“How about taking the night train to Lisbon?” Rich said last week, as we were mapping out an upcoming trip to Portugal.
“Didn’t they make a movie about that?” I asked. They did, and we watched it as part of our trip research, hoping to see what kind of accommodations and scenery we could expect. Imagine our disappointment when all we saw was Jeremy Irons' back as he climbs aboard the train in drizzly Switzerland and then — cut! — he’s standing on a street corner in sunny Lisbon.
“We were robbed,” I said to Rich.
Later there was a flashback that showed him on the train, sitting up all night in an ordinary, modern railway car; not particularly inspiring. But by then I'd become caught up in the story, and the movie soon became added to my list of top ten favorite travel films.
1. Night Train to Lisbon (Portugal)
Jeremy Irons plays a Swiss professor of ancient languages who follows the trail of a mysterious woman and uncovers the truth about the turbulent lives, loves, and betrayals of young resistance fighters during Salazar’s dictatorship.
2. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (India)
British pensioners (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and others) on tight budgets retire to the gorgeously chaotic state of Rajasthan, India, living at a dilapidated hotel run by an energetic but overwhelmed young man played by Dev Petel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame).
3. Before Sunset (France)
Not every conversation in the streets and cafés of Paris is sizzling with this kind of intellectual debate and sexual tension, but the setting manages to heighten the excitement of the encounter of lovers parted for nine years.
4. The Hobbit (New Zealand)
OK, I realize Middle Earth is a fictional place, but the New Zealand scenery in this series of films is seriously breathtaking.
5. Sideways (California)
You’ll learn more about wine than you ever wanted to know and will hesitate before ordering Merlot in public ever again. But you'll also thirst for the opportunity to go wine tasting in California.
6. Dr. Zhivago (Russia and Spain. Yes, Spain.)
Winner of six Academy Awards, this film classic will make you long to visit Russia — but preferably not in wartime. Or winter. The Soviets banned the book and refused to let in film crews, so most of the movie was actually shot in Spain.
7. Babel (Morocco, Japan, Mexico, USA)
A complicated plot involving four families in different parts of the world makes this film a little dizzying to watch, but the drama is riveting and the settings spectacular. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, it won Best Picture in the Golden Globes. And yes, that's a rather scruffy Brad Pitt on the phone...
8. Volver (Spain)
Penelope Cruz, the first Spaniard nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, gives a sizzling yet comedic performance as a mother who will go to any lengths to protect her daughter while coping with her own mother, who comes back from the dead.
9. The Motorcycle Diaries (Argentina to Peru)
Two young guys seek fun and adventure on a road trip through Latin America. One of them, med student Che Guevara, is so shocked by the poverty, hunger and disease he sees that he makes sweeping changes in his own life and the region's history.
10. Chef (LA, Miami, Austin, New Orleans)
The real star of this movie is the Cuban sandwich, lovingly prepared by a disgraced master chef who goes back to his roots, driving a food truck from Miami through the South to LA. You'll drool all through the film then insist on going out for Cuban food, if not actually to Cuba.
These and many other films have influenced my journeys over the years. What are your favorite travel movies? What impact did they have on your life and your imagination?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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