Ripper, mate! The day had finally arrived: a European Jaunt, travelling in a manner befitting the wily old desperadoes that we are when it comes to splashing out a few quid on hotels and such like - the posh man's backpacking holiday, using coach travel from city to city.
A LEYTR associate is the employee of one such purveyor of transport throughout Europe and we enquired with a little insider assistance as to what the score really is. We were both very impressed and chose to take the plunge. We'd be travelling for five days in total, making use of three coach rides and passing through five countries. We'd reside overnight in accommodation recommended by the transport provider and, when this was unavailable due to insufficient rooms, we would stay in nearby establishments of similar standing.
This European transport operator has been around for quite a while now. Owned by Holland-based Atlas Reizen, Busabout's sister operator may be a little more familiar if you've ever travelled abroad: Contiki. Both operate city-to-city coach journeys. Contiki provides all-inclusive holidays, while Busabout refer to their product as being for the 'independent traveller'. They provide the transport and will recommend accommodation, but you can simply use them as a stepping stone for your own planned itinerary. They're two very established models and business appears to be doing well.
Concentrating on Busabout, their website is the place to go to find out more about the company. Their vehicles are based at Atlas Reizen's depot in Stellendam, Holland; their administration centre is in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland and, presumably because their currency is Sterling, their financial address is in Guernsey. They employ mainly British coach drivers, though a splattering of English-speaking Europeans and Australians are also on the books, and each coach has a guide - virtually all of whom are either Australian or from New Zealand.
The Busabout website is very upbeat and well presented, though you do have to do some digging for the nitty gritty
It's no coincidence, then, that Busabout's staple diet is backpackers from Australia and New Zealand. Mainly the former. It's effectively an Australian company in Europe catering mainly for Australians and anyone else what wants to make use of their services. This should in no way put you off. Australians are some of the most easy-going people in the world and very easy to get along with. During our trip, we'd mix with more Aussies than ever before in our lives and everyone - guides and passengers - reaffirmed the very positive stereotype we have of them.
The Busabout fleet consists of ten VDL SB4000/Marcopolo Viaggio C51F coaches, all built and delivered in 2005; this is their sixth season and they are, apparently, to be replaced next year, forming part of a recent order with VDL for some Berkhof Axial-bodied vehicles. Both inside and out, the current fleet is spotless and the driver's cleaning routine is as extensive as any operator's here in the UK. They each have a 715-litre fuel tank, independent front suspension, measure 12 x 3.8 x 2.5m and have engines rated at Euro 3 standard. They are equipped with a crew seat and dashboard fridge as well as two TV monitors and a DVD/audio entertainment system. They have Sutrack Tropical air conditioning and were delivered new with a chemical toilet.
They've been tailored for the work they undertake with a whole host of technical items and cleaning utensils beneath the saloon. They do seem to have poor luggage provision for a rear-engined coach, though. Although a toilet is fitted, this is sealed off and not referred to, as provision for emptying it each night is simply not possible. Regular stops are made at motorway service stations for passengers to use the dunny and have something to eat.
Busabout's network comprises three loops - North, West and South. The drivers undertake a diagram that encompasses all loops, while guides, who are not restricted to the EC Drivers' Hours Regulations, work slightly differently: they generally do a couple of circuits of each loop before going onto another. Below is the 18-day vehicle diagram with estimated mileage (km):
Lauterbrunnen - Munich (445)
Munich - Paris (850)
Paris - Amsterdam (525)
Amsterdam - Berlin (670)
Berlin - Prague (350)
Prague - Vienna (350)
Vienna - Munich (450)
Munich - Venice (550)
Venice - Rome (550)
Rome - Florence (285)
Florence - Nice (425)
Nice - Barcelona (660)
Barcelona - Madrid (620)
Madrid - San Sebastian (485)
San Sebastian - Paris (850)
Paris - Lauterbrunnen (640)
Lauterbrunnen - Nice (550)
Nice - Lauterbrunnen (550)
Munich - Paris (850)
Paris - Amsterdam (525)
Amsterdam - Berlin (670)
Berlin - Prague (350)
Prague - Vienna (350)
Vienna - Munich (450)
Munich - Venice (550)
Venice - Rome (550)
Rome - Florence (285)
Florence - Nice (425)
Nice - Barcelona (660)
Barcelona - Madrid (620)
Madrid - San Sebastian (485)
San Sebastian - Paris (850)
Paris - Lauterbrunnen (640)
Lauterbrunnen - Nice (550)
Nice - Lauterbrunnen (550)
With the exception of two legs, drivers do the entire journey each day. The Munich-Paris and San Sebastian-Paris legs are both 850km and a driver changeover takes place at Stuttgart and Bordeaux respectively. With rest periods included, it can take at least 24 days for drivers to complete a circuit. I think you'll have to agree, as far as coach diagrams go, few can be more extensive and encompassing! Coaches depart each location on alternate days, requiring a PVR of 9 in total, with the tenth spare.
With such an extensive route and the knowledge required to operate it professionally, a fair level of training is given to new recruits - both drivers and guides. This takes place during March and April and lasts for six weeks. At each place the coach calls on the route and/or point of interest, the guides leave to research the area/place en masse, while the drivers take it in turns navigating their way in and out, before picking the guides up a couple of hours later. It's no mean feat, sounding very much like a genuine busman's holiday - one which many younger coach drivers prefer to bombing up and down the M1.
The final thing to mention at this stage, before our jaunt continues, is that the simplicity with which Busabout operate their services. At the start of the day, all coaches depart the pick-up point at 0800hrs. No exception (save legal ones - if a driver has not yet had his 9 hours daily rest, for example). Busabout benefits from all countries through which they operating being in the same time zone, too.
We flew from Stansted Airport to Nice (Côte d'Azur) with easyJet, though beforehand travelled to the airport by train as we'd not be returning here, so did not make use of a car. The weather was cold, grey and dank. We'd been assured by our LEYTR associate that coats and fleeces would not be needed since it was positively tropical along the Mediterranean Coast right now.
