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Michael Portillo discovers the unknown alternative to Prague – and takes a mud bath in a Soviet-era spa



Not many bars require you to shout a patriotic slogan to gain entry and swear not to be a Muscovite or Communist to get a shot of vodka. But Michael Portillo found such a place in Lviv, Ukraine, on his latest railway adventure.

The hole-in-the-wall bar, Kryivka, celebrates the Ukrainian insurgent army who fought against the Nazis and Soviets and is one of the many enlightening observations in the sixth series of Great Continental Railway Journeys, which starts on Thursday night. 

This potent Ukrainian nationalism remains an abiding memory for Portillo. He said: “It’s an extraordinarily diverse country, but nonetheless I detected a strong sense of nationhood. Of the three cities I visited, Kiev is at the heart of the Russian Orthodox church, Lviv was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and looked like Prague and the third city Odessa was built by a Russian empress [Catherine the Great] who was actually a German and used a French architect.

A Russian Orthodox church in LvivCredit:GETTY

“They could scarcely be more different, yet this sense of nationalism links all the parts of a country that is the second largest in Europe.”

The former Cabinet minister, once again clutching his trusty 1913 edition of Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide, also came to appreciate why the Russians deem the region so important.

“Kiev is the Jerusalem of the Russian Orthodox church and absolutely fundamental and sensitive to Russia and you soon understand why,” he said. “It was sobering to realise that when the Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was the first time it had ever been so and why the Russians therefore regard the situation as anomalous.”

The episode sees Portillo wearing Ukrainian colours (bright blue jacket and yellow trousers) – “I tend to try and wear the national colours on the first day”, he jokes – and encountering ornate train stations, both overground and underground some complete with chandeliers, delving into a caves of a monastery housing the naturally preserved bodies of medieval saints and gets manhandled by a spa attendant after an invigorating mud bath.

Inside the bizarre world of Soviet sanatoriums

He is also recalls the juxtaposition of old and strikingly modern architecture in Kiev, “something we have become very nervous about in Britain.”

The two-part series concludes next week with Portillo travelling by rail across Georgia and Azerbaijan. In the former he finds a “fiercely Christian enclave in an area where most places are part of Islam. Here the spirit of St George lives.” It’s a country too with enthralling cities such as Batumi and Kutaisi that are perhaps “under our radar”. But maybe that will change, he says, with easier access to the country, “I wouldn’t  be surprised if impressions [of Georgia] change. There is great hospitality, wine is something of a national obsession and there’s nothing too challenging” with everything from high culture to hiking in the Caucasus. 

Top 5 | Things you didn't know about Georgia

As ever Portillo’s leisurely but informative style works well and after this two-parter, he will return later in the spring with Great Indian Railway Journeys.

Portillo with his trusty copy of Bradshaw’s Continental Railway GuideCredit:Daniela Vagt

The first part of Great Continental Railway Journeys is on Thursday on BBC Two, 8.00pm.

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