Hooray – a new series of Michael Portillo, who comes across much better as a TV presenter (he looks like a complete idiot in those brightly-coloured jackets, but they’re part of his “image”) as he ever did as a politician, going off on exciting railway journeys round Europe with his 1913 Bradshaw’s guide. Everyone knows that George Bradshaw came from Salford, yes :-)?
The “set in the past” element of the series lies in trying to envision how all these wonderful places would have looked in 1913, when the people there could have had no idea of the horrors that would soon engulf them. It’s also very interesting to reflect on how the coming of the railways enabled middle-class people, as the well as the upper-class elite who had the money and the leisure time, to see the sights of the Continent. Not to mention just how important some of the journeys taken by rail were – notably that taken by Lenin when he returned to Russia to lead the Bolshevik revolution. In one of my myriads of photo albums is a picture of the Finland Station, taken when I was in St Petersburg in 2012, because it was the station into which Lenin’s train arrived.
The first episode of the series saw Portillo in Russia, travelling from Tula to Moscow and then on to St Petersburg. The train he took from Tula to Moscow had begun its journey in Makhachkala (the place with the rich football team whose players live thousands of miles away because of the political tensions in the Caucasus), Dagestan: the journey from there to Moscow takes 64 hours, a reminder of how big and diverse the wonderful Russian Federation is. And apparently a lot of British tourists visited Tula in 1913, to see Tolstoy’s estate, before going on to Moscow and St Petersburg.
I love Russia, would recommend it as a travel destination to anyone, and am very sad that political tensions between Russia and the West are rising again. Like Portillo, I’m old enough (although I’m over 20 years younger than him, I hasten to add!) a time when going to Russia as a tourist seemed like a pipe dream. I was 21 before I first went (a long time ago now!), and the first time I walked into Red Square was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I was very pleased to hear Portillo say how thrilling he found it too! Both of Russia’s two major cities are just amazing. St Petersburg – which was Leningrad when I was a kid – with its stunning baroque views, its beautiful bridges, and all its Romanov and revolutionary history, and Holy Moscow, the mother city of Mother Russia. A lot’s changed everywhere in Europe since 1913, but Russia (I’m saying “Russia” rather than “the Russian Federation” because I’m using the word “Europe” in the same sentence!) has been through more than probably any other part of the continent. But we’re lucky now, and we can go there as tourists again, with very little hassle other than filling in that ridiculously long visa questionnaire. As for the railways, arguably they’ve had more influence on Russia than they have on any other part of Europe.
There’s something fascinating about railways. My two little nephews (one’s just turned three, the other’s nearly six) are obsessed with them! I’m not, LOL, but I do find them quite exciting, and also very interesting from a historical viewpoint. And there’s certainly something fascinating about Russia. The second episode in this series saw Portillo in Rome, Campania and Sicily, and that was very interesting too, but there’s something particularly interesting about Russia.
This is a great series, both when it’s covering railway journeys within the UK and when it’s covering railway journeys in Europe. Very glad to see it back.