We shivered all the way to Stansted Airport, where we arrived a couple of minutes late aboard our CrossCountry Class 170 'Turbostar'. We'd been as punctual as the Japanese Bullet Trains up until the last junction, where we were held for two minutes for a Stansted Express train from London. By now it was raining quite heavily and in our summer wear we ran inside the airport terminal from what was the platform furthest from the station canopy.
We had no luggage to check-in, just very well-packed backpacks, so headed for security and passport control. This all went fine and before we knew it our departure gate had been released.
To get to it required us using the free transit service, which was all new to me. The two-car, driver-less electric trains operate every two minutes and connect Gates 1-39 with the terminal building. We alighted at the first stop (Gates 1-19) and the train continued completely empty to the second stop for Gates 20-39.
Getting a clear photo of one of these very dull-looking, driver-less trains is easier said than done. At the terminal stop, I managed this shot of one that was heading in the opposite direction, passing us on a loop. As you can see, rain was still falling.
When I've travelled with easyJet before, after your passport has been checked at the departure gate, you then head down to the tarmac only to be penned into another room and called in a vague order. On this occasion, it was a free-for-all, which ensured passengers were drip-fed onto the tarmac as fast as the dude checking the tickets could muster.
I always enjoy filming take-off; initially I did it to take my mind off all that could go wrong, but now it's kind of a ritual for me. I'm one of these people who'll quite happily travel anywhere at any time and by any mode of transport, but I find air travel the least comfortable of all. Banking at low level is my worst experience on board a plane - landing at Inverness Airport was the worst I've ever experienced; it was if we were going to loop-the-loop.
However, once you're at 37,000 feet (as we soon were), it's all rather boring and you're looking forward to landing to get it all over and done with. Our plane was one of easyJet's Airbus A319s and was fully loaded, seating 156 people.
The Airbus A319
We had two pilots and 4 members of cabin crew. Take-off speed was at 150mph and cruising speed was likely to be 500mph - something that would make even travelling in the cab of a 'Javelin' train seem slow. The plane's range was 3000 miles and the crew had already done an outward and return trip that day so far, with no break. Jetting off to Nice or Cannes is not something families with young children often do - even in August - (and especially not with easyJet) so it was nice not to hear outbursts of screaming and shouting or toddlers crying. There were 26 children on board in total.
By chance I photographed a blob of land that turned out to be the landing strip at Nice Airport. We touched down using the one to the left as the following YouTube clip will show
Landing in Nice was even more surreal than Gibraltar; well, from my side of the plane anyway. At least with Gibraltar you knew you were heading towards land. Sat facing south as we headed in from the west, all I could see was water until the very last minute.
Leaving the plane took ages as we were only permitted to disembark through the front doors into one of those suspended walkway things. As we left the cabin, for the first time in my experience, the First Officer was stood there, next to a member of cabin crew, wishing everyone bon voyage, even outstretching his hand to anyone who wanted to shake it. A very nice touch indeed.
You know when you walk into a shop in the town centre on a cold winter's day and you feel a warm jet of air blowing from above the doorway? Well I felt exactly that, though soon realised it was the 27C air temperature. Yes, fleeces would have been very inappropriate!
Our short-wearing LEYTR associate met us and we made our way to the terminal's bus station, where we'd catch a bus to the centre of town. We were to stay in Hotel Baccarat, virtually opposite Nice Ville station, on Rue D'anglaterre. Despite its name, it was in fact a hostel, something which neither of us had stayed in before. It wasn't a particularly cheap one either, though we expected it to be reasonably pricey since we only booked the jaunt half-a-month beforehand and this is Nice in August afterall. €32 was the price each and we'd be in a dorm with four other people; as it would transpire, all of which would be Australians.
Before all that, we had to sample a local French bus service. Trams and buses share the Ligne d'Azur name, currently operated by Veolia (though without reference). The company is branded as a community transport provider, who offers integrated ticket options and a €1 flat fare for as many trips as you like within a 70-minute window. It's around three miles from the airport to the central station, making out trip incredibly cheap indeed.
The bus appeared to have an air-con pod on the roof but it wasn't turned on. Either the driver preferred to drive in a mobile sauna or the unit had malfunctioned. What made matters worse was the windows being jammed shut, as opening them would "prevent the air conditioning from working properly." It wasn't the best of welcomes, but we didn't grumble much as it was a very cheap journey indeed. We alighted on Boulevard Gambetta and walked along Avenue Thiers to Nice Ville station, checked-in to our hostel and headed into town.
Trams are very frequent in Nice. They have the look of Nottingham's units, though were built to blend in with Nice's archietecture. They were initially operated using third-rail technology, but have since been converted to overhead wire operation
Day 2 dawned at 0700 when we awoke following our first night's sleep in a hostel. It had gone better than we'd expected. We'd been nattering to our fellow dwellers before heading to sleep the night before. All Australians appear to either have relations in the UK or have visited London and seem reasonably knowledgeable about the city's transport and the Oyster card.
Breakfast was not offered at the Hotel Baccarat, so we headed round to corner as we knew there were a couple of small supermarket-type shops opposite Nice Ville station, which is where our Busabout coach would depart from at 0800. Unlike London - and indeed any UK city or large town - these newsagents were not open at 0730. Nor did they open before we had to jump aboard our 51-seated VDL SB4000/Marcopolo Viaggio coach.
They're not the most attractive coaches in the world and we understand Busabout will receive Berkhof Axial-bodied coaches next year
The Busabout guides do not check passengers on using a sheet of paper. They use an 'ipaq', which connects to the Internet through their company-issued mobile phones. It all seems very progressive and enables the driver to concentrate on, well, the driving, though first he has to load the luggage. We only had seventeen aboard our coach today. We were travelling to Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps, via Milan. The journey time was between 10-11 hours, with a number of stops en route at various motorway services.
