Vampire-hunting in Romania? Fashion shopping in Marrakech? Scaling the Matterhorn? If there’s one show that inspires people to go beyond traveling in their mind, it’s Great Continental Railway Journeys, series 5 of which just so happens to be returning Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS.
Using the 1913 edition of Bradshaw's Tourist Handbook as a spirit guide to life on, and off, the rails, host Michael Portillo has explored many of the great sights and stories Europe has to offer.
Here are five incredible destinations from series five that could be the centrepiece to the holiday of a lifetime.
Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania
Is Romania the new Czech Republic? It does appear stunningly unspoiled. “Snow-clad granite peaks and delightful valleys combine their charms in this romantic country,” notes the Bradshaw Handbook, which inspires GCRJ.
Host Portillo is similarly taken: “In all my travels, I never saw a place so unchanged.”
Built in the 14th century, Transylvania’s Bran Castle helped inspire Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel, Dracula – a book that was banned for many years in Romania.
It appears that a Bradshaw’s has inspired both Michael Portillo and Count Dracula. When vampire hunter Jonathan Harker first meets the infamous Count in the novel, he finds him “lying on the sofa, reading, of all things in the world, an English Bradshaw’s Guide”, as he plans to transport 50 coffins full of Transylvanian earth on his voyage to England.
Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera
Rail is still the easiest way to access the Cinque Terre, small fishing villages on the Italian Riviera cut into steep, rugged cliffs.
Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cinque Terre dates back to medieval times, settled as a way to elude invading barbarians. It's marked by its stone streets, spectacular topography and buildings painted in a dizzying array of pastel colours.
"What a stunning place, it's impossibly picturesque," says Portillo. "There are the most fantastic walks between one village and the next. You go up steps that are very vertiginous, very exhausting and they're one of the best experiences of your life."
The medieval town of Tallinn, Estonia
Contrary to the dreary image of the former Soviet Union, Tallinn is alive with a questing spirit.
These days, Estonia’s capital city is a mad mix of old and new. The old is an area steeped in meticulously preserved Middle Ages medieval history; the new is the idea that Tallinn is the world’s wi-fi/start-up tech-dream epicentre.
Situated on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn is among the oldest cities in northern Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While Bradshaw’s says one of Tallinn’s key attractions is “bathing in the Baltic sea”, Michael Portillo has a different take: “You’d have to be a lunatic to go in before mid-summer,” he says, as he takes the plunge.
The Old Town Days festival enjoyed by Portillo – where the central Raekoja square is full of medieval markets and jousting knights-in-armour – occurs between May 31 and June 4.
Zermatt, the Matterhorn, Switzerland
Zermatt is the gateway to the Swiss Alps and home to the infamous jagged tooth peak known as the Matterhorn, Queen of the Mountains. The 1913 Bradshaw’s says: “The railway up from Zermatt commands the grandest view obtainable in the world of ice and snow.”
Michael Portillo agrees. “The Alps really could’ve been designed to teach man humility,” he says. “Surrounded by these mountains you feel small and insignificant.”
Marrakech on the Marrakech Express
Known as the "Red City", Marrakech is the desert metropolis of the Berbers, nestled at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
The ancient square of Jamaa el-Fna, once the meeting point for trans-Saharan caravans, is still the heart of Marrakech. Come sundown, it's full of fortune tellers, snake charmers, musicians and medicine men. The Red City is also famed for its markets and bazaars known as souks.
"Like most tourists," says Portillo, "I love a good market." And he - as a dedicated follower of his own idea of fashion - manages to find a distinctive djellaba robe in his colour palate: claret.
Watch series 5 of Great Continental Railway Journeys on Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS. Or climb aboard previous episodes on SBS On Demand: