Michael Portillo travels on the great train routes of Europe, as he retraces the journeys featured in George Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Railway Guide.
Part 1: Madrid to Gibraltar
Michael Portillo returns to his native Spain to discover what the intrepid tourists of the Belle Epoque experienced on their travels through the fading Spanish empire. In Madrid, he visits the scene of an assaination attempt at the royal wedding of a British princess and a Spanish king. In Cordoba, Michael dances with an unusual partner and enjoys all the fun of the feria. Heading further into Andalusia, Michael arrives in Seville, the city he has made his Spanish home. In the city’s tobacco factory, he learns about a gypsy girl named Carmen. After sipping sherry in Jerez, he traces Winston Churchill’s tense diplomatic mission to Algeciras on Spain’s Costa del Sol and finishes with tales of British espionage on the Rock of Gibraltar.
Part 2: Turin to Venice
Michael Portillo takes the train from the former political capital of Italy, Turin, to Casanova’s capital of romance, Venice. Along the way, he recreates the famous Italian Job on an historic Fiat test track and follows fashion in Milan before investigating the early 20th century British love affair with Lake Como in a seaplane. In Verona, Michael discovers the ‘House of the Capulets’, bought to attract Edwardian tourists to the scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He then heads over the rail bridge across the lagoon to Venice, where he finds a microcosm of pre-First World War Europe in the Venice Biennale art exhibition.
Part 3: Dresden to Kiel
Michael Portillo explores Germany, powerhouse of today’s European Union, and learns how tourists in the early 20th century would have been visiting quite a new country, which they admired and envied but also feared. Beginning in Dresden, Michael explores the city of one of his favourite opera composers, Richard Wagner. He learns about the health craze of the time and attempts the equivalent of a 1913 Jane Fonda workout. He travels to Leipzig on an historic railway line, built by British engineers in 1839. In Brunswick he learns how the arrival of the railway added its own flavour to the local beer before moving on to Hamburg, where he discovers model railway making on the grandest of scales. In Kiel, Michael learns about the intense rivalry between Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and his uncle, British King Edward VII, at the Kiel Week yacht races. Michael boards an early 20th Century yacht to experience the thrill for himself.
Part 4: Copenhagen to Oslo
Michael Portillo explores Scandinavia and discovers the royal roots of early 20th century British travellers’ close dynastic ties with the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway. After braving one of the world’s oldest rollercoasters in Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli Gardens, Michael takes the train across the Oresund Bridge linking Denmark to Sweden, where he retraces the tracks of a train which carried a revolutionary Russian passenger on an epic voyage. In Lund, he samples a Smorgasbord before having a Highland fling in Gothenburg, where he test drives a vintage Volvo. Crossing the border again into Norway, Michael discovers how in 1913 this young nation expressed its own distinctively modern identity in plays, paintings and polar exploration.
Part 5: Prague to Munich
With his 1913 guidebook in hand and clad in a luminous pink jacket, improbable Bohemian Michael Portillo explores the stunning art nouveau architecture of the Czech capital. In a cafe popular with artists of the time he discovers the dance craze of the day – the tango – and gamely gives it a go. In the spa of kings, Marienbad, now known as Marianske Lazne, Michael samples the sulphurous waters and wallows in peat and mud. At the Skoda factory in Pilsen he investigates how the machine products of peacetime gave way to the manufacture of armaments for war and test drives a state of the art passenger train locomotive made there today. Crossing the border from Bohemia to Bavaria, Michael encounters a fire breathing dragon in Furth-im-Wald and in Nuremberg he rides German railway history – made in Britain. Arriving in Munich, he discovers an early 20th century pioneer who laid the foundations for the city’s pre-eminence in science and technology today.
Part 6: Bordeaux to Bilbao
Following in the footsteps of early 20th century British tourists, Michael Portillo sets off with his 1913 railway guide to sample the delights of the French and Spanish Atlantic coast. Heading first to Bordeaux, he uncovers an historic British connection to the fine clarets of the region and marvels at the ingenuity of the city’s trams. In Biarritz, he discovers how Britain’s ‘railway king’ Edward VII made the region popular and how he amused himself in the fashionable resort. Across the border in San Sebastian, Michael learns how dynastic diplomacy brought Britain and Spain closer together and rides a hair-raising scenic railway. Heading into the Spanish Basque country, in Bilbao, Michael explores the industrial ties between the two nations and learns to cook a traditional Basque dish.