It’s no wonder Michael Palin has been named as a national treasure – he is equally loved for his acting in such classics as comedy TV show Monty Python, and for his fascinating travelogues from all over the globe, from the Poles to the Sahara.
His latest adventures, in eastern Europe, were screened on TV to much acclaim, and with the release of New Europe, Michael came to Stanfords to tell us more about his thrilling travels…
About New Europe
Which was the favourite place you visited on this trip?
It’s really difficult – being asked any favourite place you immediately miss one of the others, and you think, “Oh yeh, I’ve forgotten that…” and there are favourites for different reasons. Romania I think – in terms of stumbling across undiscovered gorgeous scenery – was the winner. Northern Romania, by the Ukrainian border, the Carpathians, and also further south in Transylvania – very, very beautiful. But then so was Bulgaria – the Rhodope Mountains, and the Rila Mountains – very, very beautiful.
In terms of cities, I suppose – although we didn’t show a lot in the series – some of the Polish cities like Krakow, which was a great city, and Budapest too, so they would be two of my favourite cities.
But an undiscovered little country is definitely Moldova, tucked away there, not much going for it, two parts of it already split (seceded), and yet it has certain charm to it. The capital is rather leafy and pleasant, nice little avenues. And the people there are strongly determined to make their way and things aren’t going particularly well for them – it’s the poorest country in Europe. But there was a definite feeling that people cared about the place, and I found it a really, really lovely place to be.
And which place do you predict might really take off as a hot travel destination in the next few years?
A lot of places we went to are already getting quite popular, like Tallinn and Riga. I think Gdansk in Poland, which is near to the Baltic States and is a very fine city with a lot of history around it; I think that could become very popular. I think and I hope that some of the mountain areas such as the Carpathians could become a big destination and the cities of east Germany like Dresden and Leipzig. Leipzig had a lot going for it. It’s less pretty than Dresden; it’s a very good strong working city.
And my final tip would be Sarajevo in Bosnia. People are going to find when they go there that’s it’s got a lot of drama, just associated with the recent history. That the city there isn’t all smartened up in the traditional fashion and it’s a really bruised and battered city but with a great deal of spirit to it, good working city. So Sarajevo for the more curious and enterprising traveller!
What was the funniest experience you had?
Well I guess things that were completely unexpected like interviewing the belly dancers in Turkey and then being auditioned for belly dancing, and driving a tank on the Polish-German border. Both things which are funny to others, not to me particularly – it was rather humiliating – but looking back on them they look very funny.
And people are generally good at laughing – we had some nice rather brandy-fuelled occasions with some of the people – especially in northern Romania, we had a party there and they can’t drink without music, they can’t have music without a drink, and they can’t drink and have music without some laughter and some ribbing of the foreigners and all that! So there was a rather jolly time up in the village in northern Romania – Ieud – yes, a lot of laughter there.
And the most annoying?
Well it was probably the same – I was annoyed I couldn’t drive the tank more easily!
There wasn’t really a great deal of annoyance because we were able to see an awful lot of Eastern Europe, and given access fairly freely, so there wasn’t really a great deal of frustration in it. There were times when the mood was fairly dark – going to Auschwitz, and talking to the lady in Prague – Lisa Mikova – who was the concentration camp survivor – when you really realise the awful history of Europe over the last hundred years – the depths of brutality, cruelty to which people can sink. That wasn’t annoying, that was shattering to hear that that went on.
I suppose sometimes I was quite dispirited to hear people talk about how their city centres got trashed at weekends by British stag parties or hen parties. I thought that was a bit of a shame because these are beautiful cities and put under a lot of pressure by people who didn’t really care where they were so long as they were having a good party.
But on the whole, it wasn’t really a frustrating journey. It was revealing more than anything else – everywhere I went I was seeing things I didn’t expect.
Who was the most fascinating person you met or interviewed?
