Every year on Fat Tuesday, dozens of people line up in Praça de Espanha on the periphery of central Lisbon, waiting for one of the infrequent buses heading to Sesimbra.

On that day, the small coastal town comes alive with a Carnaval parade complete with floats, drummers, exotic dancers in dazzling costumes and all the pre-Lenten debauchery it can pack into one afternoon.

In Lisbon, revellers line up for the bus in anticipation of experiencing that most Catholic of festivals. …

‘For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky, which the sun gladdens with its gold’ — Fernando Pessoa.

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Lisbon ‘rises like a fair vision in a dream’. Photo: Nick Leonard.

The first person to emerge from Lisbon’s coronavirus lockdown was Fernando Pessoa, who died in 1935.

The enigmatic poet, immortalised in bronze twice in the Chiado neighbourhood of Lisbon where he was born, had gone into his own version of quarantine a month before any COVID-19 cases were discovered in Portugal.

In early February, the more famous of the two Pessoa statues was fenced off and then covered up as work began on repaving the surrounding pedestrian walkway. …

Marrakesh, Morocco 🇲🇦

The Djemaa el-Fna, the enchanting square at the heart of Marrakesh, assaults the senses at all hours: by day, the sight of snake charmers and their hypnotised serpents and the fragrant smells of the spice stalls; by night, the sounds of traditional storytellers and beating drums under a blanket of stars.

But for all the exotic wonders of Morocco’s most famous attraction, it’s something seemingly less alluring about the square at first glance that you might end up remembering most: the orange juice.

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A local man enjoys a glass of orange juice on the Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, Morocco. Photo: Nick Leonard.

For three dirhams (about $0.30), a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from a stand amid the bustle of the Djemaa el-Fna is just about the best value item in all of Morocco. The sweet nectar offers delightful refreshment and a welcome — if all-too-brief — pause before you plunge back into the chaos of the alleyways of the old town. …

‘You’re not going to Colombia, are you?’

Perhaps this phone call home from Panama City in mid-2005 had not been the best idea. My mother was concerned, and I could hardly blame her. Colombia was embroiled in a four-decade civil war and was the epicentre of the world’s cocaine industry.

But I decided to go anyway, and while I was there I discovered that the best way to find out what Colombia was really like wasn’t by wandering the pretty streets of colonial Cartagena or examining the artefacts in the gold museum in Bogotá.

It was by searching for the Lost City. …

During my first international trip in Europe as a 21-year-old in 2001, each city seemed more amazing than the last. My dispatches home to Australia reflected this feeling to such a degree that my declaration of a new favourite city virtually every week — first Paris, then Berlin, then Prague — became a family joke. Soon I picked yet another favourite, but instead of lasting for a few days like all the others, this one stuck — for 19 years and counting.

The rest of my list, curated from nearly two decades of travelling in 116 countries, is a combination of world-famous cities that would make many people’s top 10 and some less obvious choices that struck a personal chord with me. We can debate the rankings, of course, but that’s not really the point; what matters most are the memories. …

For centuries, the history of Lisbon has unfolded against the backdrop of a sound-and-light show that has defined the city as much as anything else.

The Easter massacre of 1506 began with light — a disputed reflection inside a dim church — and ended with the deadly sound of heads being ‘dashed against walls’, as the contemporary royal chronicler Damião de Gois put it.

On the night of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, the destroyed city — with its horrific soundtrack of collapsing buildings and wailing survivors playing on repeat — was illuminated by a cruel glow from the third of that day’s disasters, a raging firestorm. …

With many of us in lockdown, flights largely suspended and future plans up in the air, where do we turn to satiate the travel bug?

Travelling in the age of coronavirus has been reduced to daydreaming, and as I look around my apartment in search of inspiration, my gaze falls on four objects and I’m reminded of the travel stories they tell.

These aren’t items I bought at souvenir shops, and in English I wouldn’t even describe them as souvenirs. But each one is actually a souvenir in the fullest sense of the French meaning of the word: a memory.

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Four countries, four objects, four stories. Photo: Nick Leonard.

Myanmar, 2003 🇲🇲

I spent my first afternoon in Myanmar searching for a copy of Paul Theroux’s celebrated travel book The Great Railway Bazaar in the country’s then-capital, Yangon. Bagan Books reputedly had the most extensive collection of English books in Myanmar, but it turned out to be a disappointingly small one-room store with two bookshelves, a glass cabinet and virtually no chance of stocking the book I sought. …

With many national governments taking measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of millions of people around the globe have been ordered to stay home. It’s the second time I have been forced inside, although the first — in China 11 years ago — was under vastly different circumstances.

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A Uyghur fruit seller at the Wuyi night market in Urumqi — Xinjiang province, China. Photo: Nick Leonard.

From early 2008 until mid-2009, I spent half my time in China, working on projects for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Games and travelling around the country as much as I could in between.

These travels resulted in some amazing experiences, such as visiting a stone village outside Beijing and meeting the subsequently-named ‘Stone Village Team’ — four wonderful Chinese people who I’m still friends with today — and seeing some of China’s incredible natural wonders such as the colourful lakes at Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan and the amazing karst scenery at Zhangjiajie in Hunan. I also found myself experiencing a less rewarding part of travel in China when I was surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team and evicted from a prefecture in Gansu which foreigners were prohibited from visiting at the time because of sensitivity surrounding its Tibetan cultural influence. …


Nick Leonard

Compulsive traveller, Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Olympic journalist and light-chasing photographer.

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