The stops are all prescribed and approximate timings are given. Our driver, Simon (British) and our guide, Dave (Australian) had both returned to work today, following two days off in Nice. They'd both popped to Cannes and had watched Inception at the cinema there and both were still talking about it this morning. Simon's day had commenced at 0600 when he'd left the Busabout accommodation and headed to the No. 23 bus stop with his suitcase to get to the coach park, which was just under 2 miles away. There, he'd done all the checks required of him before driving to the pick-up point, opposite Nice Ville station.
Initially it seems strange to seem all the controls on the wrong side, but you soon get used to it. Our driver said he and all new Busabout employees receive a week's training at Stellendam, learning to change gear right-handed and to get used to driving on the 'European side' of the road
Owing to the EC Drivers' Hours Regs, he needed to take a 45-minute break at the pick-up point to then enable him to drive 4.5 hours, taking a 15-min break at the first service stop and 30 mins at the second. Consequently, he was parked in the centre of town at 0720. The guides do not conform to such guidelines (and consequently do not appear to generally receive such generous weekly rest periods). Their days do start later than the driver's (and don't finish as late, either), with Dave arriving at 0745 and he got to work loading passengers while Simon packed their suitcases in the boot.
Newcomers to Busabout are issued a lanyard and credit card-sized I.D tag that they need to put round their neck while on board. Existing people, i.e. those who've travelled in the past few days, simply present these to be checked-off on the ipaq. It's all very straightforward. A large number of those on board had travelled with Busabout recently, so Dave only had to issue a couple of lanyards/cards out to the newcomers. Most of our contingent were travelling through to Lauterbrunnen, with a couple choosing to leave us at Milan.
This was the scene the following morning in Lauterbrunnen, though the same occurred in Nice today, with Simon (in orange) seen loading luggage while Dave (stood at front in black) loads passengers. It's a lot calmer than the scene in London Victoria Coach Station
Busabout's advantage over equivalent European operations is that if passengers wish to change their travel plans and, say, remain in Nice another couple of days, they simply inform the guide who'll book them on the coach in two days' time at no extra cost. Likewise, if someone booked to travel in two days decided they wanted to leave Nice early, they simply turn up at the coach and the guide amends their requirements for immediate travel. No amendment fees of any kind are charged. The only risk is that your desired service may be full, but for delayed journeys, once the guide books you on using his ipaq, you're then guaranteed a seat.
Also departing from Nice Ville was a Busabout coach heading to Barcelona. This, said Simon, is one of the lengthiest journeys drivers are required to undertake in one day, and also sees some of the highest exterior temperatures, too. "It was 40 degrees Centigrade the last time I was in Madrid," said Simon, "which made cleaning the coach out - even with the climate control on - quite a challenge!" Apparently the heat is so intense that cleaning the windows becomes almost impossible, with the water drying as soon as it's applied. The Barcelona coach was fully booked and left a minute before us.
We headed out of Nice, due east, slowly climbing and following the coast road (D6007) through to Monaco. We saw a very bad accident just a couple of miles outside Nice, which involved a Mini Cooper and three motorbikes - one rider had been 'covered up' by ambulance crews at the scene. It brings it home to you just how dangerous these meandering roads can be, with their sheer drops and tunnels. Also pointed out to us was the spot where in 1982 Grace Kelly came to her death - her car plummeting off the cliff top into the sea below. As a result of this very high-profile accident, the road now dissects a chunk of rock, rather than skirting round it.
Monaco, one of the world's smallest countries, where an application to become resident will cost €1 million. Since the application is just that, there's the possibility it could be turned down and refunds are not offered
Having skirted Monaco, we joined the A8/E80 into Italy. Two things caught our attention here. The first was that it was just before 0900 on a Friday morning and the dual-carriageway was very quiet indeed; there was barely a vehicle to be seen. Crossing into Italy actually took place in a tunnel, with just the change of brickwork the only noticeable sign until the official Welcome sign once the other side. While the Italian scenery differed not one jot to that of the French, the second observation was the one addition to the landscape: greenhouses - hundreds of them. Dave told us (in what Australians refer to as knowledge bombs) that within them are flowers grown for the perfumeries that sell their fragrances around the world.
Italy was also the location of our first motorway services stop, at Cireale Sud, just short of Genoa. The service area belonged to the Autogrill chain of companies, who appear to have Italy all sewn up. They don't, though, appear to offer any kind of grilled food. The situation within the establishment is not straightforward. For those requiring food, you enter the restaurant area and look to see what's on offer beneath the glass counters. You then cross to the other side of the room, to the tills, and order/pay, before taking your receipt back to the counters and presenting it. Your food is served as soon as they get round to you.
This was the case at the second services, another Autogrill, at Dorno Est, just south of Milan. The route taken between services was north, along the A25/E25, then east on the A7/A26 and then north on the A7/E62 to Milan.
The most attractive thing in Milan was our coach, parked at the only YMCA used on the Busabout network
Milan, despite it's place in the fashion history books, it has to be one of the most dour-looking cities Europe has to offer. Those planning on leaving the coach here were not impressed with what they saw either, so, mid-journey, amended their requirements and continued with everyone else to Lauterbrunnen. It's worth stressing again how convenient this can be. No fee was charged for choosing to alter their journey plans, even mid-route. Amending your plans on Eurolines, for example, necessitates a fee and simply cannot be done at all once a coach has departed.
This section of route had been the most uninspiring. The dramatic coastal scene had long since left us and we were now heading north inland with scenery that, quite honestly, could have been stolen from Lincolnshire. The weather was nice and the climate control being set to 22C was ensuring no one was becoming too hot. While Nice was hovering around the 30C mark today, northern Italy was a more comfortable 23C.
