EAST­ERN EUROPE ON THE NO-FUSS BUS

Les­ley Stones does her own Grand Tour on a hop-on, hop-off bus with a dif­fer­ence

Sunday Times - - Fashion News - Stones was a guest of Bus­about ● L S.

‘Hey Google, which is the nicer city, Vi­enna or Bu­dapest?” What a cul­tural in­sult of a ques­tion, con­dens­ing cen­turies of his­tory, art, em­pires and ar­chi­tec­ture into a shal­low beauty con­test. Google didn’t care. It ex­cels in an­swer­ing daft ques­tions, and of­fered me 112 000 so­lu­tions. I was piec­ing to­gether a grand tour of East­ern Europe, and try­ing to de­cide how much time to spend in ev­ery city was al­ready stok­ing the ex­cite­ment.

Cen­turies ago, the English aris­toc­racy would em­bark on a Grand Tour of the con­ti­nent to hone their ed­u­ca­tion, rev­el­ling in fine art, sub­lime mu­sic, ex­otic food and for­eign lan­guages by day, and drink­ing, gam­bling and per­haps even fall­ing in love.

Now travel op­er­a­tor Bus­about is in­tro­duc­ing new gen­er­a­tions to the de­lights of swan­ning through ele­gant Euro­pean cities, and you don’t need pock­ets stuffed with gold to af­ford it.

A fleet of hop-on, hop-off coaches runs on var­i­ous in­ter­con­nect­ing loops through­out Europe, so you can hop on in Prague, hop off in Mu­nich. Or climb on in Paris and aim for Barcelona, Madrid, then Lis­bon. A bus swings by ev­ery two days so you can stay as long as you like in each city, and change plans mid­stream if Google can’t tell you how long to de­vote to Porto or Za­greb.

MAKE FRIENDS EN ROUTE

If your feet aren’t itch­ing al­ready, how about this: the bus drops you off at a rec­om­mended hos­tel right in the city cen­tre, and the young guide on board tells you about the city, of­fers dis­counted sight­see­ing ex­cur­sions, and or­gan­ises a com­mu­nal sup­per if you don’t want to dine alone that night.

It makes get­ting around Europe sim­ple and safe, with the chance of mak­ing friends en route.

Fast for­ward to Prague, where I re­turn to my hos­tel af­ter a day of ex­plor­ing and see a driver care­fully wash­ing his jazz­ily painted bright-blue bus out­side. I fizz with re­lief and an­tic­i­pa­tion, be­cause I’m join­ing Bus­about in the morn­ing for the first time, and I’m chuffed to know it ac­tu­ally ex­ists.

A TRUE BEAUTY CON­TEST

My East­ern Europe ad­ven­ture was re­ally a beauty con­test for build­ings, tak­ing me to unimag­in­ably glo­ri­ous cities — Ceský Krumlov, Salzburg, Vi­enna, Cra­cow and Bu­dapest — that bris­tle with be­witch­ing cas­tles, an­cient cob­bled streets, tow­er­ing churches and beau­ti­ful old squares.

Seven days in too-touristy Prague was a touch too much, but it gave me time for a day-trip to Terezin, an ele­gant town that the Nazis turned into a hor­rific con­cen­tra­tion camp. The theme of death con­tin­ued at

Sedlec Os­suary in Kutná Hora, where monks dec­o­rated a small church with the skele­tons of 40 000 peo­ple. There’s an un­set­tling fas­ci­na­tion in gaz­ing at jaunty chan­de­liers strung to­gether from skulls and fe­murs.

Some days, with no def­i­nite plans and an un­known city to ex­plore, I felt a heady free­dom, pop­ping into a ran­dom mu­seum and eat­ing in cafés that wafted me in with tempt­ing, for­eign odours.

