After five series, you might think that Michael Portillo would be running out of great continental rail journeys to
go on, but the show’s series producer Alison Kreps promises otherwise. Their bible, Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide from 1913, “extends beyond Europe to North Africa and right up to the north,” she says. “Even Lapland and Iceland are in there, which I have my sights set on!”
One of the best parts of Kreps’s job is joining Portillo on his travels. “Like Michael, I love history and particularly this period of history. It fascinates me.” Of Portillo’s 29 continental trips to date, these are the three that wowed them most, starting with one from this series.
1.Transylvania to the Black Sea
Calling at Brasov, Sinaia, Ploiesti, Bucharest, Constanta
“Romania isn’t on most people’s radar for a holiday but it blew us away,” says Kreps. “It’s a beautiful country and people were so friendly.”
Initially, the train winds through the verdant valleys of Transylvania. “There are fabulous views from the train and fabulous views of the train from the landscape. Bradshaw’s describes the snow-clad granite peaks and it looked the same when we went in May. We also visited the Carpathian Moutains and saw brown bears, wolves and rare orchids. It was a paradise.”
First, though, there’s the obligatory visit to Bran Castle, the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “It’s splendid – a Gothic-style Victorian novel set in a fairy-tale castle.”
The next stop is Sinaia and Peles Castle. “Romania is one of the less well-developed European countries, so we were surprised to discover that 100 years ago it was at the vanguard of economic development. They had a very forward-thinking king who equipped his castle with the most modern conveniences such as hot water, central heating, vacuum cleaner points, and a sliding stained-glass roof.”
But the country’s communist past is evident in Bucharest – notably in the colossal Palace of the Parliament, the infamous (and unfinished) legacy of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Portillo ended his journey in Constanta, a port city on the Black Sea, hearing about the visit of the Russian royal family only a couple of years before they were all executed. Most tourists arrive here armed with a bucket and spade rather than Bradshaw’s as Constanta is the gateway to Romania’s seaside resorts.
2. Rome to Taormina
Calling at Rome, Naples, Capri, Messina, Taormina
Only travellers with nerves of steel should navigate Rome’s landmarks on a 1950s Vespa as Portillo did. Taking the train down the spine of Italy was altogether more relaxing, recalls Kreps. “That was fabulous. One of the best things happens near the end, where you leave the toe of Italy and they put the train on the ferry to Sicily!”
Marina Grande harbour, Capri
The journey begins with a scenic high-speed train from Rome to Naples, after which it’s worth hopping aboard a boat to visit the islands of chic Capri or Ischia. Edwardian visitors would have been appalled that Portillo bypassed nearby Pompeii, on which Bradshaw’s proffered stern advice: “Four or five hours are required for even a superficial visit, two or three visits are really necessary and it is hardly worth the trouble entailed by the passer-by who has not previously given attention to the subject.”
The journey on to Reggio Calabria follows the coastline and affords picture-postcard views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. After the train ferry to Messina in Sicily, the final destination is the elegant hilltop town of Taormina, which stands in the shadow of Mount Etna.
Kreps liked Sicily so much that she recently went back for her wedding anniversary. “Our time there still wasn’t enough. There’s so much to see and, of course, the food is fabulous.”
3. La Coruña to Lisbon
Calling at La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Pontevedra, Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon
Like all the best rail journeys, this is one of contrasts. “The north of Spain is very green,” explains Kreps. “In fact, Galicia has a similar climate to Britain and shares Celtic roots.” (She got Portillo playing the bagpipes, but he was upstaged by a six-year-old.) “It feels different to northern Portugal, which gets warmer and more Mediterranean as you travel down to Lisbon in the south.”
For Kreps, the highlight was the “gorgeous” Douro Line, which snakes along the peaceful Douro river valley, ending at the charming city of Porto on the coast. When it was constructed, Britain was Portugal’s biggest market for its signature drink and there’s still plenty of port to be found in Douro’s steep vineyards, as well as flavoursome reds and zingy vinho verde.
From the medieval city of Coimbra there’s a high-speed train to Lisbon, where you can enjoy its seafaring history before dining on superb seafood.
Great Continental Railway Journeys continues on Tuesdays 9pm BBC2.
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