I recently bought both DVD box sets of "Travels in Europe," 1991-1999, and 2000-2003, plus the 2004-2005 supplement to the latter. I've always enjoyed this half-hour show when it aired on PBS, and the DVDs don't disappoint -- especially the 21st century series, which is of even higher technical quality than the 20th century set. All boast crystal-clear video, even though they are full-screen. Mr. Steves is an excellent presenter on camera -- friendly, low-key, sensible, informative -- quite a contrast to the smug self-importance and smarmy political correctness he brings to personal appearances, and to the multi-million dollar travel empire this show has spawned.
But as much as I enjoy the individual segments, after watching a bunch of the shows in a row, I now realize that Mr. Steves does look for the same sorts of experiences in every country: the little Bed & Breakfast; the neighborhood café, pub, or bakery; the antiseptically restored old city center; the castle; the museum; the street musicians. Not only does this make all European countries seem similar, like a chain of franchised "Olde World Theme Parks" modeled after Colonial Williamsburg (perhaps they are), it makes me wonder: is there also a real Europe out there somewhere, where real people live, work, commute, study, play soccer, and so on? I suppose there must be. Maybe it just isn't very telegenic. Every once in a while Mr. Steves does show a few seconds of mundane life -- ticket lines, airports, college dorms, subways, slums, traffic jams, suburbs -- then it's back to "The Best of Europe."
In part I had bought these "Travels in Europe" DVDs as sort of an antidote to romantic cinematic views of modern Europe, such as "Amelie" and "Notting Hill" (which are both excellent movies). Yet these "Travels" segments in fact reinforce that romantic view, so I suppose the real antidote might better be found in European slice-of-life fiction films, shot on location.
One does see hints of the real Europe (or at least a slightly more real Europe) in some fictional films. Recent ones I've liked include "Mostly Martha," set in Hamburg, with a brief freeway side trip to Italy; "Bread and Tulips," which offers a vivid contrast between romantic Venice and modern suburban Italy; "Besieged," set in a dreary corner of Rome; "The Spanish Apartment," mainly set in bustling Barcelona, with hilarious bookend segments inside the French bureaucracy; "The Legend of Rita," with its poignant view of East Germany during and after reunification; "The Bourne Identity," much of it filmed on the streets of Paris; Tavernier's "L.627," with its gritty view of Parisian slums; and "Wonderland," with its bleak view of contemporary London.
Of course I mainly bought these "Travels in Europe" DVDs, and several other travel documentaries, as an alternative to actually going to Europe. They offer all the high points neatly packaged, with none of the dreariness, weariness, and dyspepsia. Eternal sunshine for the spotless minded traveler, or what the photographer Jeanloup Sieff called "Imaginary Memories." This aspect does work just fine, and all for less than the price of one sleepless night in a Paris hotel.
If IMDb let us rate TV series, I would give "Travels in Europe" a 9 out of 10.
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