Readers of this blog will know I am quite besotted with the Pyrenees mountain range. Thus, I was delighted when last autumn one of the UK television station networks devoted a mini-series to the Pyrenees with Michael Portillo, a well know travel broadcaster here in the UK. I recently discovered repeat broadcasts and I thought it worthwhile to comment briefly for the benefit of readers interested in learning more about this mountain range.
The series is fronted by the well-known former British Cabinet minister turned travel broadcaster who many years ago was on the cusp of becoming Prime Minister. He still provides the occasional comment on political programmes but by and large has reinvented himself as a travel broadcaster, focusing on his passion for train travel.
Portillo’s rail itineraries across the British Isles draw upon the famous railway guidebooks by the 19th-century cartographer George Bradshaw, which continued to be published until the 1960s. Portillo’s original train travel series spawned various others, eventually including rail travels across Continental Europe, Asia and India (again featuring George Bradshaw rail guidebooks). During his rail journeys across the United States Portillo was accompanied by a late 19th century Appleton’s guidebook to US and Canadian railways.
Carrying a large, old and battered historical guidebook on his journey is a key feature of Portillo’s rail journeys. So too is the loud and colourful clothing he wears (think bright red trousers, yellow blazers and other eccentricities).
Each episode finds something interesting and unexpected, with a somewhat awkward but humorous Portillo always wanting “to have a go” at whatever he uncovers (which can be quite cringeworthy to watch at times). But the broadcaster doesn’t seem to care, while a polite and listening manner has contributed considerably to his reinvented persona.
His many interesting series and successful reinvention as a celebrity over time are a testimony to his success in transforming himself from a highly divisive political figure to a now much-loved broadcaster. Even a columnist at a newspaper at the polar opposite of Portillo’s political tribe during his parliamentary days has conceded the broadcaster’s genius after previously excoriating him.
Yet the colourful, eccentric, goofy, at-times awkward, not-taking-himself-seriously Portillo is not the one quite so evident in the Pyrenees miniseries. There is no rail guidebook, loud clothing or rail travel. There is also notably less humour. Instead, a somewhat older (approaching 70 years of age in the series) and somewhat more serious Michael Portillo hikes his way across much of the Pyrenees. Some of his trademark humour is evident from time to time but in the series, the broadcaster is notably more serious and thoughtful because despite the travel, history and fantastic scenery several of the episodes are very personal for Portillo, a personal pilgrimage of sorts given his family history.
There are a total of four episodes. In the first, he visits the Spanish Baque region of the Pyrenees, which yields a personal connection for the broadcaster. His father was a Spanish Republican intellectual forced to flee Spain because of nationalist Francisco Franco’s victory during the Spanish Civil War. The senior Portillo became exiled and settled in Britain where he met his future Scottish wife—Michael Portillo’s mother—while they were both working with Basque refugee children. The episode also treats viewers to some wonderful images of the Basque Pyrenean countryside and in it, Michael is presented with a makila, a traditional Basque hiking stick.
Episodes 2 and 3 focus on the French Pyrenees, offering panoramic vistas, a stupendous wall of ice several thousand feet high, stunning green and mountainous scenery and various interesting encounters. These include a couple who moved from Luxembourg to begin pig farming in the Pyrenees and producing their own cured and potted pork products in the best tradition of Mediterranean traditional food. Portillo also visits an abbey of self-sufficient Benedictine nuns working the land.
In the final episode, the broadcaster is back in the Spanish Pyrenees near the Mediterranean Sea. Again, this part of the journey is personal and poignant for Portillo as he traces the route taken by his father and the many other Spanish refugees fleeing the Franco regime. I have written about the eastern route taken by political refugees through the Pyrenees in Girona province near La Jonquera in this blog post. Also in this episode, Michael visits the area around Cadaquès.
The series offers viewers various things. For the many Michael Portillo fans it provides helpful insight into who he is and his family’s history. The miniseries also provides plenty of informative content about the geography, history and culture of this lovely and fascinating mountain range. Third, throughout the film and during Michael’s walks you have plenty of images and somewhat of a feel for the Pyrenees. If you are interested in this mountain range, you need to watch this series.
I was somewhat disappointed there were only four episodes. I’ve spent years travelling the full length of the Pyrenees and still feel I’ve only scratched the surface. Inevitably broadcast time is expensive but I hope the producers will make another series. All credit to them for doing it in the first place.
If you missed the original broadcast and repeats I understand it is available on Channel 5’s on-demand service. If you live outside the UK perhaps search for a DVD of the entire series (I don’t know if one has been produced yet, but most of his other series are available on DVD). And if like me the Pyrenees fascinate you please bookmark this website for posts. My book on Andorra has a lot to say about this mountain range, as does my forthcoming travel guide which is all about the Catalonian province of Girona.
I will shortly be spending some time exploring the mountain range yet again and will be blogging about it then.