I suppose Lech Walesa would be, in terms of his role in history, the Polish president – the man who changed the course of history of Europe in the 1980s with the solidarity strikes – it was great privilege really to meet him. He was a little bit formal though, I felt, and he didn’t speak any English, or appeared not to speak any English. But when he relaxed – I asked him a question about his daughter being on ‘Celebrity Come Dancing’ – and suddenly he relaxed. I think then we saw the real guy who’s just been a working man, working in the shipyards, had a great deal of ability to relate to all his fellow workers, wasn’t particularly comfortable being…well he enjoyed being the statesman but the real man I think was someone who was a man of the people and when we got that…that was pretty interesting.
I met a German anthropologist in Turkey who showed me round Cappadocia with those extraordinary geographical, geological formations, these towers they lived in of volcanic rock that had solidified and he was a fascinating guide to that area. There was any number of people who helped us on our way.
How did these travels compare to your others, such as Himalaya or Sahara?
They were a little more cerebral – more about people, many more people, along the route, unlike Himalaya or Sahara where you could go for days without seeing anybody. In Europe there’s always someone to meet, to talk to. Twenty countries, which are more than Himalaya and Sahara put together, so you had to get your brain around a lot of different histories, languages, currencies, hopes, expectations…
Also I think that the fact it’s much closer to home, you kept feeling your own history of the last 50, 100 years, is very closely interwoven with the history of all Europe. Going to Eastern Europe is a bit like meeting a branch of the family that you knew existed but no-one had been able to meet for years. It’s the kind of uniting of one side of Europe with the other.
So these travels were less escapist, but more down to earth, with the real problems that face our continent. And stimulating – I like meeting people – they are really the raw material for these series. So that was the difference. Some of the landscapes were as striking – the Carpathians, the Danube Delta, the Curonian Spit (the great sandbar that runs south of the Baltics) – extraordinary places, the like of which I have never seen anywhere else. But I would say it was people rather than landscape that were the main attraction on this one.
A question from a member of Stanfords’ staff who is a budding film-maker: With all this travelling, do you harbour any desire to act again?
It’s always there in the back of my mind, and if a good script and a group of good people to work with could be put together, I guess I might think of doing it. I rather went off films because it became quite unwieldy if you were part of 60, 70 people working on it. Even when you’d finished your film, however good it might be, you were really dependent on distributors to screen it, and very often they completely let you down.
Whereas doing these travel programmes, you work with about six or seven people and we make most of the decisions for each programme and we know the BBC will show them, so that’s why I have sort of steered away from films and did more of this. But I never say never!
What career might you have followed otherwise? [Michael studied Modern History at Oxford].
Oh I don’t know, my parents were just keen that I should do something for the future. They knew I liked writing. I tried to get a job at the BBC, in administration there and that didn’t work out. So probably I might have ended up in advertising, something like that, possibly journalism.
Do you still really enjoy travelling or does it feel like work?
It is work, but I enjoy it. It’s very, very nice work to do. And there are times when I do feel desperately tired and inadequate to the task, because you set yourself up, it’s a big thing to do – to bring back an entire series – in this case seven hours of television, on which you will be judged in a pretty sort of harsh world now. So it’s hard work, but that’s part of it – I quite like being extended.
I quite like having to do something that’s difficult, it’s good for the brain, it keeps you reading things, taking things in, noticing things and also it’s reasonably good for you physically – you have to keep reasonably fit to do this sort of stuff. So I do enjoy it and I would never take on a series if I had any doubts at all.
Do you go on ‘normal’ holidays with your family? What sort of trips?
Yes I do. All my three children are now grown up – they’re in their 30s, so they do their own thing – but my wife and I go on holidays. We go down to France where my sister-in-law has a house in the Lot Valley and that’s very nice and quiet and we all muck in and help look after the place and cut the grass and all that sort of stuff – that’s good fun.
Or else we might go for four or five days to a city in Europe like Barcelona, or to Marrakesh. This year we went to one of the Italian Lakes. Somewhere reasonably quiet where we can wander around – we don’t look for a lot more than that. It’s quite nice to have a number of short holidays rather than one long holiday away. I can’t remember when last had a really long, in the hot sun holiday. I feel like I’d quite like it at the moment actually – lying by some hotel pool for a week doing absolutely bugger-all, it seems rather tempting at the moment!
