In Pictures: Intimate perspectives on Europe revealed in hypnotic new series

Europe From Above returns to National Geographic for a second season – bringing its marriage of dizzying perspectives and storytelling to some of the continent’s most iconic locations.

Published 7 Feb 2021, 21:15 GMT, Updated 8 Feb 2021, 10:38 GMT
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Greece: a dizzying view of the infamous Corinth Canal, which links the Ionian and Aegean seas – and where cruise ships, led by pilot tugs, negotiate a perilous strait with sometimes just 6 feet of clearance. 

Photograph by National Geographic Channel

SOME of the images take a moment to connect: A mosaic of tiny, intricate tiles on arid ground becomes hundreds – thousands – of artisan Turkish carpets, laid out to dry in the sun. Concentric stud marks in the landscape become elegantly swept bales of a harvested crop. Stacks of matchsticks are in fact felled trees; a seemingly industrial sprawl of scaffold and cranes takes shape into a huge archaeological restoration. Look close and in all, tiny figures move, going about their business as usual. It’s us, the viewers, that watch from a novel – and illuminating – vantage point: above.

It's to this privileged angle to which viewers will be returning to as the second series of Europe from Above returns to National Geographic on 14 February – and at a time when for many, armchair travel couldn't be more welcome. (Find out how to watch here.)

Breaking the formula

Aerial footage is no novelty, from the first images ever to show the curvature of the Earth – taken on a National Geographic-funded expedition in 1935, from a balloon – to today’s Instagram feeds of rollercoaster-like visuals of have-a-go drone cinematographers all over the world. 

(Want to visualise inequality? View cities from above.)

Things have come a long way, both in terms of technology, and aerial ambition. But however plentiful and pleasing the views, Europe from Above was never about getting the most awe-inspiring perspectives: at the heart of the six-part series with its wandering, meditative visual narrative, is storytelling. Some of these stories are familiar, and amongst the locations are many of Europe’s most charismatic, but all take a perspective never quite seen before. The result is an often hypnotic – and unexpectedly intimate – glimpse into a country, its people and culture.  

From considering as the curious arrangements of Sweden's ancient Ale Stones to examining the elevations of architectural feats ranging from colossal bridges to cathedrals, the peering camera spins a variety of tales – from all walks of life.      

Turkey: near Anatolia, as wheat farmers finish their harvest in late summer, an area the size of Monaco is covered with washed, trimmed carpets laid out to dry and sun-bleach to temper the more overbearing colours of the weave, and give each a unique colour. The area is known as the 'carpet fields'.  

Photograph by National Geographic Channel

Sweden: a tiny figure is seen berry picking from above in the subarctic region of Sweden.  

Photograph by National Geographic Channel

Hungary: high above the streets of Budapest, the roof of Matthias Church, with its intricate tiles, belies an artistry difficult to appreciate from ground level. 

Photograph by National Geographic Channel

“We needed strong stories that made sense to be told from above,” says Matt Taylor, Vice President of Factual Programming for National Geographic. “The more unusual the location the more interesting the story tended to be. Practices that have been in place for hundreds or even thousands of years, such as harvesting apricots in Turkey or herding reindeer in Finland look amazing from the air.”

Fragility and might

Each episode in the series focuses on a country – Turkey, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Hungary and France – examined across the year. Woven in amongst the changing backdrop are other stories of conservation, economically perilous trades, and the inescapable but striking changes imposed on the landscape through the seasons. 

“You don’t need to focus on key landmarks within a country to convey the story of a nation,” Taylor adds. “We didn't shy away from iconic locations, such as the Parthenon in Greece or the Paris skyline, but we had to be able to tell a unique tale.” 

Noteworthy are the many insights into both modern and traditional human operations in the landscape – both modest and seemingly frail, and rather less so. Notable examples of the latter are a fly-along view of the 5-mile Oresund Bridge linking Sweden and Denmark, and a birds-eye take on the construction of another, in Turkey – the Cannakale, which when complete, will join European and Asian Turkey. These megastructures contrast with the nerve-jangling spectacle of a 12,000 tonne raft of felled trees making its way downstream on a Finland river, and the building of a road across a frozen waterway to link an island of just 12 people to mainland Sweden.     

(A bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland: what would that be like?

A changing world below

As well as the challenges inherent in the seasons, the series did face its own set of very contemporary challenges. Filmed entirely through the coronavirus pandemic, the perspectives carry the poignancy of a looking down on a continent undergoing the greatest challenge of our time – not, according to Matt Taylor, that you would know it from the footage. “In a time where travel is severely restricted it’s wonderful to still be able to experience a country and get to know its culture through this lens.”    

Europe from Above starts 14 February at 8pm on the National Geographic Channel. Find out where to watch here

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