In Part 1 we mentioned that luggage provision wasn't as comprehensive as that you'd expect from a rear-engined coach. Seen here is the luggage of 17 people, taking up most of the front locker while boarding takes place in Nice
By mid-afternoon we came to the Swiss border and our coach's Swiss road tax sheet needed renewing so Dave went off to do that while we observed the Swiss border control officers dressed in blue t-shirts and automatic machine guns stopping car drivers in a parallel queue. As soon as Dave returned, we were away, with no one wanting to check the coach, its passengers or their passports. This also marked the point where the scenery improved considerably: mountains lay ahead.
Simon told us that we'd be passing though the St. Gotthard Tunnel, which is one of Europe's longest. He also dropped the bombshell that overhead signs were stating there was a 10km queue for entry. There's no toll to pay, just traffic lights which regulate the entry of vehicles that slows things down considerably. However, he and a number of other drivers, had concocted a short-cut that saw a good deal of the queue omitted. We left the A2/E35 (our road of choice since Milan) at Junction 42 and followed a parallel road to Airolo. Here we rejoined the A2/E35 right at the front of the queue for the tunnel, saving at least one hour's worth of queuing. We were all very impressed.
Measuring in at 10.5 miles long, the St. Gotthard Tunnel is the world's third longest road tunnel, opening on 5 September 1980. Significant congestion is generated as only one tunnel bore is used, with traffic using one lane in each direction and entry is regulated using traffic lights on an overhead gantry, which permits just half a dozen cars in every 30 seconds. The speed limit within the tunnel is 80km (50mph), and it took us 13 minutes to pass through.
Simon told us that sometimes not only can the weather conditions be completely different upon emergence, but the whole climate can change. You're now in an Alpine region with some of Europe's highest mountains. Snow is still visible on the peaks of some of them. It's amongst this very dramatic scenery that our third service station was to be found, at Gotthard-Raststätte, still on the A2/E35. Free Toblerone was being offered and we changed our appearances slightly to avail ourselves or more than just one morsel (which worked), before buying some traditional Swiss chocolate for the remainder of the journey.
What I hadn't realised is that the Toblerone logo was more than just a random mountain - it's one that contains the image of a bear, chosen because Switzerland's capital city, Bern, is Swiss for 'Bear'. Can you see it?
As with virtually every establishment we'd visited so far, English was spoken very well indeed. Switzerland was the first country in which we'd travelled that offered another currency. While they accepted Euros, your change was in Swiss Francs; and with the prices all being in Swiss Francs, a calculation was needed to ensure you tendered as accurate a denomination of Euros to limit the number of Swiss Francs in your change as possible. To be honest, the chocolate on offer here was not wildly different from that on offer at any Tesco back home, though perhaps the range of flavours may be a little greater.
Knowledge bomb time again as Dave told us why cars from Switzerland have stickers with CH on. GB, of course, means Great Britain; E meaning Espania; IRL for Ireland etc., but why CH for Switzerland? It's because the official title of the country is the Swiss Confederation, which was translated from Confœderatio Helvetica in Latin and abbreviated to CH for cars identification within the EU and web domains. Wikipedia offers an in-depth entry on why Switzerland is known as Helvetica. Incidentally, the word Helvetica seemed to resonate for another reason. In a knowledge bomb of my own, I can reveal that it's one of the standard fonts offered with Microsoft Word.
Our service station stop just north of the St. Gotthard Tunnel was nothing like Toddington on the M1!
Dave rang ahead to the Lauterbrunnen accommodation - a site called Camping Jungfrau, which describes itself as being "located at the feet of the world-famous mountain giants Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in the valley of the 72 Waterfalls. Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe referred to the beauty of our valley in one of his poems" And we were not to be disappointed. Lauterbrunnen has to be one of the most spectacular places I've ever visited by coach. Before that, there was the small matter of the Brünig Pass to negotiate, which elevates to road to 1,008m above sea level.
It was all very spectacular and our coach managed well through the winding roads and steep hills. Simon said that sometimes he could do with a little more power, but wasn't too concerned since their arrival was not timetable to-the-minute. Our arrival was expected, however, following Dave's phone call, and Lauterbrunnen is also Busabout's administrative centre. Upon our arrival, lots of Busabout people emerged from the woodwork (literally - wood cabins aplenty) and greeted the driver and guide. Moments later the coach from Paris arrived so there were double the hugs and handshakes.
No one on board our coach was leaving here the following day, except us. Being Australians, they all wanted to be far out and indulge in some very respectful paragliding and tandem skydiving from planes. We much preferred an evening of Swiss beer and cheese fondue before turning in for the night - to our individual wooden mini Swiss cabins - our feet always firmly on terra ferma. Incidentally, I can heartily recommend the cheese fondue - it was so strong, it reminded me of Vodka!
Day three broke with Australians shivering. Yes, it was an Arctic 10 degrees Centigrade in Lauterbrunnen, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and a climate that the visiting Aussies had never experienced before. M'colleague and I, however, we more than happy to wander around in our short-sleeve tops commenting on how like London in the summer it was. Okay, it was perhaps a little chilly to have your arms on show, but it most certainly was not the dawning of the next ice age!
It was a little warmer once we'd left the Alpine region. Here the coach is seen parked at Rheintal Services on the A13/E43, adjacent to the Principality of Leichtenstein
Two coaches were parked overnight in Lauterbrunnen, at the Camping Jungfrau site, with ours heading north-east to Munich today (via Lucerne) and the other due south, bound for Nice. Both driver and guide were Simon and Dave - the same today as yesterday - and both commented how unusual it was since driver rest periods are usually taken here with it being the Busabout admin centre and with slightly more amenities for employees than elsewhere. However, at 0800, Dave greeted us all aboard our coach and Simon started the engine.
Our journey mirrored the end stage of yesterday's, as we retraced our steps along the A8 through the Brünig Pass and onto the A2 to Lucerne. It was here that those leaving the coach were escorted on foot by Dave to the accommodation. Simon, meanwhile, undertook guide duties of his own by escorting everyone else to a shop run by a dude called Harry, down one of the town centre streets. Harry is a purveyor of, amongst other things, Swiss Army Knives, where (knowledge bomb time) non-red variants can be purchased. Only in Switzerland can you officially by a purple knife, for example.
