London’s Victoria coach station is a subdued start to a European adventure. Passengers bow their heads, weary at the thought of the lengthy rides ahead with only strangers for company. Every few minutes, a driver enters the waiting area and hollers ‘Southampton!’ ‘Rotherham!’ ‘Milton Keynes!’ The action is accompanied by the heady scent of petrol and exhaust. As travel goes, this isn’t one of the more glamorous journeys.
Even the food options, the saving grace of many departure areas, are few and fast. An ominous-looking Snaxcafe advertises greasy vegetables with fish and chips. I give it a miss. The pigeons scurry beneath the seats for crumbs, ignoring the notices on every wall not to feed them. One wonders how they get so plump on the discarded-chip diet.
It’s little different in the sparsely populated Eurolines queue, which I join to begin my 24-hour journey to Munich. To improve my eco-credentials, I’m travelling to visit a friend in Munich by coach – the CO2 emissions are 27.5kg per person on a coach compared with 157kg per person flying, according to the UK government’s transportdirect.info website. Many of the passengers are French – the coach goes via Lille and Brussels, then through the German cities of Frankfurt, Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Stuggart and Ulm before reaching the Bavarian capital. A driver enters to announce our departure, creating a flurry of activity; frenzied goodbyes, children falling over luggage, tickets and old newspapers bundled up and scurried away, to help the hours pass on board.
One of my fellow passengers is Matt Sweeny, a retired man from Dublin who is heading to the Belgian capital. He tells me he has been travelling by coach for over 20 years. I broach the green issue – is that why he has shunned the plane? No, he tells me, it’s just force of habit. He believes environmental considerations are ‘worth thinking about but it’s hard to tell which way is best’. ‘Do ferries run on biofuels?’ he asks me. I think they run on bunker fuel, I tell him, and promise to investigate, but his attention has turned to checking the contents of his rucksack. ‘No gadgets for me,’ he says, ‘just snacks and a language book.’ I smile and wonder what Walloon sounds like in an Irish accent.
I had expected the passengers to be mainly students but there’s a mix of old and young, families and friends. There are few couples – perhaps 24 hours on a coach is the wrong kind of intimacy. Causing most noise in the departure lounge are Wesley Davis, who has an affro the size of a chicken and a smile as broad, and Stuart Beardshaw, whose hair is such a shocking shade of red that I could read at night by the light of it. Their bags are brimming with gadgets and treats to keep them occupied during the journey. Headphones spill out of Wesley’s bag, and he opens it up to show me his Nintendo DS, which I stroke admiringly, a book of The Wire scripts, Jeremy Clarkson’s Driven to Distraction, which he apologises for reading, Viz and The Guardian. An eclectic mix.
‘Why are you travelling by coach,’ I ask? This is a hilarious question, going by the giggles that break out. ‘Because we’re in a band!’ they tell me, Speed Theory, a heavy metal combo in which Wesley sings and Stuart plays the guitar. They’ve been to Spain with the band before and are heading to Berlin after a change of coach in Brussels. ‘Shame we don’t get road miles,’ Stuart says. ‘The first time I came here a pigeon shat on my head,’ he remembers. ‘The second, one crashed into my head. You need to sort out the pigeons in London.’ I add it to my to-do list. How do you pass the time on the journey, I ask the boys from Birmingham? ‘Sleep! But first we get pissed, when we’re already drunk! Now that passes the time. And we talk nonsense! Loads!’ I make a mental note to sit a little way apart from them, and, feeling like a missionary talking a foreign language, I ask, ‘Did the environment come into your thoughts at all?’ ‘The environment?’ Stuart asks, looking around him. You know, CO2 and that. ‘I thought planes used biofuels. This is worse isn’t it?’ says Wesley. I appear to be alone in being driven by a desire to reduce my carbon footprint. Even the coach company does not advertise its environmental credentials, adding just a short line hidden on the back of its timetables. Middle-class green activists are not its target travellers. People journey by coach because it is cheap.
