Take a trip back in time and trace the paths of past travelers in the post towns and sacred spaces found in the majestic mountains of the Japanese countryside.
Japan’s Mt. Fuji is an active volcano about 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. Commonly called “Fuji-san,” it’s the country’s tallest peak, at 3,776 meters. A pilgrimage site for centuries, it’s considered one of Japan’s 3 sacred mountains, and summit hikes remain a popular activity. Its iconic profile is the subject of numerous works of art, notably Edo Period prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Kyushu is said to be the wellspring of Japanese civilization. Yet few tourists visit the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. This documentary contrasts modern Japanese cities with traditional customs in the countryside.
The rail journey begins in Fukuoka – a city with a metro population of 2.5 million – and ends at the southern tip of the island, in the city of Ibusuki. As the train rolls along, it travels through time – and reveals the amazing diversity and contrasts of the most southerly of Japan’s four main islands. The trip provides spectacular landscape views, as well as deep insight into a foreign culture, and its ancient traditions and modern lifestyles. In the West, Kyushu is one of the lesser-known regions in the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
Even for the Japanese, the green, mountainous island is seen mostly as a holiday spot. Europeans rarely visit this part of the country – but there are plenty of restaurants and cafes that have names like “Wolfgang,” “Bavaria,” or “Côte d’Azur.” Travel guides say that these words sound “European” to Japanese.
The family of the emperor, or Tenno, comes from Kyushu as well. This is also where the dynasties of the proud warrior class, the samurai, have their roots. And there are a number of active volcanoes on Kyushu. One of the most famous is Mount Aso. Its caldera – the cauldron-like hollow at the top — has a circumference of about 120 kilometers.
The world heritage listed Albula Railway. With it’s 55 bridges and 39 tunnels, it is one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railways in the world. The centerpiece is the 5866m long Albula tunnel, which at 1820m above sea level, is the second highest alpine tunnel in Switzerland. Our journey starts in Chur, the terminus station of the SBB normal gauge line from Zürich.
Michael Portillo’s 1936 Bradshaw’s Guide brings him to the Italian ‘treasure island’ of Sicily, full of natural beauty and ‘scenery of the greatest charm’. But the interwar guide book also tells Michael that the head of government in Italy is the fascist leader Signor Benito Mussolini.
On a railway journey from the capital, Palermo, through the ancient town of Agrigento and the port of Siracusa, to Europe’s largest volcano, Mount Etna, Michael explores Sicilian life under the dictatorship. Michael finds out how the dictator took on the mafia and asks whether it is true that under Mussolini, the trains ran on time. In Palermo, Michael takes in the art and architecture of the futurists and feasts on a Sicilian speciality – spaghetti and sardines – in the city’s Ballaro street market. In the Capo district, Michael learns how the island’s distinctive puppets are made and is enchanted to see them in action.
Among the spectacular ancient Greek and Roman temples of Agrigento, Michael hears of the passionate ten-year search by a British archaeologist at the time of his guide for a long-lost ancient Greek theatre. The drama of the interwar period comes to life in front of Michael’s eyes as he joins six characters in search of an author at the Teatro Pirandello.
Michael takes the helm to explore the port of Siracusa by boat before visiting a controversial monument, which depicts a dark chapter in Italian history. He concludes his Sicilian journey on the circular railway around Mount Etna, aboard the sleek, futurist-inspired train inaugurated by Mussolini in 1937 – La Littorina.
Switzerland is a mountainous Central European country, home to numerous lakes, villages and the high peaks of the Alps. Its cities contain medieval quarters, with landmarks like capital Bern’s Zytglogge clock tower and Lucerne’s wooden chapel bridge. The country is also known for its ski resorts and hiking trails. Banking and finance are key industries, and Swiss watches and chocolate are world renowned.
Michael Portillo embarks on a rail journey through Germany, steered by a Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide published in 1936. His unique window on Europe between the world wars takes him through a tumultuous period in German history, when the nation’s first democracy and its vibrant culture of art, design and decadence were swept away by fascism, nationalism and the increasing likelihood of war.
In a vast stadium, Michael hears how new rail lines were constructed to transport crowds of spectators to the Nazi Olympic Games of 1936. Michael learns how a planned boycott by the United States and other European nations failed and how the success of a black American athlete undermined the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority.
At the Museum of Modern Art in Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Michael sees how a leading artist of the era, George Grosz, warned of the rise of fascism in a haunting self-portrait. Michael goes to the movies in Potsdam and discovers the success of the Babelsberg Studios, where directors such as Fritz Lang and stars such as Marlene Dietrich worked. He hears how production was taken over by the Nazis for propaganda.
In the Schöneberg district of the capital, Michael researches the decadent night scene of the 1920s, where sexual freedoms attracted gay and lesbian visitors from across the world. Michael sees how cabaret culture is being revived today – a burlesque performance is on the bill. At the birthplace of German democracy in Weimar,
Michael investigates the beginnings of Bauhaus design and visits the movement’s first building – a single-family house which went beyond a statement of style to present a vision of how people would live in the 20th century. Travelling with author Julia Boyd to Nuremberg, Michael discovers that during the 1930s, despite the First World War and the Third Reich, Britons and Americans loved Germany and German culture.
