Michael Portillo samples the delights of the French and Spanish Atlantic coast and learns how Britain's 'railway king' Edward VII made the region popular.
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'I'm embarking on a new railway adventure that will
'take me across the heart of Europe.'
I'll be using this,
my Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide, dated 1913,
which opened up an exotic world of foreign travel
for the British tourist.
'It told travellers where to go, what to see and how to
'navigate the thousands of miles of tracks crisscrossing the continent.
'Now a century later, I'm using my copy to reveal
'an era of great optimism and energy,
where technology, industry, science and the arts were flourishing.'
I want to rediscover that lost Europe, that in 1913 couldn't know
that its way of life would shortly be swept aside by the advent of war.
On this journey, I'll keep track of King Edward VII,
who, at a time of European decadence and danger, progressed to
southwest France in search of both amusement and alliances.
I'll pursue royalty and vin rouge in a region that combined blue blood
with red wine.
After Bordeaux it'll be Biarritz,
and then the Basque country, including Bilbao.
'On this leg of my 1913 journey,
'I'll eat fashionable cake in Bordeaux...'
It's named after the shape of the mould, and it's a groovy shape.
It is a groovy shape!
'..test the waters in Edwardian style...'
What do you think of my outfit?
-I thought you were from prison at first.
'..play regal greens in Biarritz...'
Edward VII used to come here and play between 1906 until 1910.
You really have had some big shots here.
'..ride a scenic railway in San Sebastian...'
Oh, dear, we're going up again!
'..and cross a Basque river on a gondola suspended from a monorail.'
-How does Bilbao feel about its bridge?
It's central to their identity. It symbolises their mastery of iron
and steel at the height of the first Industrial Revolution.
'My Edwardian adventure surfaces in the wineries of Bordeaux,
'takes a dip in Arcachon, soars to the high life in Biarritz,
'crosses into Spain, ascending to regal San Sebastian, and risks
'vertigo in industrial Bilbao,
'in the culturally distinct Basque country.'
My journey begins at Bordeaux,
seat of the French government in 1870, when the Prussians besieged Paris,
and French capital in 1914
and 1940, when the Germans invaded again.
In 1913, few of the bons viveurs of fashionable France living
through La Belle Epoque foresaw the imminent catastrophe of war.
'King Edward VII was a frequent visitor in those heady days.
'Were they merely the jaunts of an ageing playboy, or was this
'elder statesman in pursuit of alliance as much as dalliance?'
'Starting in Bordeaux,
'the finest wine producing region in the world,
'I'm seeking to extract the British connection with the French
'wine industry and to see how the railways have assisted its success.'
With vineyards stretching to every horizon, Bradshaw's tells me
the principal trade with a port is engaged with Bordeaux wines.
I shall be interested to see what mark has been
left on the city by wine or by the wealth created from it.
'Situated on the River Garonne,
'which empties into the Atlantic Ocean,
'Bordeaux has been a port for centuries.'
'In the 17th, ranking second only to London, it supplied the majority
'of Europe with coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton, wine and slaves,
'trades that by the 19th century afforded the town
'the best of everything.'
I'm standing at the window to get a good view of this spectacular
old railway bridge that was finished in 1860,
and the site manager was a 25-year-old engineer
called Gustave Eiffel. 27 years later,
he'd go on to build what we know as the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
'The 19th century brought the railway
'and its architecture to this prosperous commercial hub.
'The Saint-Jean railway station first opened in 1855.'
'Too small to cope with the passenger numbers,
'the original was rebuilt with a vast 183-foot-wide canopy
'just in time for the World Exposition in 1900.'
I'm so impressed by this vast station at Bordeaux, a traveller
with my Bradshaw's guide would have been as well, because then it was
quite new, completed in 1898, so that's about ten years
after the Eiffel Tower, and by then, engineers really understood
how to make these enormous structures.
The wealth generated by Bordeaux as an entrepot, or trading hub,
back in the 18th century,
helped to construct many of the city's principal buildings.
And in the 21st century, that continued affluence,
built now on wine, enables the city
to protect its historic architectural heritage.
This beautiful building would grace any European capital.
It is actually the grand theatre, according to Bradshaw's,
and its portico has 12 Corinthian columns.
What's so interesting is, they allow the trams to run
in front of it, but instead of having overhead wires
that would spoil the view of this delicious building,
the trams are powered by a current passing through the pavements
which somehow powers the tram
without electrocuting the pedestrians!
The railways brought industrial quantities of Bordeaux wine
to its docks for export.
It was a boom time for the town's negociants, the middlemen
who have brokered wine from across the region for centuries.
At the time of my guidebook, many were British,
like the ancestors of negociant Charlie Sichels.
