Here’s the problem – you’re itching to go adventuring, but your friends don’t have the time, the money or the desire to join you. You could find new friends or travel alone, but neither solution sounds appealing. So how about this genius third idea – book a trip on Busabout, where you can start out on your own then quickly make friends along the way.
Busabout is a brilliant hop-on, hop-off bus service covering 38 destinations in Europe from Amsterdam to Zakopane. Its colourful buses wend their way through 14 countries, taking in heavy hitters like Paris, Florence and Barcelona, and
A bus swings by every two days so you can stay as long as you like in each, and change plans midstream if you want to stay longer or bail out sooner.
Deciding which cities to cover is half the fun, and I spent hours on Google trying to figure out if Vienna was nicer than Prague, how long to spend in Salzburg, and whether Budapest was really worth a week. (Yes, Vienna is worth longer than Prague, two days pretty much wraps up Salzburg, and spend every minute you can in Budapest!)
Focusing on one region is a smart decision, otherwise you can spread your time too thinly and spend more hours travelling than enjoying the atmosphere, food and culture in each destination.
To make it even easier, the bus drops you at a recommended hostel in the centre of the action, and since lots of other travellers will be staying there too, friendships can form quickly.
If you’re sociable you can plan a get-together with other passengers, or be a hermit and gaze out of the window, bury yourself in a book, or buy some onboard wi-fi for your smartphone.
The guide on board tells you about each place as you arrive, and organises a communal supper if you don’t want to dine alone that night. They also sell discounted sightseeing tours, so you can save money while booking a trip with new-found friends.
Prague is stunning, but there are only so many levitating mime artists or gold-painted buskers you can tolerate before you crave something less touristy. And it’s so crowded now that the chance of meeting a genuine Czech diminishes every year as the residents are overrun by visitors.
I’d memorised enough of the tongue-twisting language to say good afternoon at my hostel and introduce myself, but the receptionist gave me a bored look and said “’ave you got a reservashun?” in a scummy English accent.
Still, the abundance of English makes it simple to get around, and I was soon catching buses, trams and underground trains to all the attractions.
Being there a week also gave me time to do some fascinating day trips.
First to Terezin, an elegant walled town that the Nazis turned into a horrific concentration camp. Then to Sedlec Ossuaryin Kutná Hora, where monks have artistically decorated a small church with the skeletons of 40,000 people.
Both are sobering experiences, but in between I felt a heady freedom from having no particular plans, popping into random museums and eating ice cream by the river.
On the seventh morning I was excited to see a bright blue bus parked outside the hostel. I joined a gaggle of people half my age and waited for the guide to ask my name and check my passport. A few minutes later we set off for Cesky Krumlov, in pocket-sized Prague that I would have overlooked if it hadn’t been an option on the bus circuit.
Only a few of us jumped off there, and I was soon alone as the others checked into the recommended hostel. I’d booked a room above a restaurant deep inside the ancient town, and feared the wheels of my suitcase would rattle right off as I bounced it down cobbled streets under a blazing sun.
When I arrived hot and sweaty at a medieval-looking restaurant, the owner led me straight onto a terrace by the river and poured some complimentary wine. I felt at home immediately.
As the bus arrived in Vienna I chummed up with two Australian sisters to book a cycle tour, and met them again the next day to go exploring. I’d expected Vienna to leave me gobsmacked, and it did. Its wide streets are lined with glorious buildings leading into whole squares of opulent extravaganza.
There are even two palaces, the Belvedere and Schönbrunn, so the decadent Habsburg emperors could change location with the seasons. Both can be reached on the underground train, which is simple to use and operates with fabulous Austrian efficiency, as do the buses and trams.
I bought multi-day transport passes in each city, which is a wonderful way to explore. Just jump on a passing bus or tram and see where it takes you without worrying about the fare.
There are tons of museums and galleries to explore, but Austria isn’t cheap so I used my money wisely. The House of Music is a good
The museum has different rooms devoted to the greatest names before you reach a podium in front of an interactive video of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Nobody was around, so I pressed a button and started to conduct the Can-Can. It seems quite easy – you just wave the baton while the musicians do their stuff, and if it sounds too slow, wave a little faster.
By now I’d attracted a crowd, and the next guy got heckled by the orchestra for getting the tempo wrong for the Radetzky March. Someone else had a go, making ridiculous swirling motions to see what other pre-recorded insults the orchestra would hurl.
You can eat quite cheaply in Vienna because the supermarkets are excellent and every underground station has a good quality fast food stand at the entrance.
The markets are brilliant too, with the misleadingly named Night Market doing a roaring trade during the day from stalls with beautifully displayed cheeses, salamis and irresistible pastries.
The free walking tours are also a bargain, although they’re only free if you’re too stingy to leave a tip. I took a free tour in every town and city, getting a great overview of the history and local insight into what to do and where to go.
My month-long adventure took me to gorgeous cities bristling with bewitching castles, ancient streets, magnificent old squares and delectable delicatessens, but I also stopped for two days in Grunau, a tiny village in the Austrian Alps. You can stroll into the village centre and stroll back again 20 minutes later because you’ve seen it all.
Gerhard Bammer, who owns The Tree House hostel, also takes his guests to a bus stop so you can catch the bus to Almsee Lake if you’re too lazy to cycle there. In the evenings he cooks delightfully hearty meals, and you retire to bed early in synch with nature.
Krakow in Poland probably isn’t on anybody’s
The recommended stay in Krakow is the Little Havana Party Hostel, whose name alone should deter anyone over 40.
I’d wanted to visit Warsaw to take a trip to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, but it’s equally do-able from Krakow. I booked a tour through the Busabout guide, who managed to sum up the entire Second World War in 10
I also visited Schindler’s factory, where Oskar Schindler bravely protected hundreds of Jewish workers from the Nazis. I arrived there by bus in heavy, relentless rain, which felt suitably sombre for such a hallowed place.
Four days later the
HOW TO BUSABOUT
Look at the route map at www.busabout.com and pick where you want to go. An American route opened last year too, linking in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas with smaller stops en route.
Buses run from May to October with tickets starting at R2,950 for three stops up to R13,390 for an unlimited amount, so you could travel endlessly for the whole season.
Buy your ticket online and plan your trip, entering your chosen dates to reserve a seat. You can also book through a travel agent, or book everything as you go and amend your plans mid-journey.
You can book your beds online too, and if the recommended hostel doesn’t appeal, try booking.com to find other options near to the drop-off point.
Travel light. In some quaint old towns the bus can’t park right outside the hostel, so you’ll have to walk a short distance with your bags.
By Lesley Stones