As a 12 year old, I shaded in the atlas beneath the bedclothes marking my territory as keenly and maybe as aggressively as Genghis Khan. I knew, with the certainty of youth, that I wanted to tango in a backstreet in Buenas Aires and swim the Hellespont. The only black and white was my resolve - the rest, I promised myself, was going to be painted in Fauvist Splashes of crazy colour.
Scrunched under the blankets, I heard foreign sounding voices and I knew they were calling my name in every language under the sun.
Now that I am grown up, my carbon footprint may be heavier but my step is unbearably light. I have made it that way. Today I travel constantly in search of interesting pieces for Jump Like Alice and the thrill of travel has never diminished. I still can't read a map but I can see the big picture very well. I see silk sedan chairs from bygone days, sleepers, strange companions, high notes in La Scala, dusty train stations, richly embroidered elephants and desert winds.
At will, I can summon up the acrid smell of burnt almonds and smell apple tobacco which transports me back to my first visit to Cairo at twenty-two. A waft of Ambre Solaire and I am transported to sultry, if penniless, days in the South of France. Today the strangulated vowels of the train manager on the Eurostar reassure me that I am shortly going to arrive in Paris. Despite very frequent trips, I still feel the excitement of my very first visit.
Unlike others, I don't want meditation or yoga. My idea of sun salutations is looking over the Bosphorus at dawn from the Pera Palace or dreaming in my room in the medieval Franciscan monastery in Cavtat on the Adriatic.
My keep fit of choice is to be splayed, scraped and pummeled on Iznic tiles in ancient hammans. This journey is outward bound, not that well trod road southwards to the navel. It is so much more fun. On my travels, I want to be shaken and stirred like the cherry in that martini waiting somewhere just for me.
In developing countries I often see a willing work force, wonderful fabrics, but poor design. This led me to bring my designs to them. The richly embroidered kurtas made for me in Kashmir and galabiyahs made in Luxor from the finest Egyptian cotton, I hope encapsulate everything that is wonderful in these timeless garments. They are particularly wearable as they are tweaked to appeal to the Western eye. Handmade by local craftsmen and women carrying on age-old traditions, I see these garments as a blank canvas on which to work your own magic.
On a recent trip to Luxor and Aswan, it was sad to see how the combination of politics and world media had destroyed a tourist industry once an imperative stop on the grand tour and ever since a destination for tourists wishing to either winter by the Nile or visit the tombs and temples. Luxor is home to probably 70 per cent of pharaonic treasures and until three years ago a landmark for anyone visiting Egypt. Yet last month we were the only visitors in Luxor temple and the tombs on the West Bank where the pharaohs buried their kings and queens. At dusk it was magic to be all alone and in a sense feel timelessness, a feeling underlined by the graffiti, dating back to the early nineteenth century.' I was here. Henry Raeburn 1815'. Rien que change...
Just across from Luxor Temple and the Avenue of the Sphinx is the Winter Palace - my favourite hotel in the world. Built in 1905 in the grand colonial style, it became a playground for the rich and titled. It still offers a step back into gracious living. But there is nothing precious about the staff - they are enormous fun with a gallow’s humour which serves them well in these difficult times. The exotic gardens, pool and fountains are incomparable as is the sumptuous scale and decoration. I have promised myself that if I should ever remarry, I will do so in the gardens of the Winter Palace, serenaded by the brilliantly coloured birds who own this garden. It is a hotel steeped in history and over the century, it has hosted the great, the good and the not so good. In 1922, in front of the amazing facade, Howard Carter announced the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. From then on, the Winter Palace became the excavation headquarters. The hotel notice board was the means Carter communicated to the world press. Lord Carnarvon, who sponsored the excavation, lived here while in Luxor and it was the winter home for many years of King Farouk, the last king of Egypt.