What is it you do in the wine trade?
We are what one would call a negociant.
The negociant is responsible for buying and selling
other people's wines.
You know, Bordeaux is a massive wine producing area, the biggest probably
in the world, producing 800 million bottles of wine every year.
And we are one of 400 negociants in Bordeaux,
and we sell wine all over the world.
How long has your family been in the business?
Here in Bordeaux since 1883.
But before that, involved in the wine business since 1755.
Now, my Bradshaw's tells me about the splendid quays here in Bordeaux.
Not very busy at the moment. What was this like in its heyday?
Massively busy, massively busy. Boats everywhere,
Barrels all over the quayside. People tasting the barrels.
In fact, in the buildings behind me,
every other door was a wine merchant.
They would roll the barrels out of the cellars
straight onto the boats and then they'd sail off
heading north for England, amongst other places.
As Charlie's family has been doing business here
since before my guidebook was written, I wonder whether
his impressive cellar includes wines from that period.
In 1913, someone carrying my Bradshaw's guide
would've been drinking what?
Probably something like
a 1908 Chateau Palmer,
one of three bottles left.
Magnificent! Now, was that a good year?
I think, Michael, it was an OK year.
Now, I imagine that the great vintages or very historic bottles
do sell for extraordinary sums.
What would be the figures they'd go for?
Something like a Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945,
Thankfully, in Bordeaux, some pleasures are free.
Led by my guidebook, I'm taking the tram to a landmark
that in 1913 was magnetic to visitors, as it is today.
Bradshaw's has brought me here to the Place des Quinconces,
which, it tells me, is the largest open square in the city.
Actually, it claims to be the largest square in Europe
and for a big city like this to have such an enormous space
at its heart is delightful, special.
Completed in 1828 and now a venue for concerts and public events,
the 12-hectare square, built on the site of a demolished castle,
hosts the Monument aux Girondins, over 140 feet high,
commemorating the fallen of the French Revolution.
And nearby there's an impressive imperial relic of Bonapartist grandeur.
This is Bordeaux's Pont de Pierre, Bridge of Stone.
It was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte for his troops
to march across, although he was defeated before it was completed.
Bradshaw's tells me it's justly considered
one of the finest bridges in Europe, and you can see his PONT. Point!
I'm feeling rather peckish
and I've heard that patisseries stock Canele de Bordeaux,
the official cake of the city.
I'm intrigued to hear about its history
and to find out how it tastes.
It's named after the shape of the mould
so the moulds are like that and it's a groovy shape.
It IS a groovy shape!
And so that's how we named it canele, because of the shape of the mould.
What's the origin of it?
The origins of the Canele would be religious.
It was nuns in the 16th century
that collected the basic products
to make little cakes for the poor.
Flour and vanilla from the ships,
and also the egg yolks from the winemakers
because they used only the whites to clarify the wine.
-So even this cake is a kind of by-product of Bordeaux's wine industry?
-Could I possibly taste one, please?
-Yes, you can.
It's very crispy on the outside and always soft on the inside.
-Do I bite the top off?
Wow! It is really crispy
and then I'm getting all that egg and sugar inside.
That's what makes it very special, actually, the texture.
It's fantastic. I shall remember Bordeaux by this
and possibly leave my fillings here too, thank you!
You're welcome, bye!
I'm leaving Bordeaux for my last stop of the day.
Another town defined by wine, 25 miles east of the region's capital.
Saint-Emilion is a beautiful medieval hilltop retreat
with a church hewn from limestone.
The rock is a factor in making these lands so suitable for vines.
In the mid-19th century, the arrival of the railways
revolutionised the region's wine industry.
For the first time, vineyards far from Bordeaux
could send wine in large quantities to the port and, from there,
to international customers.
Even when you know you're coming to a wine-producing area,
nothing quite prepares you for the intensity
of the wine production in this landscape.
It's just kind of vines covering every square centimetre.
Except, of course, for a few beautifully positioned trees
and the lovely stone of the chateaux and the farm buildings.
I've come here to meet another Briton in the wine trade,
Jonathan Maltus, who left home in 1994
and bought the Chateau Teyssier winery,
which has been producing since the 18th century.
What are the grape types?
Well, Bordeaux has three grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and on this side of the river it's Merlot.
Well, I feel a bit distant from the wine. Can we get a bit closer to the actual liquid?
Absolutely. Let's do it.
Known as a garagiste proprietor,
happy to depart from traditional winemaking techniques,
Jonathan's Chateau Teyssier label
produces 300,000 bottles of wine per year.
This is interesting. We seem to be in an entirely modern room
-but with, what, rather traditional oak vats?
-Yes, that's right.
