Ferroequinologists (train enthusiasts, to you and me) and travel lovers alike are spoiled for choice by television offerings of late. From the charming explorations of Michael Portillo, whose enthusiasm for travel is rivalled only by his penchant for flamboyant clothing, to Chris Tarrant's daring travels on the world's most extreme railways, we cannot get enough of rail travel documentaries.
Channel 5's 'Around the World by Train' is the latest iteration to placate our wanderlust. This new offering sees Blackadder actor, television presenter and train aficionado Tony Robinson, set out on an epic, worldwide rail adventure. Part one showcases the wonders of European rail travel, as Tony rails across the continent from Paris to Istanbul.
As Tony relaxes on board the Eurostar, speeding effortlessly towards the French capital, we're reminded just how simple it is to discover Europe by rail. As if to reinforce this notion, in no time at all Tony arrives in the heart of the city, at Paris Gare du Nord - and so begins his 24 hours in the city of love. One of our first glimpses of Paris is the requisite shot of the Eiffel Tower; the elegantly latticed, wrought-iron frame that is so emblematic not only of Paris itself, but of the enduring romance of French culture. The problem is, we've all seen it before, a sentiment shared by Tony. "Here we are - the Eiffel Tower", he announces as he hops out of a black cab. "Have a good look, cos we're not hanging around!" With that, he's back in the cab and on his way, and the tone is set for the rest of the series.
Tony is keen to discover more about the locals' Paris. Travellers feel pressure, he says, to see the main sights, even though they often offer little in the way of authenticity. Indeed, at the Eiffel Tower, you're more likely to spend time contending with selfie sticks than experiencing genuine Parisian culture. Tony touches upon the clichés of Paris; well-coiffed poodles, haughty women, cigarettes and wine. Like many passionate travellers, he's interested in breaking through preconceptions and embracing the nuances and quirks of each destination.
Tony's approach is simple. He explores with a positive outlook, a dash of dry humour and the help of hospitable locals. Interested in the role food plays in Parisian culture, he visits a small, standing-only café where he samples Oreilles de Cochon, or fried pigs' ear (we must admit, the French name is more appealing!). In a vibrant neighbourhood, Tony sits at a pavement café with a friend, indulging in a spot of people watching - a truly European pastime. He voices his bemusement that the pair sit side by side rather than facing one another and is told, in a tone so incredulous that it makes you wonder if you've been sitting in cafés wrong your entire life - "I don't need to look at you. I know you. I need to look at the street… at people. It's a Parisian exercise."
Racing past the medieval villages and dark forests for which Bavaria is known, Tony continues to Munich. Here, he explores local beer culture, visiting a state-owned brewery and the famous Hofbräuhaus, whose historical guests include Hitler and Mozart. The lively beer hall contrasts with a visit to a tranquil English Garden, frequented by sunbathers, swimmers and nudists!
Heading east to Budapest and with just a day to explore, Tony briefly takes in an incredible panorama of the city before delving into its communist past. In the backstreets, away from the designer shops and open squares, we see a scattering of bullet holes marring the façade of a beautiful building; a lingering reminder of the 1956 revolution.
A highlight of the episode is the 500-mile sleeper train journey to Bucharest, following a route similar to that of the original Orient Express. "I wonder if I'm going to get that level of luxury", Tony ponders, before heading to his decidedly basic room and declaring "it's a palace!". Later, when searching for the non-existent buffet car he is stopped by enthusiastic locals who ply him with cheese puffs and Hungarian moonshine, an amusing reminder of the cheerful camaraderie rail travel so often elicits.
Tony's final destination is the transcontinental city of Istanbul, where Europe and Asia collide. Here, we see an extraordinary clash of East and West; street markets selling colourful spices, ornate domed ceilings, relaxed Mediterranean restaurants, elegant mosques and ancient churches. "It is kind of schizophrenic", agrees Tony's companion. This city of startling contrasts serves as a fitting place to end the episode before Tony heads off to uncover the marvels of India and Burma.
'Around the World by Train' is a promising and engaging series. Rail travel is not particularly at its centre, and there are plenty of other shows for that - Michael Portillo isn't going anywhere! While the journeys remind us how easy it is to travel by rail, the heart of this show is in the eccentricity of each destination, as Tony ventures off the beaten path highlighting the unique culture he uncovers along the way.
To quote Tony's closing words, this was an "unadulterated, madcap railway adventure. And that was just Europe - my own backyard. I can't wait to see what the rest of the world has in store!" We would be apt to agree.