On the West Bank, just before you enter the valley of the kings, is Howard Carter's mud brick home, opened five years ago as a museum. The house remains just as though he had merely slipped out for a stroll in the sand. On display are the tools Carter used in excavations and a collection of photos of work under way hanging in his dark room. The guides here can be quite irritating and intrusive, pointing out everything, including sticking your head into his oven for a good look. Other guides take a more relaxed attitude and have to be gently shifted as they nap in the afternoon sun in post revolutionary Egypt. And who can blame them?
Nearby lies the monumental statue of Ramses 11, immortalised by Shelley in Ozymandias. A sonnet about the inevitable decline of all leaders and the empires they build:
Aboudy Bookshop, once situated next to the Winter Palace, has now relocated to the centre of town (El Gawazat Street). The owner who took over the shop from his father many years ago sits behind a desk with a sphinx-like inscrutability, surveying his empire. It still has the same magic atmosphere and offers the possibility of treasure. It is full of old and new books in all languages and is an egyptologists heaven. Over the years, I have spent hours perusing the rich variety of photographs, postcards and posters of Egypt. On this visit, my friend bought the book, The Map of Love by the Egyptian writer Adhaf Soueif. The inside page bore the words, ' Even God can't change the past.' The Muslim brotherwood, obviously thought otherwise and had the blasphemy blotted out on every copy.
The same censorship was in evidence in Luxor train station. The remnants of the pre revolutionary book stand was now thrown into what looked like an old glass cake trolley and no one had yet bothered to take out the books and reinstate the bookshop.
Sofra, (90 Mohamed Farid St, Al Manshiya), is my choice of restaurant every time in Luxor. Located in a 1930s house near the train station, you have the feeling of entering a private house. There are three separate dining rooms; a courtyard, a salon and an amazing rooftop terrace. Sofra is filled with interesting artifacts and old Ottoman furniture and lights. The food, which is delicious, reflects Egypt's rich history of invasion. While the queues are considerably shorter, the mezzes remain unbeatable. On our first evening of the trip we befriended Mohammed Nasser who was running the restaurant for his uncle .In the subsequent days, he brought us to places we would never have found on our own. In particular, the shisha cafe dedicated to the singer Umm Kulthum, the Maria Callas of the Middle East and North Africa.
One evening we went with him to the souk. As usual, every night the lights go off for about two hours usually sometime after seven. This is a nightmare for restaurants and shops as Luxor is thrown into almost complete darkness. Since arriving in Luxor, I had tried to find a galabiyah which could be modified for women and made up in Egyptian cotton. This was my fourth day and I was yet be shown something in the souk which could be used as a sample I could work on.
But suddenly there it was. There was no mistaking it. The only slight drawback was that someone was in it. That someone was a very tall elegant Egyptian man in a turban. Now, I am no stranger to encouraging a handsome man to remove his clothes, but this was slightly different. But necessity being the mother of invention, I did what I had to. Within an hour Sharif was in a brand new galabiyah and considerably richer and I was in receipt of the perfect galabeh to work on. News of this transaction went before me and as I strolled through the souk, I was being offered everybody's clothes at Prada prices.
A few days before, I had found Ashraf. He owned a shop in the souk. I immediately took to him.
Ashraf had one eye , a wife and a little girl who travelled everywhere with him on his Tin Tin style motorbike. What he lacked in eyes, he made up for in vision. 'I have factory. I do what you like.’ I jumped on the back of his bike and we vroomed off to his factory which turned out to be one man on a sewing machine who,when I met him was trying to read just his two eyes to the light. I handed Akbar my still warm galabeh and instructed him:
Mother of pearl buttons - no problem. Vroom, vroom!
Sleeves this way - no problem. Vroom, vroom!
French seams that way - no problem. Vroom, vroom!
Neckline like this - no problem. Vroom, vroom!
Buttonholes - no problem. Vroom, vroom!
