Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Having recently launched into a bit of a rant on Facebook about certain politicians acting as if they think it’s 1878 again, I was rather interested to find the events of 1878 coming up in the first episode of this fourth series of the wonderful Great Continental Railway Journeys, which saw Michael Portillo travelling from Sofia to Istanbul. Complete with his beloved Bradshaw’s Guide!

Bulgaria isn’t a country which is particularly well-known in Britain, so it was really good to hear the talk about its struggles for independence and how it preserved its national identity during the years of Ottoman occupation. However, my point about 1878 was that most of the politicians at the Congress of Berlin seemed more intent on having a go at Russia than on addressing the issues they were actually supposed to be addressing, just as today’s politicians are doing over the Syrian crisis, so I wasn’t very pleased when a historian to whom Michael Portillo spoke in Istanbul made out that Russia was the only country hoping to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire. What a load of rubbish! Then, when the subject of the Young Turk Uprising of 1908 arose, the fact that Austria-Hungary took advantage of the resultant chaos to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina was completely ignored. Bah!!!

Oh well. It was still good to see Bulgaria taking centre stage, and it was also good to be reminded that there’s a street in Sofia named after Gladstone, who spoke out against the Bulgarian massacres and actually was more concerned about the Balkans than about having a go at Russia! Things then moved on, along the route of the Orient Express, towards the Turkish border, which, as we were reminded, was, in 1913, the year in which Portillo’s edition of Bradshaw’s guide was published, a war zone.

One of the central themes of Great Continental Railway Journeys has been that, in 1913, there was a general sense of peace and optimism across Europe, with hardly anyone having the faintest inkling that their world was soon going to fall apart. Not so in the Balkans, of course. The Balkan Wars which immediately preceded the First World War tend to be overlooked now … although, occasionally, in particular with regard to the UN referring to the Republic of Macedonia as “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” because Greece got stroppy about the name, we are reminded that there were considerable disputes over borders and territory when Ottoman control of the area collapsed. And I think it’s important to remember that the idea of the Balkans as “the tinderbox of Europe” wasn’t and isn’t only about what became Yugoslavia.

Anyway. On to Istanbul … and a picture of refugees from the Balkan Wars arriving on Turkish shores. I don’t know exactly when this programme was put together, but I’d love to know whether or not that was originally intended to be part of it or whether it was shoehorned in when the current refugee crisis intensified during the summer just gone.

Istanbul is, as Portillo pointed out, one of the world’s great cities, the point at which Europe and Asia meet, and crucially placed strategically because it’s on the Bosphorus. We saw him visit the Aghia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar and try some Turkish delight, and we also saw him visit one of the city’s lesser-known sights, a British cemetery where many British service personnel who lost their lives during the Crimean War and both world wars, particularly the First World War, are buried.

Next week’s programme will be set in Austria and Italy, probably more familiar territory for most viewers, but I’m so glad that Bulgaria and Turkey have been given a look in, and the important events of 1877-1878 and of the Balkan Wars of the early 1910s discussed. There has been some negative talk about the countries of the southern Balkans of late, partly because of concerns over immigration from Romania and Bulgaria and partly because of the financial crisis in Greece, and maybe part of that’s because these are countries whose history and culture are not as well-known in this country as they could be. It’s nice to see at least one of them getting the attention it deserves.