A reasonable amount of banter had taken place upon our arrival at Lucerne and it was now, while holding a small bag containing three sausage rolls, that Simon told us both what had happened. Apparently a neighbouring shop to that of Harry's sells something of a rarity in Switzerland: sausage rolls. Some guides reveal this in their spiel on Lucerne and before the driver can get into the shop to buy some, the passengers have purchased them all, so there was an agreed omission from the welcome-to-Lucerne speil as both driver and guide were feeling mighty peckish.
The Reuss River passes through the centre of Lucerne and is incredibly fast flowing. You'd not survive very long if you fell in. I quite liked Lucerne, though not sure that there'd be enough to occupy me for a couple of days, which is when the next coach would depart.
Back on board, we needed to take another stop before 1230, which is when Simon's 4.5 hour driving stint would be up, and so opted to take it at a service station backing onto one of the world's smallest countries - Liechtenstein. While we didn't enter the country, it was one that had always stuck out in my mind from geography lessons at school. The number plates carried by cars registered there look like those issued pre-1960 here in the UK, being white-on-black, both front and back.
Liechtenstein is something of a tax haven, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that it has more registered companies than citizens. They, like Switzerland, have made attempts during the past few years to prosecute money launders, though this has proven far trickier than had initially been envisaged. There were no knowledge bombs regarding Liechtenstein, but a quick Google provided a couple of my own: it's the world's largest producer of sausage casings and false teeth. It's also a German-speaking country which does not border Germany.
Back on the coach and we were told that the option of a guided tour around Neuschwanstein Castle, in south-west Germany, was on offer. The price would be determined on the number of takers and, in the event, 15 (of 15) wanted to undertake the tour, so a price of €9 was quoted. While the tour was underway, Simon would re-fuel the coach at a nearby BP garage (Busabout only use BP stations, with drivers issued with fuel cards). Neuschwanstein Castle, like so many, has its own story from inception to completion, though is relatively rare because, for a castle of its relative young vintage, it was never completed. It's also the castle on which the Walt Disney emblem is based.
"When you wish upon a star...." is the tune played at the end/start of most Disney productions, with a shooting star passing over an emblem of a castle (below). The castle was based on NeuschwansteinWe arrived at the foot of Neuschwanstein Castle at 1430 and had a look around the gift shops until 1500 when we re-grouped for a walk uphill to where the castle was perched, overlooking the valley. It's not a walk for the faint-hearted. Well, not at speed anyway. Since the remainder of our contingent were Australians and 'uber-fit', it was quite a feat maintaining pace. Though being British, neither of us were willing to lose face by dropping back! Oh know. The most excruciating part was that everyone else not only walked faster and more effortlessly to the top, along the 1.25km road, but that they did so in flip flops!!
However, once at the top, the view was very impressive. A further walk was needed to a vantage point (even higher) in the form of a bridge spanning what must be a 1,000ft drop to the valley floor below. We did it though, and to be honest, ignoring the initial breathlessness, recriminations, painful chests and foot ache, we both enjoyed the walk and soon recovered.
We visited the bridge spanning the narrow but incredibly deep canyon before our tour of the castle. The bridge affords visitors an exceptional shot of the castle in the foreground and most of lowland Germany in the distance
Our tour was a 1555 and we had to queue below a digital display that showed our tour number. While the castle was an impressive sight, the completely human-less and automated start to the tour was not. Where was the warm, friendly welcome? Where were people checking tickets? Where were people offering free advice on where to wait and what you can see from the courtyard? There was none of that. It was, perhaps, clinical German efficiency at its best/worst. When the digital display showed your tour number, you inserted your ticket into the barrier (identical to how you'd gain access to the Underground network in London) and then meandered your way (as you would in a lengthy queue at the local Post Office) through the remainder of the courtyard until you entered the building.
Full details of Neuschwanstein Castle can be read here. It's a fascinating story, but one our castle guide did not tell in full. Partly because some of it does not conform to the image the Germans want to portray (why, for example, was the Walt Disney connection never uttered, when Disney is known to virtually every child on earth) and partly because the tour is, well, a complete swizz: your guide does not deviate from his/her set speech whatsoever and in rooms where echoing is problematic, his/her speech is not altered to accommodate this. You're also guided through only five rooms, with the remainder done on your own. Photography is not permitted either, which incensed one tour member to exclaim: 'sacré bleu!'
The castle is a dominant feature of the landscape and I particularly enjoyed viewing the enlarged photos that showed it being built, with scaffolding clinging to the mountain sides. The views were superb, as was the walk downhill.
There was something of a rush back to the coach, though, as we'd been told 1700hrs and the guided element of the tour lasted 20 minutes (so, on paper our tour was between 1555-1615), but some people took longer than others and there was the 1.25km walk back to the coach. Another 30 minutes could have been afforded quite easily, but we suspected that both driver and guide wanted to push on to Munich as soon as possible.
And this we did. Having briefly passed through Austria when heading to Neuschwanstein Castle, we were now to remain solely in Germany, heading north along some unclassified roads before the B17 and A96/E54 to Munich. The drop-off and pick-up point here is down what you could be forgiven for thinking was a one-way street, with cars parked on both sides of the road. It is in fact a two-way road, just incredibly narrow. Senefelderstraße is the name, and the associated accommodation arranged for anyone who requests it is called Wombats.
