FFor some, a return to travel after the pandemic meant booking a villa in France or embarking on an all-inclusive package on the Costa del Sol. Not one to follow the crowd, Michael Palin went to Iraq.
The old Monty Python the star has been pushing boundaries since his 1989 landmark adventure series Around the world in 80 days. Later programs took him from pole to pole; towards the Sahara and the Himalayas. The Palin Effect has prompted a surge in holiday bookings to destinations including Peru, Nepal and Eastern Europe after episodes of her TV series sparked wanderlust in viewers.
You might think the same is unlikely to happen on the back of her latest series, but with Palin, you can never be entirely sure. For In Iraq it travels the Tigris, from Lake Hazar in Turkey to Basra, in southern Iraq; from the mountains to the sea through dozens of military checkpoints, covering 1,000 miles in three weeks. It stops in the cities of Mosul and Erbil as well as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, Tikrit, and the green zone of Baghdad. He visits oil fields that are usually off-limits to the public and climbs into the 9th-century Malwiya Mosque in Samarra, once the largest of its kind.
The Newroz Festival
ISMAEL ADNAN/SOPA IMAGES/ZUMA/ALAMY
Palin admits to being fascinated by the country since receiving a children’s version of Arabian nights. The purpose of the TV series? To show Iraq beyond the headlines – a country that 5,000 years ago was the cradle of civilization, and now looks to the future after decades of war and destruction.
A grand mission statement, perhaps, but the most emotional scenes in the three-part series come from unscripted moments. There’s a punch in Mosul’s near-empty Old City as Palin strolls through streets where houses once stood. As he talks about the 10,000 people who died in attacks to purge the city of Islamic State five years ago, he encounters children playing with a catapult in the rubble. After joining their game, he asks them if they remember the fights. They nod.
“F*** me – sorry, I didn’t mean that, but it’s hard; you can see the devastation,” he says to the camera, his voice cracking. Then, without hesitation and with a broad smile , he said, “Anyway, I need to be a little more cheerful. Let’s find a fun place.”
Palin is used to seeing the bright side of life. Was he ever afraid? “You don’t go into these things expecting to be scared and fearful,” he says. “I go there expecting to be absolutely fine.” The only downside, he said, was not being able to leave his hotel at night to have a drink at the neighborhood bar and talk to the people there.
The old town of Akre
ISMAEL ADNAN/SOPA IMAGES/ALAMY
However, his “relentless optimism” as he calls it, took a beating. He visits areas where Isis is still active, as well as the site of the Camp Speicher massacre in 2014, the second deadliest terrorist attack in history, in which 1,500 Iraqi cadets were killed by Isis. In Baghdad, he remembers walking into a hotel room only to wake up the next morning to find a bullet hole in the window.
It’s not all war-torn scenes, though. Palin is kitted out for a £1,000 business suit in Erbil and finds Kurdish culture thriving in Akre for the Newroz festival, involving flaming torches and fireworks – glimmers of hope emerging from a country ravaged by war.
By visiting the oil reserves of Kirkuk, he shines a light on the institutionalized government corruption that leaves a huge wealth disparity in Iraq. He reflects on what the recent rise in the price of oil means for the 40 million people who live in the country. “Oil money in other Gulf states has made cities like Dubai and Qatar like Manhattan,” he says. “It just didn’t happen in Iraq, and it’s frustrating to watch. This [money] must somehow be filtered into education and make a better society.
The spiral minaret of Malwiya Mosque
ISMAEL ADNAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The series also presents the landscapes beyond the main cities. Gorgeous biscuit-colored mountains with hilltop towns to the north give way to great plains to the south and, of course, huge expanses of desert. The country is suffering from a severe drought and Palin meets farmers who consider water to be the most valuable commodity in Iraq.
By Palin’s own admission, he “gets on a bit”, needing a doctor’s note to travel after having open-heart surgery in 2019 and now 79. You won’t notice it. In another extraordinary scene in the series, he wobbles the 52m-tall spiral minaret of the Malwiya Mosque; on one side a handrail, on the other a vertical drop.
Palin says his wife, Helen, is generally supportive of his far-flung travels, but for his trip to Iraq, as well as his previous trip to North Korea, his family was “a bit nervous – because of the countries reputation. I feel extremely privileged and grateful to be able to travel as much as I have traveled in the past 35 years,” he adds, “but at some point you have to be careful what you do next.
That point might not be in the near future, though – he jokes about finding another dangerous place to “go and try to survive”.
It doesn’t look like it will take him long to be convinced. His doctor, on the other hand. . .
Michael Palin: Into Iraq begins Tuesday, September 20 at 9 p.m. on Channel 5. The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Iraq
Binsar in the Indian Himalayas
Three Intrepid Palin-Inspired Tours
1. Himalayan foothills
Forget trekking to the touristy and expensive Everest base camp (as Michael Palin did for the wildly popular 2004 documentary series Himalayas) and instead discover the Indian Himalayas with stays in four villages in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, once the capital of the Chand dynasty. You’ll get breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks as you walk through valleys, foothills and jungle, encountering temples and an array of tropical birds, and maybe even a leopard.
Details Eleven nights room-only from £998 pp including transfers and some meals (villageways.com). Fly to Delhi
2. Peru for the first time
Palin’s 1997 series full circle, which took him to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, put Machu Picchu on the map. On this trip to the places he visited, you’ll have the chance to spend the night in the ancient Inca city and see it like few others do. Other highlights include lunch at Lake Titicaca and a guided tour of Cusco.
Details Nine nights B&B from £2,595 pp including flights, transfers and some additional meals (coxandkings.co.uk)
Goreme National Park, Cappadocia
3. Captivating Cappadocia
Palin visited the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia in her 2007 New Europe documentary, causing a boom in internet searches for trips to central Turkey. Departing from Istanbul, you’ll see the key sites of old Constantinople before embarking on a short flight to Cappadocia, where you’ll explore cave houses and frescoes in 10th-century churches carved into the mountains. End the trip at Bodrum Beach.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £4,500 pp, including flights, excursions and some extra meals (scottdunn.com)