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On track: Michael Portillo's Continental culture hot spots

16 September 2016

Armed with his trusty copy of Bradshaw's 1913 edition of the Continental Railway Guide, the elegantly attired MICHAEL PORTILLO continues to criss-cross the Continent leaving, it seems, no fascinating city unvisited. The title Great Continental Railway Journeys has led some to believe that the series is designed solely for train spotters. Not so, as culture also has a part to play. As he embarks on a new series, Portillo selects some of his favourite trips and cultural highlights, drawn from the five series of railway journeys.

1. Transylvania to the Black Sea

The new series starts in Romania. Bram Stoker had never visited Bran Castle, home of the fearsome Vlad the Impaler when he wrote Dracula, but he studied images in the British Library carefully enough to describe it well.

I was drawn to it because when Jonathan Harker first encounters the vampire he is reading "of all things an English Bradshaw's guide" (studying the timetable between Whitby and King's Cross, the line that will carry Dracula’s coffins of earth!)

The highlight of the trip for me was to be given a private recital by the great Romanian violinist Alexandru Tomescu, playing music by George Enescu, a composer who was coming of age as Romania gained its freedom from the Habsburg empire, and who celebrated his country's folk tradition.

I shall not easily forget his bow and Stradivarius whirling close to my head as the gorgeous music poured forth.

2. Sofia to Istanbul

Sometimes the programmes take a more frivolous look at continental culture. One of the most spectacular events I have witnessed was a Thracian classical dance in the Roman Theatre in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.

About sixty singers and dancers gave a magnificent performance in astrakhan hats and colourful waistcoats and bodices. I joined in. The dance is complicated and long, and wearing turquoise trousers with a hat that repeatedly slipped from my head, I cut a poor figure.

One newspaper commented that only Eric Morecambe was funnier. Was that a compliment, I wonder.

3. Zermatt to Geneva

Getting off the train at Montreux, the most genteel of Swiss resorts, I came across the statue of Igor Stravinsky. There he wrote music that posed a threat to the established order as surely as Bolshevism.

When The Rite of Spring premiered, there was pandemonium. Its rhythms were primitive and its themes unmistakably sexual. At a time of imperial plumes and white tie balls, it celebrated raw savagery. I was reminded that the deference that propped up the empires was crumbling long before the first trench was dug.

4. Vienna to Trieste

That feeling was confirmed as soon as I exited Vienna's stunning new main station. Emperor Franz Josef ordered the building of the impressive Ringstrasse along the lines of the old city walls.

But whilst the facades are beautiful, behind the buildings were cheaply constructed warrens. The new boulevard was a metaphor for the empire which, beneath a veneer of pomp, was dissolving into dozens of ethnicities.

The painter Gustav Klimt seemed to mock the stiff morality of the establishment with his painting The Kiss. The bodies of two lovers are entwined and the female figure is clearly in ecstasy.

The deeply shocking piece now has pride of place in the gallery of the Belvedere Palace, painted between 1907 and 1908 during his golden period.

5. Barcelona to Mallorca

In the years before the Great War, Barcelona seemed to offer Marxists the best hope of proletarian revolution, due to the huge politicised urban population mainly working in factories.

Indeed, in the "tragic week" in July/August 1909 perhaps 150 were shot by the army during protests organised by socialists and anarchists. Amongst others, their inspirational leader Francesc Ferrer was imprisoned and executed by firing squad.

The devout Catalan architect Antoní Gaudí set to work on a church that might redeem the crime: La Sagrada Familia. His idiosyncratic style strikes us as boldly modern a century later, but his building is in essence a gothic cathedral stripped of the buttresses. In his view they marred the gothic style, and can be dispensed with thanks to modern construction techniques.

He left plans and models of every detail of his concept and it is now nearing completion, with spires and towers soaring above the Catalan capital extolling Christ, the Trinity, the Evangelists and the Apostles. Gaudí perished on the tracks, hit by a tram.

Series 5 of Great Continental Railway Journeys begins on Tuesday 20 September on BBC Two at 9pm.

Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide was published in 1913 and was a guide to Europe's rail network on the brink of the First World War.

Romania's greatest composer

In Bucharest, Romania's leading violinist, Alexandre Tomescu, introduces Michael Portillo to the music of his country’s greatest composer, George Enescu, in a private recital with his Stradivarius.

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