We managed to secure a ride to the coach park and passed the site of Oktoberfest, which was in the process of being accommodated for, with a plentiful supply of marquees and stages being erected. Our driver told us that he would be double-manning a coach to Oktoberfest from London during mid-September, which he was very much looking forward to since he'd not been back in Blighty since leaving on 15 May. Upon arrival at the coach park, we both witnessed first-hand the extensive cleaning process that each coach undertakes daily:
- All carrier bags attached to aisle arm rests are either emptier or replaced
- Windows cleaned throughout
- Coach floor swept and mopped
- Carpeted area at front removed and cleaned
- Seat upholstery checked and cleaned if required
- Seatbelts checked
- Dashboard polished
- Exterior windows cleaned, involving the use of a huge wooden pole, at the end of which sits a blade
- Exterior bodywork cleaned
- Windscreen cleaned
- Wheel trims cleaned by cloth
- Security measures taken to ensure coach is as safe as possible parked overnight
While the coach was being cleaned, another Busabout vehicle arrived, this one from Vienna. While the driver of that coach was getting to work polishing his wheel nuts, we headed into the city centre, making use of the U-Bahn. We walked about 3 minutes to an S-Bahn station called Heimeranplatz, though Simon said that the fare was cheaper to Hauptbahnhof from the S-Bahn equivalent, so after videoing two trains (see below) we headed to the subway station.
From here we paid €1,50 for a single fare into the city centre, with the Hauptbahnhof stop virtually opposite Senefelderstraße, down which was located our accommodation - The Euro Youth Hostel (we had a room each tonight). This establishment, incidentally, 'boasts' a 40-bed dormitory. Surely not for the faint hearted!
An evening stroll around Munich was in order, though after partaking some local cuisine, in the form of Wiener Schnitzel (chicken breast in breadcrumb) with chips and a splodge of what looked to be strawberry jam on top of a slice of lemon. It was delicious and what we both refer to as 'safe' foreign food.
Munich is a very nice place to be - certainly the city centre. Although the evening was upon us and it was getting dark, we managed to see many of the sights on display, from the story-telling town hall clock to the infamous Hofbräuhaus, where Hitler made a speech in 1920 that effectively re-united disaffected Germans following their defeat in WWI to ultimately form the Nazi Party. Up until 2006, the Hofbräuhaus held a baby photo of Hitler. We headed inside for a pint but the row was such that you couldn't hear yourself think. There also appeared to be very few seats. Revellers were certainly in full swing. Well, it was a Saturday night and much the same occurs in the UK's city centres.
Munich is certainly a place we'd return to - not only to sample its light rail network, but to take in more of the sights. Sadly, this wasn't to happen on this jaunt as tomorrow we'd move onto our last call - Stuttgart.
Day 4 was Sunday 15 August and did not dawn well. The weather was dull, dank and wet. It was that "fine rain that gets you really wet" and photographing even the now customary adjacent sex shop to our accommodation seemed like a chore as neither of us had bothered to bring an umbrella.
Over the past two days aboard Busabout coaches, we'd travelled exclusively with the same driver and guide and aboard the same vehicle. Of Busabout's batch of VDL/Marcopolos, ours had been 2505 (BR-BX-39). Simon, our driver, told us that the batch is numbered: 2501-10 (BR-BX-35-44). The fleet number's second digit belies the year of manufacture. The existing Busabout fleet is numbered 250x, with the '5' standing for 2005. This morning, three coaches were parked outside Wombats youth hostel in Senefelderstraße - ours, which would again be 2505, 2508 (BR-BX-42) and a newer Berkhof Axial-bodied VDL coach in the base livery of sister company Contiki, but with Busabout vinyls. This was numbered 2807 (BT-XT-58), and was only 2 years old.
It was pouring down as this shot was taken, showing the Busabout line-up for the morning. The first and last coaches were bound for Venice, while the middle one was for Paris via Stuttgart
While there were three coaches, only two routes would be operated: ours to Paris via Stuttgart and the other to Venice. The Venice route was proving so popular that 2807 was operating a duplicate service to the main coach, 2508. Our service would be far less populated, departing at 0800 with just 17 people on board. While the coach and driver remained the same, our guide did not. We bid farewell to Dave, who'd provided sterling service from Nice, through Milan, Lauterbrunnen, Lucerne and Neuschwanstein, and welcomed Amy - another Australian.
With the safety spiel completed, most Aussies fell asleep, the manner in which found both driver and guide chuckling as legs and other body parts lay strewn across the aisle. Being British and made of stronger stuff, both m'colleague and I stayed awake throughout our relatively short distance to Stuttgart. Simon told us that on a good day, the non-stop journey along the A8/E52 can be completed in less than 3 hours. And today must have been a good day as we rocked on in at a shade before 1100.
We were the only two alighting at Stuttgart, with both driver and guide warning us that the town was closed on Sundays. Simon, our driver, knew this especially well since he was also alighting and would be here for 48 hours before taking over the next coach in the same direction on Tuesday morning. There were none to board, but the coach, with its new driver, awaited its departure time, before continuing to Paris. A very long day lay ahead for the passengers, as the Munich-Paris journey is one of the longest on the Busabout network and ends with a mini tour of the city. "It's very rare you finish at the scheduled time," Simon told us, "and the following morning is when departure at 8am can be delayed by the delay incurred arriving the night before".
The Hotel Espenlaub was to be our accommodation for this last night in mainland Europe, and it was the most reasonably priced of the lot. £21 for a double, en suite room each with breakfast the following morning? Ripper, mate!
Busabout tries to situate its pick-up and drop-off points as near to the associated accommodaton as is practically possible, which is a massive bonus since everyone has luggage. Seen here nestled behind the grey building is the coach we just left - which brought is all the way from Nice two days ago, as a passing tram comes into shot
The Busabout guides, while all singing from the same song sheet, add different elements to your experience on board their coaches. While Dave had been very good indeed, his mannerisms and general aura was different to that of Amy. With the Australians always able to laugh at themselves, engaging in English-Aussie banter was always very easy to do. During the 3-hour journey this morning, Simon, Amy and I discussed at what point a bridge becomes a tunnel and what the first letter of the word pterodactyl is (okay, the latter doesn't work when written down). It would appear the Australians didn't do dinosaurs at school!