In 1913, this would have been really the kind of vats
that would exist at that time.
We've gone back to the future with our more expensive wines
so hence you have these sort of vats.
Edward VII was immensely fond of fine wine.
He famously observed that
"One not only drinks the wine, one smells it, observes it,
"tastes it, sips it, and one talks about it."
I wonder how much Chateau Teyssier made its way to Britain in 1913?
At the time of my Bradshaw's Guide,
the British were pretty big drinkers of Bordeaux?
I think they represented probably the biggest export market
from this part of the world.
In the late 1970s, the American wine writer Robert M Parker Junior
began publishing his guide to wine buying,
scoring wines around the world out of 100 points.
His opinion can make or break a vintage.
So your mission, Michael, should you wish to accept it,
there are three bottles on the table.
One of them is 100 points from Robert Parker.
Which one is it?
And what would the 100-pointer be worth?
-About £250 a bottle.
I don't reckon much on my palate.
It's taken a bit of a bashing over the years.
It's a very, very good wine. Mm. Try and remember that.
Mm, that's also delightful.
I'm not sure I'm going to get this.
Well...my vote is for this one.
Well, you're not there, unfortunately, because in fact
-the one on the right is Le Dome.
-And that gets 100 points.
This one is called Les Asterie. It's 96 points, £95 a bottle.
And the one on the left is home brew, 92 points, £18 a bottle.
The unpalatable truth is that I'll never be a sommelier.
'After a long, if thoroughly pleasant day,
'I'll take my rest before renewing my belle epoque adventure tomorrow.'
Ready for the day ahead,
I'm back at Bordeaux's mainline station
from where I shall be heading southwest to find out more
about Europe before the cataclysm of 1914 changed it forever.
A tip for the unwary train traveller in France -
even though you have a ticket, before you board a train,
you must validate it at this little machine,
otherwise you could get a fine.
Picking up the tracks of King Edward VII through Southwest France,
this train will take me to a coastal town
popular with late 19th century British royalty
who were in search of curative sea air.
My first stop on this new day will be Arcachon, which, Bradshaw's
tells me, is a favourite sea bathing and winter resort.
The town along the shore
and the winter town in the pine forest to the south.
A winter and summer resort in one place -
it sounds as though the town had a pretty good marketing department.
Anyway, nothing fortifies the over-40s better
than a stiff sea breeze
and let's face it, I qualify - and my Bradshaw's Guide, even more so.
'In 1891, the French railway brought new pleasures to the working class
'by inventing the cheap family day return.
'I'm wondering whether the quick excursion is as popular today.'
-Vous parlez anglais?
-Non, pas de tout?
-Et vous parlez francais?
-Un peu, un petit peu.
Je vois votre pannier. Est-ce que vous allez a la plage?
-Ah, they are going to the beach.
-Et qu'est-ce que vous faites?
Ah, she's going to do sunbathing.
-Madame, vous etes bien bronzee. You've got a lovely tan.
Sheltered from the Atlantic by the Cap Ferret peninsular
on the Cote d'Argent, or Silver Coast,
the resort of Arcachon dates back to 1823
when the first hotel with spa was built
betwixt pine forest, beach and sea.
Arcachon's reviving qualities attracted so many Britons
that by the late 19th century, there were enough here
to require an Anglican church.
'I've heard that Queen Victoria's children came here, too
'and I'm confident that local guide Valerie Soutra will know more.'
When that first hotel was built, was the idea anything to do with health
or was it for people to come and swim in the sea, what was the idea?
It was more for health.
Because on this time, doctors thought it was beneficial
to swim on the water of this bay
for diseases like hysteria or melancholy.
Because the water is more quiet and more warm than the Atlantic Ocean.
-And so that would have a calming effect?
So how did the town grow after that?
Archachon developed thanks to two brothers
named Emile and Isaac Pereire, who carried the railway
to Archachon in July 1857.
My guidebook tells me that the "exhalations of the pine trees
"with the sea air render the Ville d'Hiver a very healthy quarter."
-The Ville d'Hiver - now, that would be the Winter Town?
-Where would that be?
-Just behind the seaside resort.
Arcachon has districts named after each of the four seasons.
At the Winter Town, also known as the Open Air Sanatorium,
the sick, particularly tuberculosis sufferers,
were said to benefit from breathing the "balsamic and iodised air".
This Winter Town was created by the two Pereire brothers
in 40 hectares to attract all the high society from Europe
And was this breathing of the pine air,
was this supposedly effective for their maladies?
Yes, by good food and by cure with good pine forest air.
Valerie has brought me to a particular house
to demonstrate that the future king was convinced
of the town's healing qualities.