Each city boasts a bril­liant trans­port sys­tem, with buses, trams and un­der­ground trains all linked to one ticket. My best buy was al­ways a multi-day pass, so I could ex­plore end­lessly and not worry if a tram di­verted in an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion, be­cause I could just get off, cross the road, and catch one back again. Get­ting lost is al­ways the best way of find­ing some­thing new.

But these are cities of sor­row too, scarred by the bombs of World War 2 and Holo­caust hor­rors un­der Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion. Cra­cow in Poland is where the dark gloom of his­tory feels most se­vere, be­cause the Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp is eas­ily reach­able from here. I booked my ex­cur­sion through the Bus­about guide, who summed up WW2 in 10 min­utes, but urged ev­ery­one to ex­pe­ri­ence this piece of his­tory we should never for­get.

It wasn’t how the care­free young­sters check­ing into Cra­cow’s Lit­tle Ha­vana Party Hos­tel ex­pected to spend their time, but we all came away shell-shocked by the vast scale and pre­med­i­tated in­tent of the Nazis’ big­gest death fac­tory. The weather in Cra­cow was suit­ably bleak, but it was sum­mer so at least it wasn’t the mi­nus 16°C that a Syr­ian ke­bab­shop owner told me he en­dured ev­ery win­ter.

Salzburg is far cheerier, where the rec­om­mended YoHo Hos­tel shows The Sound of Mu­sic at 8pm ev­ery evening with alarm­ing punc­tu­al­ity. It’s funny to watch mil­len­ni­als wan­der in and cast a dis­parag­ing glance at the screen, then still be sit­ting there mes­merised when Captain Von Trapp and Maria lead the kids over the same moun­tains that they saw that very morn­ing.

The next stop was Grü­nau, where a few of us dis­em­barked for some down­time in the Aus­trian Alps. Here there’s no mad frenzy to tick all the sight­see­ing boxes. Just coun­try lanes to wan­der, a vil­lage to ad­mire, and a bus or bike ride to the lake, Alm­see.

In the evenings, The Tree­house hos­tel owner Ger­hard Bam­mer cooks hearty din­ners, and ev­ery­one falls into bed early, ex­hausted by do­ing noth­ing in the coun­try air.

Vi­enna left my jaw hang­ing open in as­ton­ish­ment. Each street lures you in with or­nate ed­i­fices, open­ing onto whole squares of out­landish ex­trav­a­ganza.

You can ex­plore the grounds of the Belvedere and Schön­brunn palaces for free, and marvel at the deca­dence of the Hab­s­burg emperors, who needed dif­fer­ent palaces for dif­fer­ent sea­sons.

Vi­enna’s House of Mu­sic baf­fled me with ex­hi­bi­tions show­ing how the ear turns sound waves into au­dio. I stood in front of an in­ter­ac­tive video of the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra and tried to con­duct the Can-Can .I did a pass­able job, but the next guy got heck­led by the or­ches­tra for mess­ing up the Radet­zky March. That was such fun that the next vir­tual con­duc­tor waved the ba­ton in ridicu­lous swirls just to see what other pre­re­corded in­sults the or­ches­tra would yell at him.

While Vi­enna waltzes off with the prize for ar­chi­tec­tural over­load, it was Bu­dapest that won me over with its stun­ning sights but less pris­tine, grit­tier vibe.

It’s more af­ford­able too, with Hun­gary, Poland and the Czech Repub­lic all bud­get­friendly for rand-tot­ing trav­ellers. I chugged up and down the Danube on the pub­lic boat­bus, wal­lowed in Turk­ish baths three times, ate pa­prika-tinged ev­ery­thing, went to the theatre and watched a band play for free by the river.

A bike tour through the once sep­a­rate cen­tres of Buda and Pest left me laugh­ing with ex­hil­a­ra­tion. I could have spent longer than six nights there. I must tell Google.

Pic­tures: Les­ley Stones

ONE STOP Ceský Krumlov in the Czech Repub­lic is worth a look.

GO YOUR OWN WAY The writer on a bike ride through Bu­dapest.

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