Around the world and back again with Francis Brennan
One of our top hoteliers recounts his journeys across the globe and the adventures and mishaps that ensued along the way...
When I was giving some thought to the subject of travelling for my new book, A Gentleman Abroad: Francis Brennan's Travel Tales, I came across a quote by a Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta: "Travelling: it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller."
I can't say that I've ever been left speechless by anything, but I understand what he means. I have often been in awe of all the wonderful things I've seen: the bustling cities, the strange and wonderful wildlife, the beautiful monuments, the fantastic scenery and, most of all, the people I've met along the way.
Being a bit of a storyteller, I thought I'd commit my travels to paper and share these journeys. Not because I want to show off, but because I hope they'll provide readers with a little bit of escapism on a rainy winter's afternoon, and perhaps even a bit of extra knowledge or a travel tip or two.
Unlike Ibn Battuta, who was a 14th Century scholar and who travelled all over the world on a sort of pilgrimage, to understand more about himself and about the places he visited, I'm not a pilgrim: I've never walked the Camino de Santiago, sadly, because I have a wonky foot, and I haven't spent a full 29 years on the road like our Moroccan friend!
Nonetheless, I have been fortunate enough in my life to travel a great deal and writing this book has prompted me to reflect a bit on my passion for travel and why I love it so much. I was lucky enough to begin when travelling was still a glamorous thing. In the days before package travel, getting from A to B was generally long and expensive and while cheap air fares have opened up the world to everyone, which is a good thing, part of me misses the era when people dressed up to the nines to go on a flight - remember that? No tracksuits and Nikes in those days!
I have been keeping a diary of my travels since 1966 and I have enjoyed leafing through them immensely when researching this book; they bring back such happy memories. I treasure them and the people I've met along the way and places I've seen.
I can still remember my first trip abroad, with my sister Kate, to the wedding of the brother of our French student Claire. Firstly, the very idea of two teens from Balally in Co Dublin jetting off to Paris was unheard of, so we were the envy of the neighbourhood, but not only that, the wedding was out of this world. Kate and I spent the trip with our eyes out on stalks admiring the wealthy French, with their gorgeous clothes and sophistication. The wedding was straight from the pages of a celebrity magazine, and afterwards we took in the sights of the city, from the Eiffel Tower to Montmartre to the Jardin des Tuileries.
It was magical. What an introduction to travel - I think it spoiled me! However, I'm mindful of a quote I once read from Paulo Coelho: "Travel is never a matter of money but of courage." Absolutely true.
Another fond memory is of when myself and my brother John were in the USA with Tourism Ireland; we worked through New York and Chicago and on to LA. However, when we got to LA, John wasn't feeling well, and next thing, he was covered in red spots. It turns out he had chicken pox and, as he was an adult, he got it badly. The doctor came to see him in his hotel room and told him he'd have to be quarantined for at least 10 days, and poor John was devastated. But when the good doctor asked him if he was with a group, he had the presence of mind to say no, because otherwise all 40 of us would have had to be quarantined!
John had to stay in the hotel while the rest of us went on to Tampa in Florida. I can remember that he wasn't happy about that. We were staying in the Century Plaza in Los Angeles, with the staff leaving his food outside the door. It was a really nice hotel, a gigantic 19-storey modern building shaped in a crescent - pure modern America, but I think it was slightly lost on John. One bright spot was that, at the time, the actor Telly Savalas lived in the hotel. He was very famous because he'd played Kojak, the lollipop-sucking detective, and was a big star. When he found out there was an Irish fellow there, he used to come to John's room every day for a chat - isn't that nice? Presumably he was immune to chicken pox!
The best experiences I've had have been the most unexpected, from a visit to a Maasai home to a holiday chaperoning my 11 nieces and nephews in a minibus that we all remember and talk about to this day.
Holidays are about the experiences, but also about the memories. My most recent trip along Route 66 is one I will treasure the memories of: a true bucket-list trip of a lifetime! I spend a lot of my time in aeroplanes, but there truly is nothing like zipping along, the wind in your hair, the road stretching in front of you. I can see why it appealed, and continues to appeal, to so many Americans. It really embodies the spirit of the country, that sense of hopefulness and a brighter future, and, of course, the freedom of the open road. An unforgettable journey.
It hasn't always been glamorous, of course: every year I spend seven weeks in the United States, lugging big boxes of travel brochures around from city to city, taking an endless succession of flights (poor you, Francis, I hear you say!) as part of my Tourism Ireland job. It's hard work and between flying into a new city, setting up our 'show', working hard to woo Americans to Ireland, then packing everything away and flying off to the next destination, and there's not much time to wander around to take in the sights, but when there is, I drink it all in.
I have become an expert at getting an early flight to my destination so that I can have a wander, or making sure that if we have a rare night off, we have booked tickets for a show or some kind of tourist experience. I'm a sucker for hop-on, hop-off buses (the best way to see a place quickly) and for finding one-off trips for my travelling companions.
A Gentleman Abroad: Francis Brennan's Travel Tales, by Francis Brennan, Gill Books