Back to Stuttgart (or should that be Pstuttgart?) and the rain had now stopped and the sun was shining. M'colleague and I headed into the town centre to have a look at all the closed shops. We made use of the U-Bahn tram network, a stop on which was located immediately outside the hotel. We had a very nice meal in the Bier Garten, with live English language music sung by a German band. There was a bit of a breeze, but not enough to cause problems with crockery disappearing. It was a nice time to reflect the different places we'd briefly visited.
With so little to do in central Stuttgart on a Sunday, we headed to the tourist information centre (which was open) and enquired whether or not there was a cinema showing movies in English near by. We were pointed in the direction of a U-Bahn tram to Vaihingen Schillerplatz, where 100m north there'd be a cinema. Neither of us had seen the recently released The A-Team movie, so we thought we'd give that a go.
It's a tram but it's also underground. The Stuttgart U-Bahn network is more intensive and far-reaching than any location in the UK of similar size benefits from. We made five trips by tram in Stuttgart and one by faster S-Bahn train
The U-Bahn light rail network was very frequent indeed, with trams on most lines operating at least every 10 minutes and with many different routes sharing the same metals, there seemed at times to be a continual stream of spacious trams - all this on a Sunday when everything is closed. Ticket options appeared a little limited when compared to those available on the London Underground, though their value wasn't too bad. The biggest problem was identifying which zone your destination was in as the network map did not show this. Tickets were purchased from the ticket machines located on each platform and then validated on board. Minus the validation requirement, the nearest UK system I would liken it to is Manchester's Metrolink.
We caught the U1 service from Staatsgalerie and were most impressed with the acceleration and lack of noise made by the tram. A feature existed where the doors opened before the tram came to a complete standstill; it was by the same fraction of a second each time, so we assumed that health and safety hadn't been overlooked when the door mechanisms were fitted and that this was just the way they operated. Seating within the trams was 2+2 throughout (Nottingham Express Transit should taken note!) and while minimalist in design, wasn't very comfortable. The ride quality was okay, just the lack of padding beneath the moquette made you numb.
With the exception of riding aboard a Netherland-registered coach, driven by a Brit working for a company based in Switzerland and administered in Guernsey, this had been our first sample of European transport during the jaunt. The trams were all spotless and bore no signs of graffiti or vandalism. They arrived when the screens said they would, were incredibly frequent, reasonably affordable and did not come with gangs of 'disaffected yoof'. In fact, spotting anyone aged between 10-25 years was very unusual indeed.
My father has a 'special adjective' for Germany: civilised. I completely agree.
The movie was a hoot and at a cost of €7,50 represented excellent value for money when compared to UK prices. There were no subtitles or voiceovers, the movie was shown in its original sound track and I'm pretty sure we were the only English people in kino 2. Everyone we dealt with in Germany spoke very good English indeed. Subway, the sandwich shop, was just round the corner from the hotel and while the opening hours and health & safety signage was in German, the full menu was in English and this included phrases like "make it a footlong for €1,50 extra" and "Sub of the Day". It seemed almost wrong for a Brit to ask, in English, for a meal that was advertised in English within a German establishment, surrounded by Germans, in Germany, who, incidentally, were all speaking German.
Consequently, I do not now agree with people who bemoan us Brits for not speaking the same plethora of languages as our continental counterparts. We're just fortunate to speak a truly global language. Anyone into global pop and rock music, fashion and football simply has to deal with the English language whether they like it or not. Imagine the world's major brands suddenly abandoning English for German and it being impossible to walk into a McDonalds and reading the menu in English. We'd soon all start to learn German, and this is essentially what's been happening for years and years in non-English speaking countries.
Day 5 was to be our last, as we were booked aboard the 1020 Flybe plane to Birmingham International. On the day we were to return, this was the only UK destination from Stuttgart. Getting to the airport involved getting a U-Bahn tram from opposite the hotel to the central station, and then a S-Bahn train to the airport itself. A single Zone 1-3 ticket sufficed and at 0820 we were stood at the Olgaeck tram stop awaiting the first of our transport modes back to Blighty.
We actually arrived at Stuttgart Airport over 5 minutes late. The S-Bahn train arrived at Hauptbahnhof behind schedule and never made the time up. However, we'd allowed plenty of time before the gate closed and so weren't constantly clock-watching.
Stuttgart Airport might look a small affair from outside, but it was quite a bustling place indeed. Security was as arduous - but necessary - as ever and then we were twiddling our thumbs until the departure gate was shown. A good hour before departure saw this be revealed, but unlike UK airports, you have passport control to go through literally at the departure gate. The queue for both booths was very long indeed and it took a good 20 minutes to negotiate. The departure gate we'd been sent to wasn't where our plane would be and we were bussed to it - located at one of the far-flung corners of the terminal.
The buses - Cobus 3000s - reverse to the departure gate doors and have ambulance-style rear doors that are the same width as those of the terminal. They both open and passengers board. Once the quota is on board, you're driven to your plane. There really was a lot of activity at Stuttgart Airport, with these transfer buses darting about all over.
Our plane - a Bombardier-built Q400 Dash 8 - was the smallest aircraft I've ever been in. We knew it would be a small plane as Flybe don't go in for jumbo jets on account of their business model being to link the smaller, regional airports around Europe. A total of 26 soles were confirmed as being on board and our two cabin crew made the necessary safety announcements. Flybe offers, for €8,00, the facility to book your seat on the plane. We didn't bother as looking at the plan saw that no one up to one week before departure had bothered. Due to the size of the aircraft, you're allocated seemingly random seat numbers when you check-in. In the event, the allocations are anything but random. They allocate seats on quieter flights like this one to ensure passengers are as spread around as possible, to aid buoyancy.
I hadn't realised that Flybe stands for Fly British European. Anyway, a little behind schedule, our twin-PW150A engines fired up and we taxied to the runway. This took an eternity - worse than Heathrow T4.
