It’s time to ride the rails across Europe again, as Great Continental Railway Journeys returns for its third outing and takes viewers on scenic tours across seven countries.
You’ve gotta love travel documentaries, as they take us on visual tours of faraway and exotic places, whether they’re our first times “there” or reminders of times we’ve spent abroad. (Ditto the public TV stations that air travels shows such as Great Continental Railway Journeys; see below.)
In Great Continental Railway Journeys, our program host and tour guide is Michael Portillo, a British journalist, broadcaster, and former Member of Parliament, and the author of TV series companion books Great British Railway Journeys and the soon-to-be-published Great Continental Railway Journeys.
For each series of Great Continental Railway Journeys, Portillo references and quotes from the 1913 edition of Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide by George Bradshaw, which includes timetables of the Continental railways, a guidebook, and a hotel directory. (The 2012 reprint runs more than 1500 pages!)
(Editions were published regularly between 1847 and 1914, when it was discontinued following the outbreak of The Great War in July of that year. Its last-ever edition was published in 1939.)
Portillo retraced several of the itineraries featured in the book in the first and second series of Great Continental Railway Journeys, including from London to Monte Carlo, Hungary to Austria, Copenhagen to Oslo, and Prague to Munich.
During the third series Portillo travels six of the train routes from Bradshaw’s book — across parts of France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, and Spain, as well as Israel. And throughout his journeys he stays in the book’s recommended hotels, explores the sights, and samples local traditions while describing the state of Europe and its neighbors in 1913.
This series includes some of the most spectacular scenery in any travel program, and creates a stunning vision of Europe as it was a century ago, allowing viewers to discover how World Wars I and II changed the landscape — and life — across Europe.
“Russia: Tula to St. Petersburg”
Of Russia’s 6.5 million square miles of land and 52,000 miles of railway, Michael Portillo covers but a fraction. But oh, what a fraction it is. According to Portillo, there were three must-visit cities in Russia at the turn of the 20th century: Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Tula. And it is in the industrial Tula, whose domed churches dot the skyline, where he begins his journey. (Who knew there is a kremlin in Tula and other cities besides Moscow?)
Just outside of Tula is Yasnaya Polyana, the home of author Leo Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina begins and ends with a railway-related event. (Tolstoy himself suffered a similar fate.) Michael then travels north to Moscow; his train trip is short compared to the 64 hours it takes to travel the entire route from the Caspian Sea to St. Petersburg. Lenin’s room at the National Hotel is Portillo’s in Moscow, a city whose tube stations are decorated with… (wait for it)… chandeliers. His trip gets better: a behind-the-scenes look at a production of Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi Theatre, a decadent breakfast, and a thorough cleansing at a traditional Russian bathhouse.
Michael then takes the high-speed Sapsan train to St. Petersburg, where the Grand Hotel d’Europe is his base. Jaunts to Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main street, and the magnificent Winter Palace and its Hermitage Museum are followed by a boat tour of the city from the Neva River. An excursion out of the city by way of the first railway ever built in Russia takes Michael to Tsarskoye Selo, the Tsar’s village, and then back to St. Petersburg, where he learns about the tumultuous events that brought Lenin to St. Petersburg and brought about the assassinations of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family, thus ending the 300+ year reign of the Romanov dynasty.
“Italy: Rome to Taormina”
If you’ve ever been to Rome, then you know that traffic in this capital city is madness. So Michael does what many of the locals do and rides a Vespa (a classic, 1950s model at that) to visit one magnificent landmark after another. As with British tourists using Bradshaw’s book in the early 1900s, he also pays homage to the romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley at the Keats Shelley House by the Spanish Steps.
Portillo then heads south to Naples, where he learns about Italy’s first railway and ventures into the crater of Mount Vesuvius. One ferry ride later and he’s on the beautiful isle of Capri, a magnet for European writers and artists in 1913, and another ferry brings him to Inspector Montalbano‘s Sicily, where learns of the apocalyptic events at Messina. Rounding out this tour is the ancient hilltop town of Taormina, standing in the shadow of Mount Etna.
“Poland: Warsaw to Krakow”
As his British tourist predecessors did a century ago, Michael begins this tour in Warsaw, a city razed to the ground after World War II and later restored to much of its former glory. Here he is inspired by the music and story of the famed Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and dances (what else?) the polonaise.
From Warsaw Portillo travels southwest to Lodz, “the Manchester of Poland,” and learns about how this former industrial center was transformed into the Polish “Hollywoodzh.” Then it’s off to Poznan, where he hops on what might be the last steam-powered commuter train and heads for Wroclaw, where he visits a giant train factory. The last leg of this tour brings him to Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland.
“Spain/Portugal: La Coruña to Lisbon”
This is one episode I can’t wait to watch, as I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Galicia (not traveling by train but by car, on personal tours of the region given by my friend’s dad, a native Galician).
Michael’s tour of Galicia, whose people have Celtic roots, begins in La Coruña, a fashionable destination for Edwardian Britons. Along the way he meets walkers on el camino de Santiago, aka the Way of St. James, as they make their way to the pilgrimage destination of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, whose tomb is the resting place of the Apostle’s remains and whose archives house one of the world’s first guidebooks. His visit to a sardine cannery and his sailing excursion with local fishermen reminds me of how utterly fresh and delicious seafood from the northwest of Spain is.
From Spain Portillo travels to Porto in Portugal, where he learns about Britain’s long alliance with the Portuguese and savors a glass of 1953 port before embarking on the Linha da Douro railway line along the spectacular Douro Valley. In Coimbra Michael is moved by the melancholy Fado songs, then boards the high-speed train to Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, where he explores the city à la King Edward VII when he visited his cousin King Carlos in 1903.
“Israel: Haifa to The Negev Desert”
In this episode Portillo travels beyond Europe to the Holy Land. He begins his journey in Haifa in modern-day Israel, where he visits the Shrine of the Báb and the Bahá’i Gardens, and learns about the Bahá’i faith and its spread to Britain. From Haifa he travels to Tel Aviv, a city birthed a few years before his guidebook was published, and learns the roots of the modern-day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
On his way to Jerusalem, Michael discovers that the Jaffa-to-Jerusalem railway was the first one built in the Holy Land. In Jerusalem he visits the the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian quarter; the Western Wall, the holiest of all monuments for Jews, in the Jewish quarter; and the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Muslim quarter. He then crosses the barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank with his Palestinian guide to enter Bethlehem. Traveling south, Portillo arrives at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, where he takes in the buoyant waters before heading further south to Beersheba and completing this journey in the Negev Desert.
“France: Lyon to Marseille”
The final episode of Great Continental Railway Journeys brings Michael to France, where he and his guide pedal through Lyon, the capital of cuisine, on a tandem bike. From there he heads to the lavender-filled Provençal city of Avignon, birthplace of the prized Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine, and then to Arles, where the amazing light and mighty mistral enticed artists such as van Gogh and Picasso to paint there. (Seriously, the mistral winds are as fierce as those during a nor’easter.) Michael ends his journey in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, the setting for the upcoming Gérard Depardieu drama series, Marseille.
Great Continental Railways Journeys III begins premiering on the following public TV stations tomorrow, Thursday, 1 October 2015. Check your local listings or contact the station that serves your area for broadcast dates and times. If you’d like to watch the program but your station isn’t listed, contact them or American Public Television to request it.