Michael Portillo retraces more journeys from George Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Guide.
Part 1: Tula to St Petersburg
With Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Railway Guide in hand, Michael Portillo penetrates the eastern extreme of Europe to journey through the vast country of Russia.
Among the golden onion domes and icons of Tula, Michael is moved by the sound of a Russian Orthodox choir. He visits the beautiful country estate of Yasnaya Polyana, where Tolstoy wrote his masterpieces, and learns how the author’s life and works were inextricably entwined with the railways.
Striking north, Michael boards the long distance train which runs from the Caspian Sea to the capital. He learns from the buffet car cooks how to prepare a supper of meat-filled dumplings – Dagestani specialities called pylmeni.
At Belorussky Station in Moscow, Michael hears how thousands of Russians journeyed to the capital in 1913 to mark the Romanov royal family’s tercentenary year. At the Bolshoi Theatre, Michael performs an important role in one of Russia’s most dramatic operas. A relaxing soak at the famous Sanduny Baths, however, proves anything but…
Aboard the high-speed Sapsan to St Petersburg, Michael discovers the history behind the line, once the longest double-tracked railway in the world. From the Grand Hotel, Europe, advertised in his Bradshaw’s, Michael explores the beauty and history of St Petersburg, from the great Nevsky Prospekt to the magnificent Winter Palace with its Hermitage Museum, then rides the first railway ever built in Russia between the city and the Tsar’s village – Tsarskoye Selo.
Back in the city again, Michael meets former Russia correspondent Martin Sixsmith to discover how the strikes, mutinies and massacres, which took place shortly before Bradshaw’s 1913 guidebook was published, were to unfold and the part the railways were to play in those tumultuous events.
Part 2: Rome to Taormina
Braving the traffic, Michael begins his Roman holiday by weaving among the capital city’s magnificent landmarks on the back of a 1950s Vespa. Following in the footsteps of early 20th-century British tourists, he pays homage to the romantic poets at the foot of the Spanish Steps before boarding the train south.
Arriving in Naples, Michael savours spectacular views across the bay. He finds out about the first railway to be built in the country, from Naples to Portici, around the base of Vesuvius and then plucks up his courage to venture into the mighty volcano’s crater.
From Naples, pausing only to pick up a pizza, Michael boards a ferry to travel to the beautiful island of Capri, a magnet for the writers and artists of Europe at the time of his guidebook.
Heading south again on the long journey to Reggio Calabria, Michael shares lunch on board with fellow British travellers before their train is loaded onto a ferry for the short sail to Sicily.
On the island, Michael finds out about apocalyptic scenes at Messina only five years prior to publication of his guidebook and marvels at the survival – and beauty – of the ancient hilltop town of Taormina, in the shadow of Mount Etna.
Part 3: Warsaw to Krakow
With his 1913 Bradshaw’s in hand, Michael Portillo journeys deep into central Europe to explore a country where east meets west: Poland.
Beginning in Warsaw, Michael is puzzled by how a city famously razed to the ground after the Second World War can appear so beautifully preserved. He hitches a ride in a 1913 carriage to discover one of the secrets of its restoration. Inspired by the music and story of Poland’s national icon Frederic Chopin, Michael takes to the floor to dance the polonaise with high school students rehearsing for their leavers’ ball.
Heading south west from Warsaw, Michael’s fellow passengers come to his rescue with a crash course in Polish pronunciation. Arriving in Lodz, he discovers how the former industrial heartland – the Manchester of Poland – supplied the vast Russian Empire of the early 20th century and marvels at how the region today has been transformed into a breathtaking version of ‘Hollywoodzh’. Michael makes his movie debut.
In Poznan, at the heart of former German Poland, Michael takes in the view from the kaiser’s balcony before climbing aboard what is possibly the last steam-powered commuter train. Michael is in his element, stoking the boiler on the footplate of the enormous locomotive.
Arriving in Wroclaw, Michael heads for a giant train factory, where they continue to manufacture car bodies for locomotives today. A spot of on-the-job training as a welder is a salutary lesson to stick with the day job.
From Wroclaw it’s on to the ancient capital of Poland, Krakow, where Michael lunches in a milk bar and takes a tour in an iconic vehicle of the communist era.
Part 4: La Coruna to Lisbon
Armed with his 1913 Bradshaw, Michael Portillo explores a very different Spain from the one he knows best and ventures across its border with Britain’s oldest ally, Portugal.
