Watching the first instalment of Michael Palin’s New Europe on BBC1 brought back memories of last summer for me. The palm-lined seafront of Split and the Roman colonnades of Diocletian’s palace, the minarets of the Sarajevo skyline and the reconstructed bridge at Mostar all conjured up images of my own Balkan adventure. The series started off promisingly with Palin perched on top of a mountain in Slovenia’s Julian Alps looking towards the horizon, symbolising the beginning of his journey into a transformed continent.
It was the usual Palin fare, the unique cocktail of travel documentary and quirky humour of the mild-mannered Englishman abroad adopting the “when in Rome” attitude by attempting to blend in with the natives and meeting all kinds of colourful characters along the way.
One of the more appealing aspects of Palin’s travels is that he’s never been afraid to try out new experiences, delve into local politics or venture off the beaten track.
In his Sahara series Palin stayed at a refugee camp inhabited by the stateless Saharawi people of the former Spanish colonies of the Western Sahara whose self-proclaimed people’s democratic republic in defiance of the Moroccan and Mauritanian authorities has never been recognised by the UN.
In Bosnia images of a bitter and bloody war are still fresh in people’s memories. Shots of Palin walking the lively streets of present day Sarajevo interspersed with film footage of civilians running for cover in those same streets amid constant gunfire and explosions during the three-year long siege of the city, “the longest siege in modern European history” just over a decade ago was highly effective. Similarly, a film of the Old Bridge in Mostar being blown up in 1993 juxtaposed with scenes of local divers jumping into the river from the rebuilt bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage site and tourists milling around in the sunshine. The glaring contrast between then and now was quite poignant.
We in the West to our shame have effectively become immune to news pictures of conflict and civil unrest in distant African or Asian countries, a regular feature of our news bulletins for decades, whether in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Vietnam or Sri Lanka.
What was particularly disturbing about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia was that such events could occur on our doorstep, in the so-called “civilised world” at the end of the 20th century. Scenes of half-starved prisoners of war behind barbed wire, and excavations of mass graves among other horrific sights were an almost daily feature of TV news headlines throughout the early 1990s, evoking memories of another European war fought 50 years earlier. The resilience of the people of Sarajevo cannot be understated.
Palin spoke to survivors of the Bosnia, including one man leading a landmine clearance operation in the countryside surrounding Sarajevo, who had planted many of the mines himself, mines which will take an estimated 70 years to clear.
The trouble with such travel documentaries is that they barely scratch the surface. Cramming Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Albania into an hour-long programme doesn’t do justice to the experience - although the book does go imto considerably more detail. Hours of film footage must have been pared down in post production and this was surely a frustrating task for the editors.
So what purpose does all this serve? What does travel actually achieve? Palin provides his personal view in his own inimitable style:
“I try not to go out with too many prejudices or come back with too many opinions. I'm frequently approached by people who want to know how travel has changed me and what great insights I might have had on dusty roads and in blazing sunsets. Now I no longer even try to make up an answer. Any journey away from the room you're sitting in will increase the potential for coming upon the unexpected and occasionally wonderful, but that's not to equate travel with ultimate enlightenment or universal solutions, any more than breathing will ensure you become president of the US. It helps, but that's about all. I've learned that what I like about travel is that it doesn't sort everything out. Actually, it doesn't sort anything out. Where there was certainty, it sows uncertainty, where there is conviction, it sows doubt, where there is comfort, it sows heat rash. It's just that being in unfamiliar surroundings watching unfamiliar activity is something I find, on the whole, deeply refreshing.”
How very true.