It’s time to board and the first impressions are good. The coach is clean, if a little smelly and smoky – the smoking ban clearly doesn’t extend to the space two centimeters beyond the open doors. Plastic bags adorn the end of each pair of seats, offering a colourful incitement to be sick. I find a chair in what I hope will be a good spot away from the toilet and doors, shove my rucksack beneath the chair in front – the overhead storage is too slim to store anything thicker than a Naomi Campbell novel – and pull down the table to reveal just the seven unidentifiable crumbs and a blob of chewing gum.
A pretty Lithuanian girl sits next to me but my attempts at communication extend only as far as telling her I went to Prague once, and we pull out chick mags, telling the same stories in different tongues. She’s apparently taking stones on holiday as that’s what’s digging into me from her bag. The German driver, who looks comfortingly like my father, cheerfully announces that the toilet is broken. This is bad news as I crossed my legs in anger at Victoria at the prospect of paying to use the facilities. At least we have a toilet break in Maidstone to look forward to.
There are two drivers; one to, well, drive and the other to make lighthearted announcements about what’s broken. Herr Lighthearted, wearing a cravat and a white cardigan combo that would reassure the most nervous traveller, announces that the TV is also kaput, which is probably a good thing for passenger relations as how would we have chosen what to watch? The digital clock shows 00.09 – I assume it is baffled by constantly traversing time zones but later learn it displays the journey time. The engine starts and Speed Theory clamber on at the last moment, having nearly missed the bus in a mad dash to get more food. Classic rock and roll. Maybe the broken TV will find its way through the back window. There are few seats left and as soon as Stuart sits down he leaps up again shouting: ‘Urgh, my seat’s all wet! Somebody’s pissed on it! Trust me to pick a piss seat.’ A bit of a tongue twister for an inebriated Brummie. Suddenly I am terrified that the next day of my life – we live for only 25,600 days after all – will be taken up entirely with the woman next to me jiggling, an immense queasiness and only a softmint for company.
The ubiquitous Windows jingle is heard from the front of the coach as the first laptop opens and the gadget worship begins. I realise that my wind-up radio is, in the confines of a coach, rather loud to wind up. A group of four young men next to me, who boarded with musical instruments, don sunglasses. I discover they too are in a band, called Red Drapes, and are also headed for bright lights and late nights in Berlin. I’m on a coach of impoverished rock stars!
It takes an hour to get out of London. As we crawl past Jerome K Jerome’s house in Poplar I wonder if I might have been more comfortable in a boat. In Loampit Vale I spy a lady sat in a closed Chinese takeaway looking as trapped as I feel. I already regret my decision to be parsimonious when packing snacks. But my eco smugness level is soaring – so much discomfort to save the world! – and I’m dying to get to Maidstone, a most unusual sensation. By Dagenham Motors in Eltham my legs are rather hot because the coach heating is unnecessarily on. By Dover, my left trainer is melting.
Speed Theory are still giggling. I doze. The passengers begin to murmur to each other, are we crossing by ferry or tunnel? We reach the Channel Tunnel so I rouse myself for the excitement of leaving England, with the many smokers on the coach outraged at being denied an hour-long fag break on the seas. It was a big mistake to wake up: travelling in a coach on a train in a tunnel is extremely claustrophobic. Finally, to my delight, we emerge the other side. Herr Announcer has upgraded to a brown sheepskin-lined number to sartorially mark our progress to the continent. Restoring our passports after French security have given them the once-over, Herr Driver holds a passport of an Italian male in my face and says: ‘Sind sie?’ ‘Nein,’ I say, ‘Ich bin eine dame.’ Who says German is a tricky language to master?
