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Excerpt: Great Continental Railway Journeys by Michael Portillo


1st Jan 2015 Excerpts

Excerpt: Great Continental Railway Journeys by Michael Portillo

In his latest BBC2 series, Michael Portillo travels on the great train routes of Europe with the indispensable George Bradshaw's 1913 Continental Railway Guide.

Great Continental Railway Journeys by Michael Portillo

Europe is home to some of the most breath-taking railway journeys in the world. From London to Monte Carlo, Copenhagen to Oslo and Paris to Istanbul, railways have influenced these cities since the start of the Victorian era.

Michael Portillo explores the magnificent European cities that have been shaped by the influence of railways, from bringing home soldiers to delivering silks and chocolate to the masses.

In this extract from his introduction to the book accompanying the BBC2 series, Great Continental Railway Journeys, Portillo explains why he chose to embark on his European odyssey.


The excerpt 

Image via Boundless Productions

Travelling by train with a century-old guidebook has been, for me at least, a wonderful way to learn about the political, cultural and social history of our continent. Just as broad advantage is now being taken of the centenary of the Great War to remember and to reassess, so I hope that the Great Continental Railway Journeys programmes help us to understand what Europeans stood to lose.

But the programmes are full of joy too. We celebrate the eccentricities of nations as we build castells, ’people steeples’, in Catalonia. I battled a huge mechanical dragon in Germany and ‘impersonated’ a ski jumper on a zip wire in Norway. I have been beaten with birch twigs in a Russian bathhouse, heated to melting point in a Swedish sauna, and I tumbled from a toboggan in Austria. I have ‘danced’ my way across the Continent: with a horse in Spain, with a man in Vienna, with a high school graduating class in Warsaw and in a Roman theatre in Bulgaria.

There have been some great railways to admire: the Schafbergbahn powered by a steam locomotive ‘built on a slope’, and the line that climbs through tunnels to Europe’s highest station at the Jungfraujoch. I enjoyed the first trans-Alpine line through Austria’s Semmering Pass and the tracks that hug the river banks between the steep vineyards of the Douro valley in Portugal.

Portillo Europe
Image via: See Mallorca

You can read history in railways. In what was known in 1913 as the Holy Land, there was a railway for Christian pilgrims from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and one for Muslim pilgrims from Haifa towards Medina and Mecca. But the British feared that that line posed a military threat to India and Egypt, and during the First World War Lawrence of Arabia blew it up.

I like to give a potted history of Russia with three rail stories. Leo Tolstoy, the novelist, was also a social reformer and champion of the peasants at a time of mounting revolutionary sentiment. He died in a station in 1910. After the March revolution of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II signed his abdication in a railway carriage. Then Germany decided to allow Vladimir Lenin to cross its territory in a sealed train like a revolutionary virus, to foment the Bolshevik uprising that October, and so knock Russia out of the war. It must be the most significant train journey of all time.

I hope that the television programmes may be seen as a celebration of the diversity of nations. So many colourful customs have somehow survived the conforming pressures of globalisation. It’s a celebration of peace as well. After Europe’s terrible 20th century, most of our lives are untroubled by war. Even so, I filmed in Russia while Ukrainians were dying, and the tensions in Israel and the occupied territories are palpable. There are Mediterranean countries recommended in Bradshaw’s that are presently off-limits because of war or terror. I hope, too, that this book will help you to travel with me through beautiful scenery and impressive cities; to meet entertaining characters; to enjoy new foods; to marvel at extraordinary customs; and to laugh.

If it also stimulates your interest in and love of history I shall be very glad. We are what we are thanks to both geniuses and tyrants, because of both virtue and evil. Most of us are very lucky to live in our magnificent continent in the times that we do.

Feature image via Flash PR

Great Continental Railway Journeys is published by Simon & Schuster

You can buy Great Continental Railway Journeys on Amazon


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