Days that the magic died

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The Independent Travel
In one awful week in 1975, the Top 40 was a ghastly confluence of The Osmonds, Tammy Wynette and Kraftwerk. Pseudo-intellectuals in their millions bought Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, the first successful album on Virgin Records which led to Richard Branson's fortune, Virgin Atlantic, and its new air route between Gatwick and Athens.

But in those days, the aspirations of teenagers who fancied An Adventure in Athens were most readily satisfied on the Magic Bus, or the Miracle Bus. The idea of spending three and a half days on one of these mobile youth hostels did not sound especially magical, but pounds 27 for 2,000 miles of travel was.

That frightful week, I caught the last bus home from Athens. Buying a ticket was reassuringly tricky. You had to find a certain doorway in a side street off Syntagma Square, climb four flights of rickety stairs to a scruffy office where 1,700 drachmas changed hands. Your name was laboriously and inaccurately added to a passenger list and you were handed a scrap of paper which pur-ported to be a ticket.

Minna Daum, a psychologist, made her first foreign trip on the Magic Bus from Victoria - once she managed to find the vehicle. 'I got there really early, with a rucksack that I'd made out of bamboo and Army surplus bags. It was drizzling, and people were standing around in little depressed groups.' She had just left school, and found the absence of a bus disconcerting. 'Finally it turned up: I'd thought it would be psychedelic, but it was a just an ordinary, boring old coach.'

Ian Lucas now manages a student travel office, but his career in the industry began selling tickets for Miracle Bus. 'One of the beauties about it was that there was no actual bus. We just hired coaches or bought space on existing services, but people assumed they were getting something special. It was a marketing dream.'

In Athens, desperate to get home, it seemed more like a mobile nightmare. A ropey old Bedford 53-seater, hopelessly unsuited to foreign travel, which had somehow limped from London to Greece. It was now presuming to crawl back along the E5, the European superhighway linking Syntagma Square with Parliament Square in London.

Forty-eight passengers got on. The back row of five seats was reserved for the drivers, and always occupied by a prone figure. The hot-seat changeover was the norm, with one driver taking over from the other in a bewildering manoeuvre where the main aim was to keep the accelerator flat on the floor. Stopping the coach had to be avoided whenever possible, because the starter had given up its struggle outside Zagreb. So we bump-started it in Athens, bump-started it 50 miles north of Athens when the first cry of 'toilet' resounded down the bus, and again at every service station thereafter.

When the eight tons of rusting metal which constituted The Bus was actually moving, I sat halfway along it. This should have made me pivotal in the vehicle's social dynamics. But there were none. We were each reliving our own private adventures, and the oppressive squalor dulled any desire to swap tales of marijuana and mayhem on Greek islands. So poor were intra-bus communications that I never even got to find out why Tubular Bells was played continuously for three and a half days.

The acquiescence among the other passengers did not extend to tolerance of my rapidly deteriorating supply of food. The bread, cheese and fruit I had bought from a market stall in Athens fared even worse in the stifling interior than I did. By the time we reached the Yugoslav border it was best abandoned.

The motorway through the middle of Yugoslavia was infamous among travellers as a 1,000-mile accident black spot. It was a single-carriageway road, partially cobbled, and packed with mentally unstable drivers. 'There were lots of dead buses on either side of the highway,' says Ms Daum. 'Everyone told stories about how buses went off the road willy-nilly.'

Bus carcasses were among the more interesting things to see through the filthy windows. The great thing about overland travel, people tell you, is that you get to see all the scenery.

This was not remotely true, because half the time it is dark. I dimly remember some glorious streaks of coastline as we crept towards northern Greece, but for the rest of the journey the countryside seemed as dreary as the towns.

The bus-scape between Athens and London was a blur of cars and Tarmac and fields too close to the motorway to have escaped the drape of grey imparted by the exhausts of a million vehicles, interspersed with homes blighted by the unforgiving arrogance of long-distance transport.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, unstimulated by anything more demanding than the occasional bump-start, our physical and mental processes slowed to the minimum level necessary to sustain life.

Then just beyond Brussels, everything began to move terribly fast. Fumbling for passports, gathering up belongings, boarding a boat which provided the first possibility of relative liberty in three days. At Dover, four Greeks were taken away by immigration officials and never seen again, but we were too tired to protest. So we spread into the four spare seats, and The Bus grumbled along the A2 to London.

We arrived at Victoria at the height of the morning rush hour. I remember anxious grey faces and grim moods - not the commuters, but us. No one swapped addresses; we just dissolved into the sea of people, lugging outsize rucksacks on to the Underground.

'At one stage we were operating 25 buses a week down to Athens,' recalls David Rendall who was general man-ager for Magic Bus in the late Seventies. Although Magic Bus and its rivals have long since ceased to exist, Mr Rendall still runs a coach to Athens.

His new poacher-turned-gamekeeper role is as managing director for Eurolines (UK). The fare these days, however, is pounds 206 - more than the scheduled flight on Virgin Atlantic. One reason for the increase, he says, is that corners are no longer cut.

'At one stage we were using an Italian coach company who would only operate for cash. One night our courier forgot the money, and the boss of the coach firm pulled a gun on him and said 'Tell your boss, next time he comes over here he goes home in a box'.'

The road did not end at Athens in the Seventies. You could connect with a bus to Delhi, and get from Hudson's Place, around the back of Victoria, to Connaught Circle in the Indian capital, for less than pounds 100.

After many years, I finally returned to Athens. I went by air for pounds 89 return, which in 1975 terms would have been only pounds 20. As air fares have fallen in real terms, travellers' horizons are wider.

So now, if you want a good long ride, try the old Paris bus which negotiates the minefields and the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, or the service which tracks its way along a dried-up river bed from La Paz in Bolivia to Potosi, the world's highest city.

In comparison, Athens to London was just a very long bus ride. We left thinking we were pioneers, but arrived merely as passengers, and a pretty miserable bunch at that.

Eurolines (0582 404511) runs between Victoria Coach Station and Athens once weekly until the end of September.

(Photograph omitted)

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