At Brussels Nord, I wake again. It is almost impossible to sleep through stops, such is the bustle. A French couple say a traditional farewell; kiss, kiss, kiss, left, right, left, then a prolonged smacker with tongues. It can be lonely left alone with your thoughts for a whole day’s travelling. At the next stop I get out for a stroll and am surprised to feel the ground crunch with snow. ‘Wo sind wir?’ I ask the chipper lady in Gusticus service station in the early hours. ‘Aachen,’ she says. ‘Ah Aachen!’ I say. ‘Charlemagne!’ Ya bestimmt,’ she replies. Then I see a sign saying Karlsruhe and am confused.
I feel sorry for the people who are dumped at a cold Frankfurt aux Maine at 4.30am to wait for their connection to Prague. A couple join us but inexplicably sit at other ends of the coach and then holler at each other. At Stuggart the Mercedes Benz sign spinning above the Hauptbahnhof suggests something a little more civilised than previous breaks so I dash inside for a delightful 50cent bathroom trip, a Findlandaise and Käsebrotchen, and a Milchkaffee. Bliss. After passing beautiful Tudoresque houses in the Barden urttemburg countryside, with sweeping hillsides deep in snow, I am beginning to feel at home on the coach. Then I detect the sound no passenger wants to hear – the cry of a baby. Munich cannot come too soon. Fortunately, it’s just another three hours to go…
Three suggestions to make your coach journey more comfortable
Take a torch if your reading/sleeping habits differ from your neighbours. A wind-up one if you want to annoy them.
Choose your seat wisely: the window seat can be both drafty and too hot. In the aisle seats you are likely to be knocked every five minutes. The seats by the side exit are too bright as the light is kept on for night-time toilet trips, even when the toilet is broken. And as you will remember from school trips, the wheel seats are bouncy and the front seats are for squares.
Always get out at stops if allowed. Your seat will seem vastly more comfortable after a stretch.
What to do when you finally arrive in Munich
The capital of Bavaria is renowned for its massive Steins of frothing beer, vast museums and stunning churches. Head to Marienplatz and you’ll not be far from a Bierhalle or Bierkeller where you can sample a range of delicious beer, from a dark, challenging Dunkel to refreshing Alm Radler – beer made with Austrian lemonade. I recommend the family-friendly Wirtshaus im Fraunhofer, where Lowenbrau and Franzhauer Weiss Bier are the choicest tipples, or Augustiner am Platzl, to sample Radler, Edelstoff, Dunkel or if you are brave enough, Augustiner hell, in bottles or as fassbiere (draft). But remember to take coins for the toilet. There’s often a lady with a plate smiling and she can make you feel guilty if you spend a penny without paying a cent.
The Drei Groschen Keller – (the address is Lilienstrasse but the entrance is on Zeppelin strasse) is a homage to the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Prepare to be stunned by the decor. With nine differently flavoured lemonades this is the perfect Radler pub.
For jazz lovers there’s Mister B’s, aka Alex, where you can head back to the 1920s in a tiny green room, sipping daquiri or campari and soda, listening to the musical moans of that night’s band singing favourites such as Cry me a river and Abracadabra.
Museum lovers should prepare to be exhausted by what Munich has to offer. Königsplatz offers a triangle of delights: Glyptothek (which contains ancient Greek statues), Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Greek and Roman antiquities) and the 19th century neoclassical Doric Propylea gate.
The trio of Pinakothek museums (Alte, Neue and Modern) will keep art lovers happy for hours or take the No17 tram to the Deutsches museum to experience life working down a mine shaft.
For a truly surreal afternoon hop on the No100 museum bus to the Bayerisches national museum, which displays cribs made out of paper, wood, ivory and felt, depicting nativity, passion and bucolic scenes. Also on display are Jesus dolls – unintentionally sinister comforters for 12-year-old nuns.
Catholicism and the counter-reformation have left their mark on Bavaria’s devout capital. Look out for the devil’s footprint, complete with spur, and the massive statue of St Christopher with oversized hands in the Frauen Kirche. Or if you want to fuse the divine and the heathen, head to the Andechs monastery on the outskirts of Munich, which has its own Bräustüberl.