I want to tell you about this house,
where came in 1886 the Princess Louise,
-one of the daughter of the Queen Victoria.
She came here because she had had a serious accident in Canada.
Her brother, the Prince of Wales, said to her,
I think it was good for her to came here.
Her recuperation in Arcachon must have rejuvenated her.
Louise would prove to be Queen Victoria's longest-lived daughter,
dying at the ripe old age of 91.
I've absorbed the air from the pines and the air from the sea
and it's great news that in the time of my Bradshaw's Guide,
something else was prescribed for good health - oysters.
The oysters are recommended for their iodine,
and were first cultivated in the Arcachon basin in the 1850s,
in oyster beds developed by the personal physician
to the French empress, Eugenie.
I like to think that the tasty little creatures
aided Princess Louise's recovery.
Ooh, these look absolutely delicious.
I like to have them just with lemon juice.
Clean the palate with a little white wine...
then scoop the little creature out of its hiding place...
Mm! Give it a good chew,
allow the flavour of the sea to explode in your mouth...
and clean the palate again with a glass of wine.
In the 21st century, people come to the beach and show a lot of flesh.
Men in figure-hugging trunks and women in skimpy bikinis, or topless.
But in Edwardian times, people showed more decorum.
ACCORDION MUSIC PLAYS
And to complete the sex appeal...
'France was the favoured seaside destination
'for European tourists in the carefree years
'before the First World War,
'when the social elite came here in pursuit of beauty,
'in art and people.
'Like those discerning travellers, I know that nothing titillates
'as much as that which is discreetly covered.
'I wonder whether my Edwardian costume
'will set modern sun-seekers quivering.'
Bonjour, messieurs. Do you speak English? Vous parlez anglais?
Et qu'est-ce vous opinez de ca?
-"Tres beau!" I look very beautiful in it.
-What do you think of my...
-I thought you were from prison at first.
-Did you, prison?
-This is my Edwardian bathing suit.
There you go.
-That was the second guess!
I can hardly leave Archachon without sampling
the healing qualities of the water.
Continuing my journey through pre-First World War Europe,
I'll move south from Arcachon to Biarritz,
cross the Spanish border at Irun and then, like Edward VII,
sojourn in royal San Sebastian
before ending at the Basque port of Bilbao which,
in 1913, reeked of smoke and Basque nationalism.
I shall leave this train at Biarritz which, Bradshaw's tells me,
is favourably situated facing the Bay of Biscay on a line
of cliffs sloping to a magnificent beach.
It's one of the most frequented bathing resorts in France,
especially by the better classes of society, and so with my nose
stuck firmly in the air,
I shall head for this remarkably refined resort.
Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast in the French Basque country.
Emperor Napoleon III built the Villa Eugenie here in 1855,
for his wife, the Empress.
As crowned heads of Europe followed, the resort soon became known
as "the queen of beaches and the beach of kings."
'I've heard that not only did Edward VII come here,
'but that in Biarritz at the turn of the 20th century,
'British influence was par for the course.'
This beautiful golf course is in my Bradshaw's Guide.
It tells me there's an 18-hole course
a mile from the centre of town, a clubhouse, a ladies' green,
nine-hole. This must've been very early for golf courses.
Indeed, the sign on the gate tells me
that it was founded in the swinging 1880s.
Back in 1813, 100 years before my guidebook,
the Duke of Wellington's army invaded this region
and here at Le Phare, I'm intrigued to discover what they left behind.
-Very good to see you.
'Claude Rousseau is Director General of The Biarritz Golf Society.'
-British people came with bank, shops...
..sports, tennis, cricket, everything. And especially golf
so in 1887, they decided to buy land here and in April '88,
-they decided to open it.
-You're saying that the British were really absolutely,
-fundamentally important to that?
The British people were very important
for the economy of the city.
So, Claude, how do the French develop their love of golf?
Well, it starts when the British players came here,
they asked for caddies and it means that by the evening,
when the players come back to the clubhouse to have a cup of beer
or a couple of whisky,
they pick up the clubs of their guest and they start to play.
So now, you're going to try to play golf.
Er, this will be humiliating! Let's give it a go.
Put the club in front of the ball.
Take care to your stance.
And then you have to look at the ball.
-Look at the ball?
Perfect. It's a good shot.
Well, I'll be jiggered.
Ahh, bit long.
Have you had any famous British players here?
Yes, we had very famous... a famous player coming here,
because we had Edward VII,
who used to come here and play between 1906 until 1910.
You really have had some big shots here.
Edward championed golf, laying out courses at his royal residences
in Britain not just for family and guests but also for his servants.
But the whisper at the 19th hole
was that he was not a very active player.
I wonder what else he did whilst in Biarritz.
