrial than earthly; burnt-out, ashy Upper Blue Hills prophesying a planet gone to seed. Colossal, candy-striped cliffs led me high into a forest, the quiet gravity of firs and apsens like a balm.
Stepping out into fresh, elevated air, I realised my eyes ached from the excess. Utah felt to me like a land made for giants: too grand and glorious for the likes of us. Exhilarating because it reminds us the universe is vast and we are small. But travel here is meaningful in more ways than one. Today, Utah’s many miracles are menaced by politicians, who would parcel them out for profit. Yet the difference we tiny ants can make, by proving tourism earns an income just as well as coal, is large.
After 19 hours on the ferry from Athens to Anafi, a craggy speck in the Aegean, it was a choppy half-hour ride on a spry fisherman’s boat to reach honey-coloured Roukounas beach. Naked hippies emerged from wonky bivouacs beneath the tamarisk trees, curious to see who had washed up. We – three girlfriends and me – had only one crumby two-person tent between us. Most nights, we just slept in our sarongs under the stars. Breakfast was a salty peach rinsed in the sea; for lunch, we sacrificed a watermelon.
At dusk, delirious with sun, we slunk up to the only taverna to devour omelettes and summer vegetables drenched in olive oil, cooked by the sullen wife of the maître d’, a frisky priest. He presided over endless backgammon sessions and impromptu singalongs with his congregation of mavericks and misfits, who came and went or forgot to leave. Some of them are probably still there, 20 years later. No matter that we are older, and that there’s a road to Roukounas now – that holiday will always be the essence of Greece for me: the pure joy of simplicity and liberty.
I was in a handsome sandstone town called Galatina, in Puglia, on a hot July day, waiting for the church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria to open. I sat outside the bar across the road and asked the waiter to bring me a té freddo, a cold tea. The piazza was intensely still, biding its time until evening. When the tea arrived, it came with a little iceberg of lemon sorbet: it tasted like some divine nectar. The church door was eventually swung open by a tall Franciscan monk.
In the cool interior, colourful, serious, naif, vibrant frescoes danced in motes of light. Then a girl in her late teens walked in, dressed as if for a day at the beach. She nodded a greeting, climbed the stairs to the 16th-century organ, and began playing the kind of ethereal, sacred music that makes your spirit soar. To adapt Andy Warhol: every good holiday has 15 minutes you can frame. Those were mine.
The land flattens to sheep-grazed salt meadows. The bay is beyond, the sky huge. Minutes short of the Mont Saint Michel, I pull up. I never mean to, but beauty on this scale stops you whatever your other plans might be. OK, the Mont, in Normandy, is scarcely a hidden gem. It is merely the most mesmerising monument in France. From the bay, it rises as if borne from a more sublime dimension. Slowly, different elements come into focus: the ramparts and, rising up the granite outcrop, the slab-sided abbey and vast Romanesque church on top.
Imagine, if you will, Westminster Abbey wrapped round a rock. Within, it’s a vertical and horizontal warren, cloisters and much else apparently hanging in mid-air. Crammed in the abbey’s skirts below, the one-street village teems with visitors and commerce. It always did. Pilgrims rolled in ceaselessly needing beds, vittles and brothels. Teeming is traditional, maybe even enhancing the Mont’s sense-smacking splendour. Then I leave, with more regret than I leave anywhere. Once it’s out of sight, it’s hard to believe that anything quite so majestic existed.
There, in Darjeeling, I rented a room to use as a base for treks around the Eastern Himalaya. I had become a familiar figure about town, the woman hoping to catch sight of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak. Yet in spite of some long days and big climbs, I was repeatedly confounded by heavy cloud or swirling mist. Until one afternoon when a tea-picker rapped on my door. “Madame,” he cried out, pointing across the valley. The clouds were lifting and I could see slants of sunlight reflecting off ice. I smiled at him, but was privately disappointed. It didn’t seem so high after all.
I ambled back inside, glancing out of the window a few minutes later. The clouds had swept away and I realised I had been looking in the wrong place. Instead of scanning the rim of the valley, I should have cast my eyes higher, craning my neck upwards like looking at the moon. The summit seemed to soar almost vertically above me, in all its jagged glory, before vanishing again behind cloud. One of those perfect fleeting moments that travel keeps on giving.
Michelle Jana Chan
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
I cooled my body on top of one of the black stone blocks, my fingers stroking its mossy corners and a thousand years of history. The only sound was birdsong, sweet and timeless. An almost meditative calm fell over me as I looked around the ancient ruins of Chau Srei Vibol, a surreal tumble of gigantic slabs, squinting stupa, and sun-dappled forest.
One of myriad forgotten temples of the Angkor Archeological Park, it had taken a 45-minute ride with my motorcycle guide to get here, but now I was alone. Yesterday I’d watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat alongside hundreds of other tourists, and it was mesmerising. But Chau Srei Vibol offered something else; the delicious feeling of having somewhere beautiful all to yourself.
It had been six weeks since sun rays last crept above the horizon. Any colour had drained from the snow-streaked, monochromatic mountains, and viscous, metallic waves rolled through midnight-black fjords. Above the Arctic Circle, at the earth’s extremity, choices become refreshingly simple: black and white; light and dark; live or die. Every winter, orcas and humpbacks migrate along northern Norway’s coastline in search of a herring banquet; attired in a drysuit, latex hood and snorkel, I was the uninvited dinner guest.
I dived into the icy sea. A chaos of fins, flukes and squealing gulls filled the sky, but lowering my head 45 degrees, I was in another universe. Orcas performed acrobatics through constellations of twinkling herring scales, and a humpback cruised so close I could see every wrinkle around the leviathan’s eye. It was a fleeting connection, a moment of veneration, a reminder the planet is so much bigger than me.
Tottering home in the dawn light after a big Spanish night out, some three decades ago, I turn a corner behind the cathedral into the Plaza de la Virgen and come face-to-face with a majestic sight. The figure of Our Lady of the Shelterless, the city’s signature Virgin, stands as high as a house, her crowned head gazing down over a vast mantle of flowers richly patterned in scarlet, pink and creamy white.
It’s the annual floral offering made by pious Valencians to their patroness – part of Valencia’s great springtime fiesta of Fallas, when giant images are set up in the streets amid a frenzy of fireworks. At terrace tables touched by the sun’s first rays, shirt-sleeved locals sit nursing the day’s first café con leche. Mopeds buzz by on the fringes of the square. I stand and gawp, surprised by a rush of tipsy emotion at the soaring figure of the tearful Virgin and the mass of carnations exuding their fragrance into the dew-laden air of a spring morning.