What is your favourite on-the-road moment?
FOLLOWING a pilot up a narrow hanging ladder on the side of the Atlantic Conveyor navy ship in the cold, early morning, some 20 miles out at sea, before docking in Liverpool. We had come out from a tiny harbour, Abersoch on Anglesey, to meet it for the TV show Rivers. The pilot was dressed in his full uniform of long coat, peaked cap and shiny shoes, and it was a long way up the ladder in the dark to the bridge deck. This was routine for him – he’d got aboard ships in much worse conditions than this — but for me it was a crazy adventure. I loved it — proper travelling.
And your favourite city?
Naples at present. I’ve been back three years in a row. It seems as inexhaustible as Rome – you just keep walking and finding more extraordinary bits. I was quite unprepared for the glamour of the centre. Just north of the Borgo Marinaro is an area stuffed with Ferragamo and Prada, with restaurants and silk sock shops, but keep strolling on into the back streets of the Spanish quarter, which is not particularly Spanish any more but densely crowded, with fruit stalls and launderettes where scooters zip downhill loaded with entire families. Best is the walk down from there via a long set of steps that open out on to the bay and the smudge of Capri in the distance, passing forgotten palaces and fading gardens on the way.
When have you been most scared while travelling?
Being driven in central Africa at night, nearly always by official drivers in huge Hyundais. They are fearless overtakers, shooting straight out into oncoming traffic. But we were all scared and finally had to point out that we weren’t in any hurry. It didn’t make much difference. I went all over Africa by train for ITV. It was a genuine experience. One train in Zambia was 24 hours late and mobbed by angry shop owners waiting for their stock. In Algeria we went to Constantine. ‘This is called the train of death,’ our guide told us and detailed how fundamentalist rebels would stop the train and execute anyone in Western dress. ‘But don’t worry,’ he said, ‘it hasn’t happened for nine months.’
What is the best souvenir you’ve come home with?
A coffin. It was made for me by Hello Design Coffin Works in Accra and is shaped like a TV camera. We were filming a series on tribal art across the world and went to Ghana to look at ‘live’ folk arts, which included militia Fante flags and coffins that reflect how people have lived. Successful taxi drivers get buried in wooden models of Mercedes cars, fishermen in big fish, pilots in model aeroplanes. They made me a Panasonic camera coffin to order. Its already nicely out of date because the series was ten years ago and the camera is old. It’s been in an exhibition in Norwich but it’s in my shed now.
What has been your most life-changing experience while travelling?
Filming for Greatest Cities Of The World, I helped carry the 500-year-old statue of the Madonna of the Tiber into the Basilica di Santa Maria in Rome for the Festa de’ Noantri as an honorary member of the confraternity and was mobbed by worshippers. I stood next to the archbishop as he officiated in the mass. I don’t speak Italian and I am not a Catholic so I had no idea what I was supposed to do and just moved my lips. Afterwards a woman approached, embraced me and talked at me for some five minutes before my Italian friend pointed out that she thought I was a priest.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve spent the night?
A room in a hotel in Port Sudan, heading down to famine areas in the Delta. The room was a vertical shoebox and I was lying at the bottom end of a bed marked with the imprint of a hundred previous users in the mattress. Miles above me a huge wonky fan held on by what looked like one screw whirred round manically. I didn’t sleep. On the way back two weeks later they opened a door and ushered us into an eerie, empty, big, modern hotel attached to the side, which was reserved for officials. Someone had telephoned.
Where are you going next?
The Canadian Rockies to take a train and see some snow. I want to get up to Alaska and I once talked to a Myanmar historian about the undisturbed walled 18th-century cities he claimed could be found in the north-east of that country so I have an urge to go there.
■ Griff Rhys Jones: All Over The Place will be on tour from February 7 to March 1. For tickets, visit socomedy.co.uk