As magical mystery tours go it had all the right ingredients: a sense of total chaos with no clear idea how it might all end.
When Iceland’s volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash into the skies over Europe last month, grounding flights across Europe for nearly a week, millions of travellers were stranded far from home.
For a group of European film industry professionals stuck in Turkey after the end of the Istanbul Film Festival, sitting it out was not an option.
Producers and film funding ing chiefs including Michel Reilhac, head of cinema at Arte France; German producer Karl Baumgartner; and Berlin Brandenburg funding board head Kirsten Niehuus; swiftly worked out that the best way to get out was to hire a bus.
The only problem was there was no bus left in Istanbul with a permit to drive through Europe.
“We ended up hiring a bus to take us to Skopje, Macedonia, where we picked up another bus with the right permit to continue onto Berlin,” Reilhac told Variety.
Around half those stranded in Istanbul — 35 people, mostly Germans, Dutch and French — chose to go, paying around €250 ($306) each for the 48-hour nonstop journey. Others decided to wait for Europe’s skies to clear — a decision they would later rue.
For the “bus people,” as they soon dubbed themselves, it was like an experience from another age.
With no Internet access and mobile phone batteries rapidly running down, the group had to return to old-fashioned travel practices — watching the countryside of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and the Czech Republic pass by and talking to each other without constant electronic interruptions.
All but one: Reilhac had two spare batteries and tweeted and filmed the entire journey via his mobile phone.
“The whole feeling was like total chaos; we had one stop for a hot meal but nothing else apart from toilet stops. There was no time for showers,” Reilhac says.
With a three-hour stop at the Bulgarian border where the entire bus was scanned for contraband and everyone’s bags were inspected, there was even a sense of Cold War deja vu about the journey.
But far from a nightmare, it became a bonding experience as an international following for the tweets grew — including chiropractors who gave advice for onboard exercises and a chocolate shop in Paris intrigued by Reilhac’s reference to eating white chocolates with wasabi centers.
Those who stayed behind in Istanbul hired a bus from a dodgy character who simply dumped them and their bags at the Bulgarian border.
But for the first group the journey to Berlin became an experience not to be missed. Reilhac and other French passengers managed to get on a train back to Paris where they were met by a French TV film crew — Champagne in hand — who had heard of the epic journey via the tweets.
Such is the nostalgia for the trip that they staged a “bus people drinks” reunion party at Cannes with another planned for the Berlin film festival next year.
“People who were not even on the bus have been asking if they can join the group,” Reilhac adds.