Michael Portillo retraces the journeys from George Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Guide.
Part 1: Sofia to Istanbul
Michael Portillo travels east through the Balkans along the most exotic section of the Orient Express. His destination is Istanbul, a multi-ethnic city where Europe and Asia meet via an underground railway. A century ago, Michael’s journey would have been interrupted by hostilities, for which train services were suspended. Today, the route remains a chequered one but for a happier reason – a new European railway network is being constructed and engineering work is underway. His journey begins in Sofia, where he discovers the then newly independent orthodox Christian nation, which had broken free of the decaying Ottoman Empire. In the ancient city of Plovdiv, Michael discovers a Roman amphitheatre built in the 2nd century AD and still in use today. Bulgarian independence is traditionally celebrated with a typically Thracian dance, which is not as simple as they make it look. Further east in the beautiful region of Rumelia, in fields surrounded by the Balkan mountains, Michael picks roses with the flower girls to produce precious rose oil in a 100-year-old distillery. A trip in a works train to oversee the electrification and straightening of the new £300 million section of line between Parvomay and Svilengrad culminates in a chance to drive the train on the tracks of the Orient Express. Across the border in Turkey, Michael visits Edirne, a former capital of the Ottoman Empire and gets to grips with the 3,000-year-old tradition of oil wrestling. Arriving in Istanbul, Michael orients himself with a trip on the Bosphorus – a much-coveted stretch of water – finds out about Turkish delight and crosses from Europe to Asia on the Marmaray metro line which now joins the two continents.
Part 2: Vienna to Trieste
Michael Portillo travels the Habsburg imperial line from Vienna across the awe-inspiring Semmering Pass, a handmade railway line blasted through the Alps. His journey takes him through a patchwork of nations which a century ago formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His destination is the Adriatic port of Trieste. In Vienna, he encounters a pre-Cold War spy and hears for himself the concert that caused a riot in 1913. At the winter sports resort of Semmering, rails of a slippier kind prove hard to navigate when Michael takes to a toboggan. In Austria’s second city, Graz, Michael ventures underground at the Lurgrotte Caves to find out about a famous turn-of-the-century rescue operation. Over the border in the former imperial territory of Slovenia, Michael discovers how an earthquake in Ljubljana encouraged its citizens to assert their national identity in architecture and art. In high spirits, with the help of the local liquor, Michael says ‘na zdravje’ to Slovenia and heads south. Arriving in Italy at the empire’s southern port of Trieste, Michael savours the imported coffee which fuelled the caf� culture of its elegant capital, Vienna.
Part 3: Pisa to Lake Garda
Michael Portillo makes a grand tour of a favourite Edwardian destination – Italy – where he experiences first-hand the nation’s need for speed in a state-of-the-art Maserati sports car. Michael discovers from a British engineer how the Leaning Tower of Pisa was rescued from near collapse. In Carrara, he finds out how the marble used by Michelangelo is still quarried today and is invited to chip away at a contemporary sculpture. In Bologna, he embarks on a doomed search for spaghetti bolognese… until a cookery teacher takes pity on him and shows him how to make a much more authentic tagliatelle al ragu. Following in the footsteps of Bradshaw’s travellers, Michael explores the cradle of the Renaissance through Edwardian eyes but learns in Florence that the tourists’ ‘Italietta’ was far removed from the new Italy envisaged by the futurists of the time. Heading north to Gargnano, Michael discovers the romantic hideaway of one of Britain’s most famous writers, DH Lawrence, whose affair with his professor’s wife scandalised his home country. Michael ends his journey in futuristic style with a high-speed boat trip across Lake Garda.
Part 4: Athens to Thessaloniki
Michael Portillo embarks on a Greek odyssey from Athens’s port of Piraeus north to the city of Thessaloniki, captured the year before from the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled much of Greece for 400 years. Exploring the Acropolis and delighting in the tastes of moussaka and baklava, Michael discovers the many influences at play in the creation of modern Greece – from its classical past to the oriental Ottomans and the great European powers of Britain, France and Russia. Along the way, Michael discovers the parlous state of Greek finances at the time of his guidebook. He learns how an aristocratic English poet became a Greek national hero and relives Greek athletic victory at the first modern Olympic games. Travelling through the Corinth Canal, Michael finds out about the surprisingly ancient origins of the modern railway. In Delphi, he discovers how at the turn of the 20th century an entire village was removed in order to excavate the site of the oracle. Boarding one of the narrowest gauge railways in the world, the Little Train of Pelion, Michael travels to the village of Milies, where he learns about the place of the Orthodox church in Greek national life. Michael ends his journey in Thessaloniki, where Greece’s King George I was assassinated in 1913.
Part 5: The Black Forest to Hannover
Michael Portillo ventures deep into the Black Forest on a quest to discover the essence of Germany and discovers how Hansel and Gretel helped to unify the nation. A humbling masterclass in carving cuckoo clocks shows him how the nation’s reputation for quality and reliability in manufacturing was established from the early 18th century. A romantic stop at the ruined Schloss in Heidelberg follows before Michael gets an insider’s guide to share dealing on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. At Goettingen University, Michael discovers two sides of student life at the turn of the 20th century – the duelling fraternities and the groundbreaking scientists who laid the foundation for Germany’s world class transport technology today. Braving the force of the Goettingen wind tunnel, Michael investigates the track where model trains are fired at up to 360km per hour.
Part 6: Barcelona to Mallorca
Michael Portillo returns to Spain to trace the early 20th-century roots of the Spanish Civil War, which divided his Spanish family and sent his father into exile. He discovers a nation fractured at the time by social tensions and regional loyalties, which today offers a rich diversity of cultures to delight the tourist. Special dispensation to fly to the Balearic island of Mallorca allows Michael to spoil himself rotten with spectacularly scenic rides aboard a sublime 1912 vintage railway and a 1913 tram. On his travels, he is trampled underfoot at the bottom of a Catalan people steeple and learns to make the perfect paella. He pays homage to the genius of Barcelona’s most famous architect and meets the man responsible for finishing off Antoni Gaudi’s life’s work. And he discovers a beautiful art nouveau Palace of Music with an emotional history.