Beginning in Galicia, Michael discovers the elegant city of La Coruna, a fashionable destination for Edwardian Britons, for whom the principal attraction was the tomb of a British military hero. Michael uncovers the Celtic roots of the Galician people and tries to master the bagpipes but finds himself upstaged by a six-year-old.
On the pilgrims’ trail to Santiago de Compostela, Michael meets walkers from all over the world heading for the cathedral, and is led into the archive to see one of the world’s first guidebooks, dating from the 12th century.
Aboard the West Galician Railway, Michael hears how a 19th-century British railwayman sought his fortune in Galicia and ended up running the company. A visit to a sardine cannery has Michael scrubbing octopus tentacles, and a taste for the cephalopod sees Michael set sail with local fishermen to see if he can trap one.
Arriving at the ornately tiled Sao Bento station in Porto, he finds out about the birth of Britain’s long alliance with the Portuguese. A glass of 1953 port awaits him at the city’s Factory House, before he embarks on the Linha da Douro along the spectacular Douro Valley.
At Coimbra, Michael is moved by the mournful strains of the Fado sung by students of the university, then boards the high-speed train to the Portuguese capital Lisbon.
Following in the footsteps of King Edward VII, who visited his cousin King Carlos in 1903, Michael explores the city from the Santa Justa lift to the harbour at Belem. An attempt to make Portugal’s national sweetmeat proves challenging, but help is at hand.
At the handsome Palace Square, Michael hears how turbulent events at the time of his guide saw the Portuguese royal family almost wiped out.
Part 5: Haifa to the Negev
Following his 1913 Bradshaw’s guide, Michael ventures beyond Europe to the Holy Land. His journey begins in Haifa in modern-day Israel. Struck by the spectacular shrine of the Baha’i and its beautiful gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel, Michael learns about the faith and how, at the time of his guide, it spread to Britain.
Michael is shown how to cook a takeaway, middle-eastern style, before heading to Haifa’s original station to find out about its branch line to the famous Hejaz Railway.
In Tel Aviv, Michael marvels at the city’s futuristic skyscrapers and railway lines, threaded along the centre of modern highways. He hears the story of its birth, which was just before his guidebook was published, discovers how its population was swelled by refugees from Europe and learns the roots of the modern-day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
On his way to Jerusalem, Michael hears how the Jaffa to Jerusalem railway was the first line to be built in the Holy Land. Constructed for pilgrims to journey to the holy places, it encouraged more modern tourists to explore these exotic destinations.
In Jerusalem’s Christian quarter, Michael meets British tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and finds out about a surprising Holy Land tradition, subscribed to by the most illustrious visitors, among them British royalty. In the Jewish quarter, he visits the holiest of all monuments for Jews – the Western Wall. In the Muslim quarter, admission to the Haram ash Sharif, to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, hangs in the balance. In 1913, as now, application must be made to the authorities.
Crossing the separation barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank in the company of his Palestinian guide, Michael heads for Bethlehem where he meets the embroiderers of the Arab Women’s Union and finds out about their handiwork.
Heading south, Michael arrives at the lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea, where he takes to the buoyant waters.
On the train south to Beersheba, Michael learns about the work of the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund at the turn of the 20th century. In the Negev Desert, he learns about a celebrated British military hero with railways in his sights.
Part 6: Lyon to Marseille
Michael Portillo follows in the footsteps of Edwardian travellers to trace a route recommended in his Bradshaw’s guide, journeying from the heart of France to the Mediterranean coast.
His journey begins in the capital of cuisine, Lyon, where he finds out about the early 20th-century Meres Lyonnaises, to whom the city owes its gastronomic reputation. Ever keen to try his hand, Michael takes instruction from a top chef on how to make an omelette, but his efforts fail to impress.
At the Palais de la Bourse, Michael hears how, at the time of his guide, the city was still reeling from the assassination of the country’s president and how a shocked French nation rallied in support of the Third Republic.
Cycling in tandem with his guide, Michael discovers Lyon’s role in the country’s most famous sporting event, the Tour de France. Forsaking the saddle, Michael takes to the skies and pilots a light aircraft as he learns of one of France’s pioneering aviators.
In Avignon, Michael savours the scent of Provence in the region’s lavender fields before relaxing with a glass of the city’s famous tipple, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Moving south to the city of Arles, he learns how its light and the famous mistral drew artists from all over Europe.
His journey ends at the gateway to the former French empire, Marseilles. In the vast port, Michael joins a pilot boat as it leads a supertanker to its berth.