Michael hears how one Briton above all was welcomed by Hitler to Germany – the Duke of Windsor, former King Edward VIII. In the medieval Bavarian city of Nuremberg, Michael visits the monumental buildings and parade grounds, which were the stage for vast Nazi rallies to publicise the regime around the world and arouse popular support at home.
Michael finishes in Stuttgart, where an ambitious engineering project is under way, which will integrate the city into a high-speed train route connecting Paris with Bratislava. Michael bags a ride in a high-performance Porsche to the manufacturer’s Stuttgart headquarters and discovers that in the 1930s, the founder designed an affordable car for mass production – the Beetle.
It takes an average of 37m to travel from Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen by train, over a distance of around 6 miles (10 km).
Grindelwald: The Eiger village of Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland lies embedded in a welcoming and green hollow, surrounded by a commanding mountainscape with the Eiger north face and the Wetterhorn. This mountainscape and the numerous lookout points and activities make Grindelwald one of the most popular and cosmopolitan holiday and excursion destinations in Switzerland, and the largest ski resort in the Jungfrau region.
Kleine Scheidegg: Kleine Scheidegg lies in the middle of the mountain world. In the central mountain station, all options are open: Up to Jungfraujoch with the Jungfrau Railway, down to Grindelwald or Wengen with the Wengernalp Railway. It connects the two villages via Kleine Scheidegg station, where passengers change trains. Those who prefer to walk instead of riding the train are in luck. From the Kleine Scheidegg numerous hiking trails lead to the most beautiful mountain landscapes and viewpoints.
Wengen: With its nostalgic timber houses, the many dispersed holiday chalets and hotels dating from the belle époque period, this Bernese Oberland holiday resort has retained all the character of a picture-postcard mountain village. Opening widely to the south west, the terrace guarantees above-average hours of sunshine. Since 1893, car-free Wengen has been able to be reached from Lauterbrunnen via the Wengernalp railway; cars remain parked in Lauterbrunnen.
Lauterbrunnen: Lauterbrunnen is situated in one of the most impressive trough valleys in the Alps, between gigantic rock faces and mountain peaks. With its 72 thundering waterfalls, secluded valleys, colourful alpine meadows and lonely mountain inns, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is one of the biggest nature conservation areas in Switzerland.
The Glacier Express is a direct train from Zermatt to St. Moritz. The train is also referred to as the ‘slowest express train in the world’: the journey takes about 8 hours. There is a good reason for this slow pace: the train squeezes its way through the Alps, through narrow valleys, tight curves, 91 tunnels, and across 291 bridges.
Michael Portillo travels from the chateaux of the Loire Valley to the heart of the Champagne region at Reims. Beginning in historic Orleans, Michael follows his Bradshaw’s guide to the magnificent stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix, which tell the story of the heroine of France, Joan of Arc. The image of the saintly teenage warrior endures as a symbol of resistance, and her life is celebrated in an annual parade. Michael meets her modern-day incarnation. Among the spectacular Renaissance palaces and fortresses of the River Loire, Michael is intrigued to discover a castle much modernized during the 1930s, which became a refuge for a British royal couple embroiled in scandal. The wedding of the former king, Edward VIII, and the American divorcee Wallis Simpson at Chateau Cande in the summer of 1937 was shunned by the British establishment. Michael takes a spin around the track at Le Mans in a French-built car that won two endurance races during the 1920s. At Versailles, Michael visits the opulent palace and neighbouring Trianon Palace Hotel, where his Bradshaw’s guide describes the signing of the Peace Treaty at the end of the First World War. Arriving in the capital, Paris, Michael heads for Montparnasse, where wildly creative artists and writers of the 1920s and 30s spawned new art movements. Michael joins a life-drawing class at an art school with an impressive legacy. Backstage at the Folies Bergere, Michael asks the ‘enfant terrible’ of fashion Jean Paul Gaultier about his homage to the black American dancer of the 1920s Josephine Baker. East of Paris in champagne country, Michael finishes his journey in style with a tour of the cellars at Domaine Pommery and a glass of fizz with the owner.
Take the classic route from London to Venice, the gateway to the Orient. This breathtaking journey through rural French farmlands and Swiss Alpine valleys can be travelled in either direction, or both. Go further afield with Paris to Istanbul, an authentic adventure over six days to the edge of Europe. Delve into culture with stops in Budapest and Bucharest before arriving in soulful Istanbul.
Paris to Berlin is the newest journey in the repertoire, a thrilling voyage connecting two of Europe’s most vibrant cultural hubs. The tradition of the grand tour thrives with a luxurious escape on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
An uncontested icon of the rails, this train has long captured the hearts and imaginations of glamorous guests. Three elegant dining carriages exude culinary sophistication, from Lalique glass inlays in Cote d’Azur to black lacquer panels in L’Oriental. A steward in blue and gold livery waves with a white-gloved hand, welcoming you on board with a knowing smile. Settle in to your cabin, adorned with art-deco details and French-polished cherry wood, and sit back as a grand voyage begins.