The finest Egyptian cotton - no problem…
Away we all zoomed to his uncle’s material shop. We had to wake him up as he like many Egyptian shopkeepers slept through lights out. Then from the most unpromising looking bales of material being hauled down, were revealed wonderful cotton. The white fabrics were covered to protect them from the dust and sand. Ashraf held me in his gaze and said, 'I know your mind'.
Within a few days, and many many samples and turkish coffees later, we had the bones of the perfect galabiyah. And the perfect sample duly arrived in London a few weeks later. He did know my mind after all.
The train seemed the best way to get to Aswan. But the train to Cairo, which stops at Aswan, is notoriously unreliable and also not for tourists. Non Egyptians are supposed to travel on the more luxurious night train which takes three times as long and marks you out as a non-believer. In not so many words, we were told that we presented a security risk to the Egyptians in case of terrorist attack. But once on the train, they did not throe us off but gave us a fine. At midday we arrived , and as the only tourists we found, ourselves the centre of very unwelcome attention. The taxi drivers all converged on us and we agreed to go with one of them. With that, a fight broke out between the drivers and they proceeded to beat up our man. We tried to slip out of the car unnoticed but then we thought otherwise, partly because the fight was coming to an end and the angry crowd was dispersing. But from a purely pragmatic point of view we did need to escape from here and get to the hotel. Suddenly it was easy to see how a simple situation could spiral out of control. And even easier to see how it could turn nasty for us.
The now legendary Old Cataract Hotel was an entirely different experience. Colonial splendour, languor, nostalgia and opulence were not under threat here. The challenge of having flowers flown in from Holland every nine days to replace the current arrangement in the lobby is about as tough as it gets. Of course there is also the everyday pressure of running a high maintenance hotel for high maintenance guests. Some might question the high petal print but no one did within my hearing.
Its guests have included everyone from Winston Churchill to Agatha Christie who set parts of her novel Death on the Nile at the hotel and much of the subsequent film starring Peter Ustinov was shot in the Cataract.
On the terrace overlooking the gardens and pool, I could almost hear Agatha Christie lift her cup to her lips as she observed her fellow guests at high tea. Believe me, it can become infectious. Was it a coincidence that Ali the doorman, Ahmed the swimming attendant and a wealthy lawyer from Beirut were all wearing Jump Like Alice sunglasses? And why was Sophie Dalyrymple Swan so keen to hide her face beneath an elegant Jump Like Alice visor? And who really was the woman in the pool who wore a JLA periwinkle blue swimming cap and crimson nail varnish? And why did the young Saudi Prince never speak Arabic but the European languages of espionage? So many questions and perhaps even more red herrings…
The balcony of our bedroom next to the Nile overlooked Elephantine Island on the other side and the Nubian desert which stretched on forever. Ten years ago, Jean Claude Ellena a revered 'nose' at Hermes was sitting in the hotel gardens immediately below me. He was so inspired, or was it infused, by the conflicting smells of green mango, lotus incense, calamus and sycamore wood he created the fragrance Un Jardin sur le Nil. Incidentally, a favourite of mine even before my visit to Aswan.
In the near distance stood the Mausoleum of Aga Khan 111 . He liked to winter in Aswan for his health and was buried here after his death in 1957. Far more moving than the rather dull architecture of his pink granite burial place is the fact that every day for the next 43 years, his wife placed a red rose on his white Carrera marble tomb. When not available in Egypt, they were flown in from Europe.
Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that Some things really do stand the test of time, like love and Interflora.
The following day our plan to take camels through the desert to St Simeon's Monastery, was scuppered by a sand storm. Instead we chilled in desert heat until the storm subsided and took a felucca at sunset to Lord Kitchener's Island. The island was given to him in recognition of his Egyptian campaigns in the Sudan as Egyptian Consul. He lived there for many years and imported plants and trees from all over the world. It is simply beautiful, a shady oasis in the desert, a home for exotic birds.
On that subject, I invite all exotic birds to spread their wings and steal a birds eye view of jumplikealice.com or visit my shop on Columbia Road in Shoreditch, London.