His most recent biographer, Jane Ridley,
has travelled here to enlighten me.
I've discovered at the golf course
that Edward VII used to come to Biarritz
but what brought him here?
Well, he came here for his health.
His doctors told him that he had to leave England in the spring
because he got terrible bronchitis,
so he came here for the bracing sea breezes and the good climate.
What company did the King have in Biarritz?
Well, when he came to Biarritz,
the Queen, Alexandra, she never came,
but Mrs Keppel, who was the mistress throughout his reign,
she was always here and also his retinue would come as well,
I mean, about sort of 12 or 18 people.
How did he make his way here?
I mean, he was, you know, a railway King.
He would come by train in great splendour
and he would be preceded by a sort of charabanc of motorcars,
laden with all the King's luggage.
Whenever he went anywhere, he would take sort of 80 pieces of luggage.
So it was a big operation.
He's constantly, you know, moving in Europe, moving all around Britain,
so, I mean, he loved railways - they were very much part of his life.
He had a huge amount of contacts in Europe
because he was uncle to the Czar of Russia, the King of Germany
and he had an enormous amount of friends
on the European diplomatic scene.
I mean, a lot of the things he did were very important.
He went to Paris in 1903 and that visit was really important
because it set up the alliance with France,
the entente cordiale of 1904,
so, I mean, that was a key bit of diplomacy.
If the King was distracted by diplomacy,
his portly disposition suggests that he may have sought solace
in his penchant for patisserie.
At the time of my guidebook,
the Cafe Miremont was the most fashionable place in Biarritz
to indulge in that particular French fancy.
If we'd come here at the time of my Bradshaw's guide,
what sort of crowd would we have encountered in this cafe?
Oh, well, I think we'd have found a very grand crowd indeed -
somebody once joked, actually,
that in this cafe there were more queens than pastries
and there were fewer rum babas than there were grand dukes.
So you've got a dessert fit for a King.
Edward VII really liked his food.
Edward VII was well known for liking his food.
I mean, he was known as Tum Tum. SHE LAUGHS
And with good reason.
He would eat a huge lunch and then, before dinner,
there would be an enormous tea and then dinner was always 12 courses.
And Edward VII wolfed the lot.
Away from his food, what were the King's delights here in Biarritz?
Well, what he really loved was bridge.
The King actually wasn't terribly good
and he had a very explosive temper,
so, if it went wrong, he would get frightfully cross and, you know,
people were reduced to nervous wrecks playing with the King.
So I'm going to try this traditional millefeuille
and good luck with your wild strawberry tart.
It looks delicious.
The King spent his last five springs living here,
at the luxurious Hotel du Palais.
This was the same Villa Eugenie built by Napoleon III,
but then it became a casino and later a hotel.
It was lavishly refurbished after a fire in 1903.
At a time when a reforming Liberal Government
was attempting to change Britain's constitution and society,
I wonder how involved Edward could have been
whilst in distant Biarritz.
Ah. It's magnificently opulent, isn't it?
I'm just thinking, when the King was travelling abroad,
obviously the business of government had to continue.
How was that organised?
Oh, that was organised very carefully.
The King's boxes, carrying his official documents,
the papers he had to sign and read,
came out daily and he would sit under a big, stripy awning,
going through his papers very conscientiously.
If you look up here, there is this rather wonderful plaque,
which commemorates an incredibly important visit,
which took place in 1908.
"Mr Henry Herbert Asquith
"was named as Prime Minister of the British Empire
"in this palace on 7th April, 1908, by His Majesty Edward VII."
There was a lot of criticism from the press in Britain,
who said it was appallingly high-handed of the King
to drag the new Prime Minister to France
to make him Prime Minister.
Asquith, of course, had a pretty stormy premiership.
In 1909, they had this budget
that raised taxes on higher incomes very substantially
and then there was this constitutional crisis
where they set about reforming the House of Lords,
so how did the King get involved in all of that from Biarritz?
Well, the King was very much involved with all of that
because in 1910, when he came to Biarritz,
that crisis was at its height and the King was also very ill,
so it was a very sort of stressful time
because he was essentially trying to mediate between the two sides
and to broker some kind of deal
between the opposition and the Liberal Government.
So, actually, I'm getting quite a rounded view of this man now.
I mean, he may have been a bit of a philanderer,
he may have loved his travels and his comforts
but he was quite serious about his constitutional duties.
Oh, very much so. I think he was a very good King
and, I think, um... hugely underestimated.
On April 26th, 1910, the King, seemingly recovered,
left Biarritz for Buckingham Palace.
But, on the 6th of May, he died.
Tonight, I shall sleep in a suite that the King himself occupied.
And so this is your room.
