They say air travel is the most glamorous way to get around. In the early days of commercial aviation, affluent men and women used to dress up in suits and hats to get on planes. And even today – in the era of Skyscanner and £1 Ryanair flights – you can still have ageless stewardesses and hair-gelled boyband cast-offs make you a fresh Bloody Mary if you stump up the extra cash. Flying might have become less glamorous but it’s still – just about – the classiest way to get around.
Cemented at the least glamorous end of the long-distance travel scale is the coach – the slowest, sweatiest, most tedious way to get anywhere. The only form of modern transport that makes you think you’re in a Frank McCourt novel, bar stowing away in the trailer of a cattle truck. Have you ever seen a celeb getting papped at 4AM at Victoria coach station, pleading for an upgrade to megabusGold? Probably not.
The British – myself included – have a long and difficult relationship with these big, motorway-ready buses. In one sense, they signify fun – escapism realised on the cheap; lads on tour; neighbourhood trips to Margate; jolly boys' outings; away days to Wolves and City. But for many, coaches will forever be associated with primary school trips to Sutton Hoo, smuggling porno playing cards and bangers back from GCSE excursions to Bologne, stink-headed journeys back from university towns and rail replacement bus services. They smelt like disinfectant at first, and piss later on. The windows always rattled, somebody would always try to implement some libertarian seating position and the driver was usually the kind of tar-stained misanthrope who listened to Jethro cassettes and had an engraved pint glass waiting for him somewhere after his shift.
But this British relationship with coaches is perhaps one stuck in the past, because in a post-recession, multinational Europe, coach travel has had something of a renaissance. Thanks to companies like Megabus, Eurolines and Avanza, fares have got to the point where a coach from London to Paris (booked a day or two in advance) can cost less than a cab from Soho to Islington. Eurostar is sometimes ten times as much as an equivalent coach ticket.
All across Europe, swathes of people are packing into coaches and travelling insane distances – Madrid to Bucharest was one journey I saw offered – for very little expense. For someone who hates flying and Boris Johnson’s London as much as I do, it’s become a tempting, slightly romantic constant in my life.
(Photo by Andi Galdi Vinko)
Two weeks' or so ago I made my Pilgrim’s Progress, my crusade – the longest, most unforgiving coach trip I’ve ever been involved in: Lisbon to London. Phoneless, friendless, totally alone the whole way, with only a broken promise of on-board Wi-Fi and a copy of Hans Fallada’s astonishingly bleak Alone In Berlin – hardly a Richard and Judy holiday read – for 1,500 miles.
But during this sweaty, bewildering odyssey across mountains, seas and cultural deadzones, I think I saw a glimpse of a new Europe. A Europe you probably wouldn’t see if your holidays generally involve plummeting into Milan three valleys deep – a Europe that hordes of lost, hopeful people cut across in search of the European Dream. A Europe that doesn’t just exist in Paul Nuttall’s waking nightmares, but in reality. A fluid, boundary-less state of mind and place that transcends language, nationality and colour. The European Single Culture.
It started with a weird turn. I’d been scheduled to fly out of a holiday in Lisbon after six days there with some friends. Lisbon’s a great city right now; cheap, full of bars serving Sagres for a euro, fresh seafood joints you can eat at for less than the Leeds Zizzi, clubs, beaches, packed out squares showing the World Cup – all the shit that makes life worth living, basically.
But a couple of hours before I had to go back, I decided I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do something I’ve hated all my life, to go somewhere I can’t abide living any more. It was a feeling I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quite explain – it just wasn’t happening. I wasn’t flying back to London, even if it would take me another 30 or so lonely hours on coaches, not to mention an extra few hundred quid.
To me, there seemed to be a horrible parallel between flying Ryanair back to London, and London itself. I was going to be thigh-by-thigh with a hundred or so other drunk, silent, lonely people, all of us being ripped off at every turn and wondering why we were returning to London after everything Lisbon had to offer.
So I decided to commit. Lisbon to Madrid, Madrid to Paris, Paris to London. Had I had more time and less to go back for, I probably wouldn’t have come back at all. I'd have lived out the rest of my days like Jude Law in The Talented Mr Ripley – a decadent, drunk, darkened ex-pat hiding out under the Iberian sun. But it’s hard to walk away from things these days.
It started easy enough. At a coach station near Lisbon airport I saw purple decaled 737s pulled into the evening sky by forces most of us try never to understand. At this point a more rational person probably would have considered the ease of flying and the statistical improbability of an air accident. But even when confronted with this overwhelming convenience, I still knew I just couldn’t get on that plane.
