On the road again in Europe

ABOVE BOARD: Mixed bathing, with chess, in Budapest, Hungary.
ABOVE BOARD: Mixed bathing, with chess, in Budapest, Hungary.

Some journeys are supposed to take you out of your comfort zone.

But doing an 18 to 35-year-old bus trip across Eastern Europe almost two decades after I last boarded a Topdeck bus is surely pushing the boundaries too far.

My backpack has long been consigned to the bin and my preference is for accommodation that comes with stars, not bunks. Plus, as a married woman who can no longer hold her drink, the usual overland pastimes of vomiting and random fornication hold little appeal.

But for some crazy reason I found myself in Berlin, about to be shunted from my comfortable existence into coach travel, Generation Y-style.

While I'd been engaged with a career and mortgage, a lot had changed in the Topdeck space.

For starters, the double-decker buses that once served as transport, accommodation and kitchen were decommissioned some years ago. Guests now stay in tents, hotels or, in some cases, castles or yachts. Nor do all trips originate or finish in London - hence the trip to Germany, where my 12-day Eastern Escape journey begins.

Revisiting the past can be a dangerous exercise. I worry about travelling with a hoard of thirsty young revellers: surely if I wanted to be cooped up with people with whom I had little in common, I could visit my in-laws?

Berlin has donned its winter coat when we meet at Joe's, a restaurant just off the city's trendy Kurfurstendamm. Thankfully, my preconceptions are swiftly dismantled: my fellow travellers are friendly, smart and keen to experience the six countries on our itinerary, and not from a bar stool. Nor is there an 18-year-old in sight.

"Younger travellers tend to do our 'gap year' tours - trips like the Eastern Escape are usually skewed towards the late 20s/30s end of the age spectrum," says Brook, our tour leader. She's as bubbly as a human Berocca.

"They're interested in more than just partying. They want to know about the history of each city, to visit the museums and really get something out of their trip."

In my case, they also tend to be Australian; of the 23 on my bus, there's only one Canadian and four Kiwis. They're also a mixed bunch: an economist, a couple of recent graduates, a policeman and a geneticist.

The appeal is freedom and flexibility, without having to negotiate public transport and accommodation in a foreign country. And forget about being herded like sheep or shackled to a schedule; at each destination, Brook gives us a historical backgrounder, an information sheet and map, and we're let loose to explore as we wish.

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There are, of course, several organised activities, such as the Third Reich Walking Tour that covers some of Berlin's chilling history. Led by Briton Nick Gay, our two-hour amble takes us through a city that still wears a heavy necklace of guilt. First stop is the Topography of Terror, an open-air exhibition that illustrates the pain of living under an inhuman regime for decades. We also visit the site of Hitler's bunker, now a nondescript car park, thanks to the city fathers' refusal to have it appropriated by neo-Nazis.

The drive to the Czech Republic swallows the better part of a day, but time has little relevance; none of us has anywhere to be, so we detour to Dresden for lunch, where, along with our currywurst and sauerkraut, we get a side order of history in this fascinating battle-scarred city.

Prague sparkles on a night walking tour as we cover its major hits - Charles Bridge, the crazy glockenspiel, Wenceslas Square and, towering above it all, the imposing Hradcany Castle. It's difficult not to experience monument/ spire/castle fatigue, but salvation comes in the form of some of the cheapest, finest lager on Earth (it should be, they've been brewing it since AD859). We provide a sizeable economic recovery package to Karlovy Lazne, Eastern Europe's largest club, which features five storeys of pumping music.

But there's no time to dwell on hangovers the next day when, en route to Krakow, we stop at Auschwitz/ Birkenau, the former Nazi concentration camp that brings the horror of the Holocaust to life.

We stare slack-jawed at enormous glass cases containing baby clothes, suitcases and artificial limbs, snatched from 1.5 million Jews, gypsies and Poles as they were herded into the gas chamber. We get another glimpse into human misery on the Schindler's List tour, which takes us deep into Krakow's once vibrant Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, the setting for much of Spielberg's 1993 film. I pay my first-ever visit to a synagogue and Jewish cemetery, and see the factory where Oskar Schindler saved the lives of so many.

There's another long drive to Budapest, a city cut in two by the mighty Danube. The posh Buda quarter thrills us with the Gothic and baroque architecture of Castle Hill and the wonderfully over-the-top Matyas Church. But our hotel, on the grittier Pest side, is a reminder that the Communist era - and its attendant deprivation, bad food and potholes you could fish in - wasn't that long ago.

Our visit to Budapest's Gellert Spa coincides with a mixed bathing day, where both sexes are able to share the thermal hot springs. Europeans' casual approach to nakedness is apparent when I lose my way in the badly signposted baths and find myself in the men's changing room, but even more amusing is the pummelling I get from a Hungarian masseuse who makes Valerie Vili look anorexic.

I trip over memories of past travels at the remaining cities - Bratislava, where I wish we could have lingered longer; Vienna, where excessive consumption of sachertorte strains my jeans; and Salzburg, where a snowfall amazes some of the Australians who've never seen the white stuff.

We spend our last night in Munich at, not surprisingly, an enormous beer hall that deals the final blow to my mid- life crisis (and my budget).

Back home, friends are astonished that my attempt to turn back the clock was so much fun. As someone who has barely boarded a bus in the last 20 years, I relished the opportunity to let someone else do all the driving, planning and worrying. An unexpected bonus was the 22 friends I made - they might have appalling taste in music and a limited concept of real life, but these Generation-Yers provided the backdrop to one of the best travel experiences of my life.

The Dominion Post