Take-off felt a little more intimate than before, on account of this being a much smaller 70-seater aircraft and the smallest plane either of us has flown aboard being an Airbus A319/320. Cruising altitude was reduced to a maximum of 27,000ft, but the captain announced that we'd not exceed 25,000ft. This was a bummer because we were firmly located within cloud. Of Bombarier's Dash range of aircraft, ours - the Q400 - was the newest to enter service, with the first being built in 2000. It was also the middle-sized plane used by Flybe. It had grey leather seating and offered a level of comfort that was deceptive as you entered.
We touched down over 20 minutes ahead of our 1145 local time arrival and as we were sat in the first two seats by the front door, were first off. We'd never landed in Birmingham International Airport before and managed to tick another box through doing so. The journey was also the loudest we'd partaken, both during this journey and since we've been flying. The first video below shows the view from our window, where unusually in our experience, the wings are higher than the cabin. The second shows touch down in Brum.
From here, we'd travel to New Street station and connect onto our respective trains to differing parts of Lincolnshire. M'colleague was to be bound for Skegness via Lincoln, while I was to end the journey aboard the same service that had commenced it four days ago - a CrossCountry Class 170, though bound for Stamford rather than our Peterborough (so a full round trip was cut short by 10 miles). The XC trains departed New Street at xx22 and with an 1145 arrival, I knew the 1222 would be a very tall order, not least due to the journey in from the airport takes a minimum of 10 minutes.
Despite the location of the rail-air link being a closely guarded secret, I like Birmingham International. It's a small affair and with only two terminals nothing's too far away. Except the train station. And Birmingham!
Now for the biggest headache of the entire journey: finding the train station from Terminal 2. Unusually we'd not researched the transfer beforehand, after learning there were just two terminals. As Clarkson would say, how hard can it be? I defy anyone of sound body and mind to find the station from Terminal 2 arrivals in under 10 minutes. The standard signage at Birmingham is all ceiling mounted and in a uniform font. This details everything but 'trains' or 'rail link'. Separate, stand-alone boards that are left on the floor state TRAINS and guide you out of T2 and left towards T1. They then direct you to the most easterly extremity of T1 before pointing within the terminal and them completely ending.
We'd travelled through five countries in five days and had no issued of any kind - much of which being down to the planning made by Busabout, but now we were on home turf and lost. I refused to ask anyone. I was now a Brit back in Britain and typically refused to ask for help! The indignity of it all. It was causing a little concern for me rather than m'colleague, since our 1125 arrival made the 1222 XC train from New Street now a real possibility, but here we were lost in Terminal 1.
Good old dependable NX West Midlands came to the rescue. Popping to the opposing bus station shone light on the matter - excellent publicity at each of the shelters not only showed departure times of local bus services, but maps of the airport and we soon spotted a rail-air link to the east. It became clear that we needed to go up a storey within T1 and this we did - despite no sign telling us to - and hey presto signage resumed. The rail-air link was similar in design to that at Stansted Airport, but far more user-friendly.
We were the only two people in the front car of our two-car vehicle as it departed within 30 seconds of us boarding. We were elevated and travelled for perhaps just under a mile to the train station, passing over the main entrance and exit for road traffic and seemed to weave between hotels and business units. Music was played while travel took place but this reminded me of being on hold to BT. It was, however, a seamless transition 'twixt air and rail terminals and was clearly a very efficient way of moving large numbers of people with minimal effort.
At Birmingham International train station, we had to wait for a London Midland train to New Street, which would depart at 1204 and this was performed by a very punctual Class 350 Desiro. We arrived in the soon-to-be revamped New Street station at 1218 and I shot across to Platform 10 for the XC service to Stanstead via Stamford. I'll not be sorry to see the current interior at New Street go. Like its former coach station counterpart, the platforms themselves are just awful - dark, dingy and depressing.
While Busabout describes itself as the provider of European bus travel for independent travellers, in effect most people who travel with the operator appear to be anything but independent. They take full advantage of the associated accommodation rather than simply use Busabout as a stepping stone between two cities and this is because Busabout's big problem is that you need to commit to more than just one single journey with them to be able to travel. They prefer you to undertake at least one of their three loops or purchase a Flexiride ticket for one-way trips that take in numerous locations along the way. You can't, for example, use Busabout to travel solely between Stuttgart and Paris or solely between Nice and Barcelona. Adopting a truly flexible ticketing policy would surely open up their network to more people.
However, since Australians and Kiwis are the company's staple diet, they are at least tailoring their product to their current clients' needs. No Kiwi backpacker just wants to visit one city in Europe. Guides appear to be backpackers themselves, who love it so much in Europe they don't want to go home. Their love for the outdoors is truly infectious and the enthusiasm is just what Busabout's very active clientele wants to hear. Busabout's lack of amendment fee for on-the-spot changes to people's itineraries is very commendable and is an aspect that could be promoted more.
Their coaches are spotless and the extensive cleaning policy ensures they'll be an excellent purchase for whoever they are sold to by parent company Atlas Reizen next year. The training process for new drivers and guides was described to us by all we spoke with as 'epic' - six weeks, covering all routes, rules and regulations. Drivers tend to be British, though a number of global nationalities are on their books. We both felt the lifestyle Busabout's drivers have is very privileged, but weren't sure if we could stick it for six months. We weren't given even an inkling of their wage as they all, apparently, 'don't do it for the money'. Turnover - based solely on our observations - seems to be high so driving one of these VDL/Marcopolos is clearly not everyone's cup of tea, though Simon seemed to enjoy it, telling us on more than one occasion, he's only ever wanted to drive coaches throughout Europe - most certainly a dream come true.
We believe you'll most appreciate what Busabout has to offer if you're either Aussie or Kiwi. You'll not cringe at all the references to brain farts, fair dinkum, blitzing everything, rocking on in to everywhere and all sentences being spoken as if they're questions. It's all good fun though and we soon learned our guides were more than willing for a bit of mutual mickey-taking. We'd never heard of Busabout before our LEYTR associate mentioned it to us. We're very glad we sampled their wares and look forward to returning next year to brand new Berkhof Axial coaches. They're certainly doing a ripper job promoting Europe to non-Europeans.