And please take a closer look at the bed,
because the bed is actually where Edward VII stayed
and it is said that, on his last day,
he just stayed by the window and whispered, "Goodbye, Biarritz."
Ah, that's a very sad story.
I'm delighted that, in beautiful Biarritz,
I've learned that Edward VII was a conscientious and capable King.
But his formidable mother, Victoria, found his philandering unamusing.
Being so close to the Atlantic Ocean,
I thought I'd begin my day with a little fish.
I'm looking out today on a cloudy bay
but no intrepid traveller with his Bradshaw's Guide
can be put off by a little bad weather.
This morning, I'm leaving Biarritz to continue my journey south,
and, to make the most of the day, I'm taking an early train.
I've boarded the overnight train that's come down from Paris
and this car is full of people sleeping
and, ahead of me, there are lots of sleeper cars
and even these cars are specially designed to recline.
We shall soon be crossing the border from France into Spain.
I have both a British and a Spanish passport.
That's because my father was Spanish
and he registered me as a Spanish citizen when I was four years old.
Interestingly, I have a different name in each passport.
In this one, I'm Miguel - that's how you translate Michael.
But also the Spanish have the habit
of using both their father's and their mother's surname,
one after the other, so I'm Miguel Portillo Blythe.
You wouldn't know it was me, would you?
Bradshaw's tells me that the railway line
reaches Spanish territory at Irun, where I am now,
"where carriages are changed as the gauge of the Spanish railways
"is about one-third broader than that of the French railways."
Rail historians believe the Spanish made a strategic decision
not to adopt the standard gauge of four foot, eight-and-a-half inches
in order to hamper any possible invasion by rail.
Spanish railways have only quite recently
adopted standard gauge for their new, high-speed lines.
Sergio Lopez is a professor of engineering.
Someone going from France to Spain 100 years ago,
at the time of this guidebook,
at Irun, what would they have had to do?
Yeah, pretty inconvenient. But, I suppose, even worse for freight.
Yeah, so it's had quite serious economic consequences.
Yes, yes, yes.
Trains crossing the border were once manually lifted onto new wheelsets.
But now the train axles adjust so that, both at the French border
and where trains on domestic routes
move from old, wide tracks on to the new, high-speed network,
the distance between the wheels is narrowed, or vice-versa.
So now I find myself in a different country
with a different railway company and even a different gauge of track.
My next stop will be San Sebastian.
Bradshaw's tells me, "It's the most fashionable seaside resort in Spain,
"beautifully situated on an inlet.
"Spanish royalty usually in residence during the summer."
I'm getting the impression that, at the beginning of the 20th Century,
around the Bay Of Biscay, there was a kind of royal crescent
where kings and queens would take their holiday and meet each other
and, since they were nearly all related,
presumably exchange family gossip.
The 19th and early 20th century tourists
who followed Spanish royalty here
helped to create the wealth that gave San Sebastian
one of the most recognisable seafronts in Europe.
Bradshaw's tells me to look out for Monte Urgull - that hill -
380 feet at the sea end of the old town.
And then the wonder of this place is the beach.
Bradshaw's tells me it's called La Concha.
Concha is the Spanish for seashell
and, with its terrific natural beauty,
you could say that this seashell
has produced, on the northern coast of Spain, a pearl.
In 1906, the British King, Edward VII, visited here
whilst brokering the marriage of his niece, Ena,
to Spain's King Alfonso XIII.
And, six years later, Spain's Queen Mother, Maria Cristina,
inaugurated the funicular railway at Monte Igueldo,
which transported gamblers to San Sebastian's new clifftop casino.
The line's carriages are original
and have now entered their second century of service.
Sergio Fernandez knows more.
-Hi, Michael. Nice to meet you.
What a beautiful funicular railway. How long is the line?
It's 312 metres long and 160 metres above the sea.
And what sort of gradient does it go up?
It's very, very inclined, between 32% and 58%.
Which is what we would call one in three and more than one in two.
That is extraordinarily steep.
How unusual is it to have original wagons on a Spanish funicular?
I think there is no any other original in Spain.
-May we take a ride?
I love all these old wooden benches. It's really beautiful.
My guidebook is from 1913.
This would have been brand-new in those days
and they would be coming, of course, very, very elegantly dressed.
-Maybe to visit the casino, maybe just to see the view.
So 160 metres above the sea. That's, I think, more than 500 feet
and we've done it in... How long did that take us?
Er, three minutes and 20 seconds.
When anti-gambling laws shut down Monte Igueldo's casino in 1925,
it was replaced by a clifftop funfair,
whose 1,100-foot-long scenic railway,
the Montana Suiza, still runs.
I see why it's called the scenic railway -
a wonderful view of San Sebastian from here.
