Shaney Hudson discovers she's a natural for this affordable, friendly way to see a lot in a short time.
It doesn't get posher than watching a chamber orchestra perform in Vienna. We make our way up the marble staircase in evening wear purchased for the occasion, past women with coiffed up-dos and men in tuxedos. I'm pleasantly surprised. When I signed up for a coach tour of Europe, I'd expected matching beer-soaked T-shirts, not ball gowns.
Do we get one free drink or two during intermission, one of our group asks our guide, Lindy. "One drink at intermission here," she smiles, "and two free drinks when we go to the sex show in Amsterdam."
The couple in front turn around and glare. The usher coughs. We don't blink an eye. After all, Europe has something for everyone.
Doing a tour of Europe has long been a rite of passage for young Australians; however, at first I was reluctant. I'm not a group person, I hate doing things to someone else's schedule and I'm not a big drinker. Most of all, I was wary of the booze-bus reputation some tours have. I wanted to see Europe but not from the bottom of a beer bottle.
In the end I was time poor, Europe is expensive and coach tours are an affordable way to see a lot in a short amount of time. So I signed up for a tour through Topdeck, based on the fact it runs separate trips for young gap-year students (who may want a booze bus experience), leaving the older crowd (like me) to enjoy Europe in peace.
In 33 days we would zigzag our way across 11 countries, starting our journey in Italy and travelling through Eastern Europe to finish in London. Accompanying me would be 35 other passengers, a crew of three and a bus called The Mucca. Oh, and did I mention we were camping?
Showing up at camp the first night was bewildering. The stereo was blasting out a Dolly Parton song, one half of the group were walking around in sheets having an impromptu toga party and the rest were wearing matching monogrammed T-shirts. I stood there with my luggage and wondered what I had got myself into. "Here," said a girl, thrusting a plastic cup in my direction. "Have a drink." I shrugged, pulled up a camp stool and took the cup from her. When in Rome, after all ...
From there, it was easy to get into the swing of life. Accommodation, transport and most meals were taken care of, meaning I just had to pitch a tent, hop on the bus and hold out a plate. And I had no problem with accepting seconds: Rivet, our cook, used to be an executive chef at a one-hat Melbourne restaurant. Rounding out the crew were Lindy and her husband, Hamish, our driver.
The crew had worked together for a decade and were an authority on the best places to eat, shop and party, which places to avoid and what scams to look out for. They also knew how to get things done, such as doing a walking tour of Prague at 10pm to avoid the impossible daytime crowds and talking Turkish border guards out of arresting two of our group, who hadn't had their passports stamped properly.
Within a few days, I gave myself over to the convenience of having everything arranged for me, down to the glossy A4 maps with highlighted attractions and language tips that Lindy handed out at destinations.
With the logistics taken care of, I was free to focus on experiencing Europe. One of the advantages of travelling at such a pace was that it made the economic, physical and cultural differences between countries more noticeable. The downside was that sometimes a place would capture my imagination, such as the medieval city of Sighisoara in Romania did, but I'd have to leave before I was ready to go.
On balance, there were more places I got to see than places I missed out on. I was able to run my fingers along the Berlin Wall, feel the pebbles under my toes at Anzac Cove, stand in the pouring rain at Birkenau and still feel incredibly moved, despite sharing this experience with other people.
There were also times when I struck out on my own. In Istanbul we were upgraded to a hotel for three nights and I dived into the city, peering into fishermen's buckets by the Bosporus, sipping apple tea in the Grand Bazaar and being scrubbed by a Turkish mama in a hamam. I didn't see another person from my group for two days.
Before I went on tour, I was apprehensive about travelling with so many people. The reality is, when you make 35 strangers camp and spend hours a day together for a month, they either become the worst of enemies or the best of friends. I'll admit there were times I was tempted to tell people exactly where to put their tent pegs. But there were more people on the tour that inspired me, like my 18-year-old cabin mate, who had her first-ever kiss on the overnight ferry between Italy and Greece.
Touring also meant great opportunities to relax. The highlight was sailing the Greek islands. For three days we bobbed around in the Ionian Sea near Corfu, sleeping on deck under the stars and rising with the sun. I returned to port feeling like a satisfied old sea dog.
Our return coincided with a feast in honour of the port's patron saint. A procession looped past our boats, fireworks exploded and a frightfully out-of-tune singer entertained 400 locals at supper beside the village church. It was a glimpse of local life and something that, like sailing, I might never have otherwise experienced.
The writer travelled as a guest of Topdeck.
Topdeck's Rome to London tour has departures between April and September. The 2010 itinerary will be extended to 35 days and 13 countries. Prices start from $4270. Phone 1300 886 332, see topdeck.travel.