For one thing, I still couldn’t help but shudder watching those aluminium doves power towards the ozone layer. It only made the concept of what they do more horribly real – less mechanical, more supernatural, more likely to go wrong. And for the other, a part of me just wanted to drift into this continent that was supposedly mine to roam; to get lost in squares with baking white paving; to drink small beers in under-branded parasols; to eat on the street, at night, in the opposite way to how we in Britain had been told was good and proper.
(Photo by Manu Raivio)
My fellow passengers were a mix of old women, young Angolan guys with iPads, backpackers carrying travel pillows and middle-aged Spanish men who slept the entire way.
As the driver – who had the look of a rookie Europa League manager – drifted out of Lisbon and began to overtake triple-decker lorries, I watched how the people around me were behaving: an understandable blend of boredom and apprehension. Why were they on this thing? Were the Australian couple sat in front of me on the run from an increasingly conservative and stifling society at home? Why was the guy behind me grinning so much? I wondered how these people had wound up on the same coach journey as me, and what it was they thought they were heading towards.
As the suburbs gave way to the scrubs – and the sun to the pitch black of night, pricked only by headlights and hypermarkets – the sense of distance started to set in. There I was, trying to make my way across a continent that millions died to build, on a fucking coach. This wasn't Brighton on a Megabus – this wasn’t even Paris on a Megabus; this was slowly cutting across different worlds.
(Photo by Antti Sepponen)
One important point is that there was no toilet on this thing. Eight hours with no stops, a 23-degree Iberian night outside the Perspex and no toilet. At what point would people start their urinary mutiny – their dirty protest against GoEuro’s stringent scheduling? 'Surely they must have a toilet; surely they must stop soon; surely there must be some kind of law against driving for eight hours non-stop with no piss-break,' I thought. 'In the UK, even all those Megabuses and National Expresses have grim, shaky little shitters onboard.'
And then I remembered we weren't in the UK. In fact, we weren't anywhere near it. We were on an old coach, rumbling down the long, treacherous road between Lisbon and Madrid, sinking into the continent, drifting towards another city of palm trees, marble pavements, football shirts, palace ruins, hair gel and street harassment. Further into Europe, further into the continent of Guetta, Ronaldo and Messi, further away from everything I was trying to leave behind.
As we came to a stop, I was reminded that Portugal is a country where girls who work in motorway toll booths can steal your heart. But then and there, in those endless patchwork fields, I wasn't sure exactly what country I was in. "Europe" seemed a good enough answer, and the girl at the booth seemed like a good enough answer when my stomach clenched its teeth and asked me, “Why are we going to Madrid again?”
(Photo by Kike Carvajal)
I saw a hitchhiker sitting outside the toilets, nursing a sign that read: “BARSALONA”. Once I would have found this funny, but given his proximity to an acceptable place to piss, it was now just bittersweet. My empty bottle of mineral water sat smugly behind the elastic netting of the seat in front. I was dehydrated and in need of a slash – a rare royal flush of personal hell. 'Maybe I could piss in it and then drink it,' I wondered, 'killing two birds with one stone.' Then I remembered how, in all those survival shows, nobody ever resorted to that, and that surely the driver couldn't be going all the way to Madrid without a stop. He looked like a smoker – 'He’s gonna stop,' I thought. But then a Seat driven by a man dangling a fag out of the window slid past and I remembered once more that things were different here.
That fucking bottle continued to smile at me as we endured another hour or so of fields, lights, signs and the kind of terrifying nothingness that reminds you just how little you mean. But then the green signage of a mega mall rolled into view, then some houses, then a few scattered bars lined with white-haired men sitting on white plastic chairs. Then, in the distance, a firework, a sign for some kind of Catholic festival – a sign of life. From the back of the coach I could see the display, green and blue tic-tacs flying across the sky, coloured heat being soaked up by the hot night.
We slowed down and crossed a bridge. Standing on it were hundreds – maybe thousands – of people, pushing up against the low stone sides, sitting on the tops of cars and on each other’s shoulders, gazing and whooping at the thermodynamic display in the sky. It made me think about our endless fascination with the changing of the norm – how the sky changing colour can bring people out of their homes to revel in the chaos of what has changed. Then I was reminded of London, where this kind of thing only seems to happen when somebody's getting hurt.
It was at this point that my phone piped up – a double beep followed by another one. Nobody had that number. I checked it for the first time in months. “Welcome to Spain,” it said.
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