Yeah, fantastic view.
Let's go? Yes, please.
Starts nice and gently...
'Only a handful of so-called side-friction-style scenic railways
'like this one still operate.
'Because the cars rely on little more than gravity
'to hold on to the rails, a brakeman must ensure that the train's speed
'on each corner and fall is not only thrilling but safe.'
Ah! Fantastic view now of the bay. Oh, that's lovely.
Yeah, amazing view.
Oh, dear, we're going up again.
Yes. The last drop, the big one!
-"The LAST drop"?
Oh, my goodness!
Here we go!
That was very good! That was very, very good.
The only thing is I very nearly dropped my Bradshaw's!
Having experienced its ups and downs, I'm leaving San Sebastian.
Tomorrow, I'll explore the final destination
of this European adventure.
This is the third gauge of railway I've been on today.
There was French standard gauge, then there was Spanish broad gauge
and now this is Spanish narrow gauge,
very well-suited to building in the mountains.
And this line forms a kind of Metro,
running from the French border all the way to Bilbao.
The Basques are the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe.
They've lived in the foothills of the Western Pyrenees for millennia
and, for seven centuries, the resolutely Basque port of Bilbao
has sat proudly upon the Nervion River estuary.
Bradshaw's describes Bilbao as, "an important commercial town,
"concerned in iron manufacture, with many British residents."
A historical relationship that continues today.
The designs by the British architect, Norman Foster,
for the stations on Bilbao's underground railway
have given the city these distinctive glass armadillos,
which are known locally and affectionately as Fosteritos.
In Bilbao, I'm leaving King Edward behind.
Here, I hope to discover the industrial ties
between Britain and Spain at the time of my 1913 guidebook.
I've come to Abando Station to meet John Walton,
professor of social history at Ikerbasque,
The Basque Foundation of Science.
Bradshaw's talks about a lot of British residents here 100 years ago.
What were they connected with?
Above all, they were involved with the mining
and the ship building and the iron and steel manufacture.
But, right from the beginning, of course,
they were identified with the railways as well
and the first railway line from Bilbao to Tudela,
which came in to this very station in the late 1850s,
was engineered by a British firm.
This stained glass, I think, tells us a little bit
about the history of the place, doesn't it?
Oh, it certainly does. You have iron ore mines, you have the iron works,
you have farmers - the Basques were very big on their rural identity -
you have characteristic Basque buildings
and, of course, you have a representation of the port.
So this window really provides a terrific gateway to Bilbao.
Shall we go through and see more?
Like many post-industrial European ports,
Bilbao's docks have shrunk dramatically.
A regeneration programme has turned a large chunk
into a smart residential, commercial and cultural hub
but, at the time of my guidebook,
the riverside must have looked very different.
It was an absolute hive of activity. The port exported iron ore
to particularly South Wales and Lancashire.
But it also imported coal, particularly from Wales.
So there was a pretty balanced trade between Britain,
particularly Wales, and Bilbao?
It was a symbiotic relationship. They helped each other's economies.
And now we've come to, what...
really one of the most iconic structures of Bilbao.
Yes, this is the first transporter bridge in the world.
Opened in 1893.
Designed by a local engineer, Alberto De Palacio,
who's supposed to have been a disciple
of Gustave Eiffel, of the tower.
Alberto De Palacio's Puente Vizcaya is over 500 feet long
and has been copied in countries worldwide, including Britain.
With no need for long approach roads,
four towers, over 150 feet high, support a monorail,
from which a gondola is suspended, carrying goods and people
across the river, high above the shipping lanes...
Ooh, a superb view.
And now you get the feeling that the whole city
is kind of cradled by mountains on all sides.
What's happening up at this level?
Well, we're going along the maintenance walkway, originally.
But we're looking down on the gondola going to and fro.
How does Bilbao feel about its bridge?
It's iconic. It's central to their identity.
It symbolises their mastery of iron and steel
at the height of the first Industrial Revolution.
A British engineer designed an early railway line into Bilbao
but those transporter bridges that we have in Britain
were inspired by the Basque engineer
who designed this magnificent structure in Bilbao.
Bilbao has another iconic structure much admired by the outside world.
I can reach it on the city's modern and spacious Metro.
Canadian-American Architect Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum
transformed the image of this once grimy city.
They say that Frank Gehry's design for the Guggenheim Museum
is reminiscent of the bows of ships
and, indeed, it's built on the site of an old dock
and it's hard to believe that this used to be
a railway marshalling yard.
But one of the things I like about it
is that I find it impossible to describe the shape -
it is absolutely unique.
Do you like the building?
I like old, classical buildings, but it... Credit where credit's due.
-For me it's very, very, very surprising.