And what’s your ideal sort of holiday – cities, countryside…?
I quite like walking so I wouldn’t mind a holiday somewhere where the weather was reasonably temperate and cool that I could do some walking about – Scotland is particularly good for that. My wife doesn’t like walking too much, so if I’m going with her, we tend to go somewhere warm for a start, we do like the sunshine.
We like somewhere where you can find things to do – it’s nice to have two or three days just sitting doing nothing and reading but I do want to get out and have a look at places. So somewhere like Marrakesh in Morocco is great because we stay in a hotel just outside of Marrakesh, with scenery all around you, but then you can go into the city that’s busy and has lots of life, and that is ideal for the two of us. I like somewhere that’s alive. I like art galleries too – I like somewhere where there’s a good station and a good art gallery.
But I could equally well go off to somewhere like Oman and hang around for a week. It’s very much who you’re with, what your mood is, what you’ve got to do, if you want to read or write. I do find cities quite stimulating.
What do you never travel without?
I never travel without my notebook – I always, always take my little black Alwych notebook. And pens. And a map of wherever I’m going. And a torch. And I used to take a Swiss Army Knife, but I’ve had so many confiscated at the airport – the war on terror has reduced my number of Swiss Army knives. And a book to read, either a good guidebook or a novel, written by someone in the country I’m going to – I find it’s quite good to feel you’re getting a voice of people who live there. And that’s about it really.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever slept?
The South Pole – it has to be. We were at the base of the South Pole administered by the Americans, which is under the ground – it’s all dug in beneath the snow – and there they have controlled temperature, they have showers, heaters, movies, cinemas, music, all under the South Pole.
We got to the South Pole and we were not allowed to sleep there because it’s contravening international convention – only scientists could stay there – if you’re just a sort of tourist at the South Pole, you’ve got to look after yourself.
We were allowed to go and have a shower, thanks to some very nice Americans – under the South Pole – then we had to go out and sleep, in minus 50 degrees, in a tent. There were about six of us and I was the last person to get in the tent so I was across the door. There was one older man who must’ve been about 80 – probably as old as you can fly out to the Pole – he did have to get up rather often in the night and he had a heavy boot, so I kept getting this boot in my neck three or four times a night. I had to keep saying to myself, “I’m at the South Pole, this is exciting, this is where Scott and Hamilton came, Scott gave his life to get here…remember where you are!”
So I think that was a pretty amazing experience – utter misery, but at the same time an inspirational place to be. And at the same time knowing that underneath were people listening to music and taking baths and showers and eating blueberry pie! All very weird.
Do you bring back souvenirs from your travels?
Occasionally I bring back things. I don’t bring back a lot because I like to travel to light. I’m very aware that a lot of places I’ve been that a lot of their treasures have been sold off and I think they should stay with the people. I’ve been offered things every now and then which are rather wonderful, but I just think they’re better off with the people there …my house is cluttered enough anyway. However, I do have some wonderfully decorated boots from south Yunnan in China that somebody gave me and they were just too good to miss so I brought those back.
Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’d really like to?
Oh yes, yes – there are heaps of places. I haven’t really been to anywhere in the Middle East. I’d love to go to Syria; I’d love to go to Iran. I’d very much like to go up to southern Russia – the Caucasus there, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Brazil, Argentina, I’d love to go there. Yeh, there’s an awful lot of the Earth I haven’t covered. Some parts of the Earth I covered so fast that I’d like to go back and take a bit more time.
What – or where – is next?
At the moment, no plans. I’m going to Ireland at the weekend and then I’m going to Holland the weekend after that – both to talk about ‘New Europe’ and sign copies of the book and all that.
And I shall, over the next two or three months, just begin to think what to do next. I’m very happy to be at home now for a while. Eighteen months it takes – minimum – to get a series like this done from the filming to the actual writing of the book, then writing the commentary , then the editing of the film, and then the publicity, which goes on for three or four months. And until you’ve been right through that process, you can’t really have any clear idea what you want to do next – you just want to stop and to be at home and potter around London and enjoy living here and then an idea will come.
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Author: Rachel Ricks