"My hols"
by Vanya Kewley
published in Sunday Times - London on 5 May 2002 (Final 1, p. 18)

Spam, spam, Venice, New York and spam: Michael Palin's travel menu.

Michael Palin, 59 today, was born in Sheffield and graduated from Oxford University. He co-wrote Monty Python, and has since written and starred in several TV, theatre and film projects. He won a Bafta in 1988 for his role in A Fish Called Wanda, and received a CBE in 2000. His latest travel series, set in the Sahara, is on BBC1 this autumn. He lives with his wife, Helen, in London. They have three grown-up children.

Image Source: "The World Is My Crispy Maggot," in Outside Online [January 1998]


FOR ME, the joy of travelling is to dis-cover something new. In 1972, for instance, Terry Jones and I set off on an adventure. I was 29 or so, and I'd never been beyond Europe. We'd made a bit of money from Monty Python, so we decided to travel around the States.

I remember we arrived at the Grand Canyon and had no idea how you go about seeing the place. Did you go by plane? Or did you just stand on the edge and gawp? Instead of going to the Southern Rim, we set off for the Northern Rim, mainly, I think, because we misread the map. The approach to the canyon was through pine forests: it was just three or four degrees above zero, and there was snow on the ground. Amazing, since we thought it was going to be like the pictures, baking hot.

It took us three or four hours to get to the bottom of the canyon - the temperature went up as we went down - and it was marvellous. But when we made to start back up again, everyone down there was saying, you can't do it in the hottest part of the day. We said we had the rest of America to see, and set off anyway. I had no idea how heat and dehydration could affect you. We were young and fit, and I thought we'd be fine, but by the time we got back to the top again, we were dizzy with heat exhaustion. So the new thing I discovered was respect for nature and the environment.


Another new thing I discovered on holiday was my wife... That was 43 years ago and we've been together ever since. A holiday romance turned into a lifelong commitment.


Michael Palin on his travel discoveries

Another new thing I discovered on holiday was my wife. In my childhood, my family lived in Sheffield, which at the time was just a big, grimy industrial city covered by a pall of smoke. The only travel I did in those days was our annual two-week holiday each August. One year, my father decided we'd go to Southwold. It was a small town of tidy Victorian houses dominated by a lighthouse, with a medieval flint church set above marshes, a solitary road in and out and an eccentric guesthouse, where we stayed.

Early one morning, Richard Walner, my holiday friend, and I were sharing a hard-boiled egg on the beach when we noticed a group of girls nearby. Richard decided, because I was far too shy, that we should get to know them. So he threw a ball to me, I missed and it landed among the girls. One of whom was a farmer's daughter from near Cambridge - Helen. If I'm honest, it was more a question of lust at first sight rather than love. I was 16. That was 43 years ago and we've been together ever since. A holiday romance turned into a lifelong commitment.

Until well into my twenties, I didn't travel much at all. But I was an armchair traveller - I loved reading National Geographic. I was mesmerised by those romantic place names - Bangkok, Timbuktu, San Francisco - and I'd imagine what the places were like. And one of those places was Venice. A year after Helen and I were married, and after reading James Morris's wonderful book on Venice, we went. It was my first European holiday and everything I had read came true.

The softness and gentleness of the city struck me - the smell and warmth of spring, the early-morning light sparkling on the water of the canals. The whole place is like a theatre - there are these wonderful sets everywhere and you spend your time making dramatic exits and entrances. It was the first time I had seen anything like it, and it was very special.

The trouble with travelling back later on is that you can never repeat the same experience. I do go back to Venice and wander through the Arcade, past Florian's Cafe into St Mark's, and it is absolutely sensational. To hear Vivaldi played at the Chiesa di Santa Maria, in the same candlelit room where he performed 300 years ago, is sublime. Whenever I return to Venice, it works for me in a way that nowhere else does. But the joy of that first time has gone.

New York was different. I didn't fall for it immediately. In fact, I didn't like it at first. I didn't know my way around, everything moved very fast, nobody would stop and help you. I had no money - and New York is about money. But, after a while, it grew on me and now I love it. There are fabulous museums and galleries, and for modern art - Bonnard, Vuillard, Derain and the Fauves - it's incredible.

I think you learn a lot about a country from its art. To me, it's part of the drama of life. It teaches you that there are places, moments and incidents in other cultures that genuinely have a life of their own. In Manila, I wandered into a gallery that said, "Please leave your weapon by the door." It wasn't art, but it said a lot about the country all the same.

I still get excited about travelling anywhere - even if it's not exotic. For instance, I love the west of Scotland. There's something about the scenery - perhaps it's just the scale of it. There are some places, such as the Rockies in America, where you feel so tiny. You go "Ooh" and "Ahh" and "Isn't it wonderful?" and that's it. But in Scotland you can walk or climb all over the place, even to the highest peaks. I'm very happy when I'm up there.

I've got a lot of the world still to explore - whole bits of Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, the khanates of Central Asia. I have a particular fantasy holiday in mind - I'd like to meet a very funny, intelligent Iranian with a large house and a beautiful understanding of his country who would show it to me through his own eyes.

* Michael Palin talked to Vanya Kewley.

(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 2002)