Would it surprise you to know that this used to be a dock?
-That this used to be railways?
I came here about 30 or 40 years ago, so it was all rusty.
-Very different today.
-Oh, very different.
Before completing my journey,
I'd like to hear about the Basque Country,
its people and what sets their culture apart
from the Spain with which I'm so familiar.
Born in Britain to Basque parents,
local guide David Elexgaray can enlighten me.
David, my Bradshaw's Guide, written 100 years ago,
talks about the Basque country,
"whose people are regarded as being upon a higher level of civilisation
"than the peasantry in other parts of Spain."
Now, you're a Basque - how do you feel about that?
We are a bit different to the rest.
I mean, we have our own language, Euskara,
which is probably one of the oldest - if not THE oldest -
living languages in Europe...
This book, 100 years ago, is hinting at a sort of Basque nationalism.
Was that starting in those days?
More or less 100 years ago. It would be at the end of the 19th century,
which is part of the movement that was already taking place in Europe.
The Basques briefly secured autonomy in 1936
at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
but, the following year, German and Italian planes
aided General Franco by bombing the Basque town of Guernica,
massacring civilians and causing widespread destruction.
Franco went on to ban the Basque language
and to suppress the people's identity.
In 1959, a revolutionary group known as ETA
began a violent separatist campaign for Basque independence.
Recent devolution has coincided with a permanent cease-fire.
And there's been a resurgence of spoken Basque.
Nowadays, we can see young people, even with piercings, tattoos,
but, on weekends, they dress up in traditional costumes,
do the traditional dances and play the traditional music.
Now, what other customs should I know about while I'm here?
Well, basically, do you enjoy your food?
I enjoy my food.
You've come to the right place. This is the mecca for food.
David has brought me to Zortziko, a restaurant serving Basque cuisine
under the watchful eye of Michelin-starred chef Daniel Garcia.
MICHAEL SPEAKS IN SPANISH
Daniel's going to show me how to prepare traditional Basque squid,
cooked in its own ink.
DANIEL SPEAKS IN SPANISH
He's saying that this is a very traditional dish
and that we have to show a lot of respect to it
because, as he cooks this dish,
he's thinking about all the ancestors who've cooked it before.
That is such a lovely thought. That's beautiful.
'Although not born a Basque, Daniel settled here as a young man
'and is now a celebrated Bilbaino.'
Now this is the interesting bit -
we're going to use the actual ink from the squid,
the ink that it has inside itself.
Que color mas intenso tiene.
It's an absolutely intense black.
Most extraordinary, gloopy stuff.
Mm. One word of warning -
this is not a dish to be eaten on a first date,
cos you end up with a...
-Ooh, that looks nice.
The final meal of my Basque adventure.
Inspired by thousands of years of history and passion
within a distinctive culture...
Not a 12-course Edwardian banquet, but certainly a dish fit for a king.
Hora la vamos a probar.
This is the moment of truth.
Mmm! Bueno! MICHAEL CHUCKLES
-It's so lovely and juicy, isn't it?
HE SPEAKS IN SPANISH
Here in the Basque Country, it's really typical,
once you'd have had a good meal and had a few wines, to start singing.
DAVID AND DANIEL SING
"An Englishman came to Bilbao to see the river and the sea,
"but, when he saw the beautiful girls of Bilbao,
"he didn't want to leave."
And, now I've had such a lovely meal, I don't want to leave either.
This has been a right royal journey.
King Edward VII, who stayed at Biarritz
and gave his name to the Edwardian era,
was known as the Uncle of Europe.
Within a few years of my Bradshaw's Guide,
one of his nephews, the Kaiser of Germany,
had fought a war against us and had abdicated.
Another of his nephews, the Russian Czar,
had been murdered by Russian revolutionaries.
One of Edward's nieces, Victoria Eugenie,
also known as Ena, married the Spanish King Alfonso XIII.
But he also, in due course, had to flee Spain
but, today, Ena's grandson, King Juan Carlos,
reigns here in Spain.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Following in the footsteps of early 20th-century British tourists, Michael Portillo sets off with his 1913 railway guide to sample the delights of the French and Spanish Atlantic coast.
Heading first to Bordeaux, he uncovers an historic British connection to the fine clarets of the region and marvels at the ingenuity of the city's trams. In Biarritz, he discovers how Britain's 'railway king' Edward VII made the region popular and how he amused himself in the fashionable resort.
Across the border in San Sebastian, Michael learns how dynastic diplomacy brought Britain and Spain closer together and rides a hair-raising scenic railway. Heading into the Spanish Basque country, in Bilbao, Michael explores the industrial ties between the two nations and learns to cook a traditional Basque dish.