Bonjour Friends,

This is the gripping real-life tale of Roberts big bus adventure through Europe! Although told with a healthy dose of animation, it is absolutely all true. Not that I had ever intended to take a marathon 30-hour bus journey of approximately 1700 km in the first place. With the relatively affordable cost of air travel within Europe a plane ticket is the same price or less, much more expedient, and as I now appreciate far less harrowing. Settle in with a beverage of choice and join me on my epic journey!

Let’s start from the beginning. I did actually have a lovely direct flight booked from Granda to Paris on April 30, which would get me safely back to my little garret on I’lle Saint Louis a full day before the highly anticipated strikes and civil unrest that had been called for May 1 in continued reaction to the age of retirement being raised in France. Well played I thought, why chance a potentially bumpy journey back when you can just get ahead of the situation and go before any potential fallout complicates things. I felt good about my forward thinking and enjoyed the rest of my time in the beautiful Andalusian sun. Then only a few days before my departure I noticed an article in the news announcing that cabin crew for my Spanish airline were out on strike from April 28 – May 1. Woohoo, nothing like another fly in the ointment to keep things nice and spicy!

As I began to scramble to find other alternate travel arrangements it became apparent that flight might not be a good option at all, Air Traffic Controllers in France were also going to be striking for several days from April 30 – May 2. Was the world trying to tell me to put down roots in Granada? Nope, I wasn’t having it! After a few happy weeks exploring southern Spain, I was really looking forward to being ensconced back in my little apartment overlooking the Seine. I had always heard about the slickness and relative ease of train travel within Europe, so figured that this would be the next best option. After a cursory check for impending rail strikes, it looked like I had the green light. I searched and searched, but it became apparent that my train travel options were far less slick than I had hoped. Perhaps because I was now searching so close to my departure date, the options were extremely limited and involved lengthy layovers in multiple stations. I also searched for a rental car that I could pick up in Granada and drop off in Pairs, but no dice. What to do, what to do? That is when I suddenly remembered the fun childhood bus trips I had with my cousin whenever we visited our grandparents.

After a bit of research with my partner in crime Google, it appeared that the bus was actually a stroke of genius. Apparently, it was the preferred mode of travel in Spain, and the coaches themselves were equipped more like airplanes complete with seatback entertainment systems, USB charging ports and even an attendant that offers food and beverage service on longer haul trips. Did I just discover a best kept national secret? Even though the trip itself would take over 24 hours, it was still much faster than the train option with only 2 brief connections to make in Madrid and Bilbao. There were several stops along the way, but I wouldn’t have to get off, and it would be a great way to see more of the Spanish and French countryside…I was getting excited! With my ticket bought I figured perhaps everything does happen for a reason, and know that when travelling you often have to just roll with things.

The next day I made my way to the Granda bus station with a few hours to spare. It did indeed appear that bus travel was a highly popular option, and the place was hopping with people and motorcoaches coming and going. I made my way to the large arrivals and departures board but was dismayed to see that the bus number and destination corresponding with mine was now leaving for Madrid 2 hours later than expected. With less then 2 hours to make my connection to Bilbao this delay meant that I would not get there in time, and thus also miss my onward connection after that to Paris. I went up to the bus companies ticketing area but there were no actual people to assist, only self-service kiosks. Ah progress, the automation of everything! I managed to find a lovely lady at a general information counter who spoke some English, and kindly assured me that it would be clear to anyone but a fool (not her exact words) that someone had probably just entered the wrong information on the arrivals and departures board, very normal, not to worry. When I pointed out that this rather negates the purpose of having an arrivals and departures display, she sharply advised me that someone from the bus company would correct it then shooed me away.

After enjoying a nice cup of lukewarm bus station coffee while attempting to preoccupy myself with some light reading, I couldn’t help but notice that it was getting closer to departure time and the information board was still showing a 2pm departure instead of 12pm, and the bus was also suspiciously absent at the assigned gate. When I went back to have another chat with my new friend at the information desk, I noticed that there was now an actual agent from the bus company assisting people at the kiosks, so I went and joined the long queue to perhaps get some answers straight from the horse’s mouth. After waiting ages, I was finally rewarded with my very own real live human to interact with! As I outlined my concerns about the delayed departure time and its impact on my subsequent onward connections, the gracious colleague looked at me as though I was demented. Wasn’t it obvious you silly goose, clearly someone had just entered the wrong information on the display board and then simply couldn’t be bothered to correct it? Very straight forward really you lunatic, all is well with the world! I am convinced that she was colluding with the information desk curmudgeon all along to baffle the poor clueless Canadian. When I mentioned that the bus wasn’t at the departure gate either, she said that it was now and about to leave actually.

Apparently during the ice age that I had waited to speak with the lone bus company representative my motorcoach had indeed arrived at the designated area. And for the record, I noticed that the information board departure time had still not been corrected as I sprinted past! As I got closer to the gate, I could see that all the other passengers were already onboard, and the giant bus was idling impatiently. Gasping for air, I was the last soul to jump on just before it pulled away. I reclined in my spacious and comfortable seat and breathed a sigh of relief; I was on my way. I made a mental note to totally disregard all passenger information boards and directional signage at onward stations and surely all would go smoothly. Paris, here I come!

After an enjoyable and genuinely relaxing 5 hours of watching the beautiful and diverse Spanish countryside whizz by, we were now arriving in Madrid. Appreciating that I had less then 2 hours to make my connection and knowing that the station was huge, with signage and general information most likely being shaky at best – I would need to have all my wits about me. I am glad that I did mentally prepare, because the station could only be described as pure and utter chaos. Due to the popularity of bus travel in Spain and Madrid being a main hub, the station was absolutely massive, with hissing and fuming buses everywhere and thousands of people running around and shouting in a babble of tongues. As there were countless gates spread out across the mammoth complex, it appeared that I would have to refer to the dratted information board after all. Scanning the eyewatering number of departures for all points imaginable, alarmingly I couldn’t find mine for Bilbao at all.

After approaching a few helpful looking security people and an information kiosk it became apparent that I didn’t have enough Spanish to effectively get any information from these sources. With the countdown timer running loudly in my mind, I quickly got in line at the only open ticket counter for my bus company. After another healthy wait, a jolly employee informed with a look of sweet satisfaction that the Bilbao bus actually departed from another station altogether! At least he kindly gave me the name of the street it was on before swiftly brushing me aside. Tick tock went the clock as beads of sweat began to form on my brow. I managed to find a Policeman who spoke a bit of English and asked where I could get a taxi to the other station, but he advised to just take the subway which departs regularly from the bowls of the enormous building we were in. It would be quick and easy even for a simpleton like me, now off you go! After descending countless escalators to the very subterranean subway station, I rushed to the ticket booth and was luckily able to communicate a bit with the cashier. I discovered that the subway station names have nothing to do with the street names or places they are related to, so it made figuring out where I would get off very tricky. When I mentioned this to the woman now taking my payment, she told me it would be simple, where I need to be was 6 stops from where we were, so just count them as I ride the subway. When I tried to confirm that I would need to get off at the 6th station, she pondered for a moment before saying that maybe it was actually the 7th, and then I kid you not, made a sign of the cross and prayer hands before shoving me through the turnstile.

As the subway car rocketed through the dark tunnel, I began to get worried. I now had less than an hour before my onward bus left and no idea which subway station to get off at, or if there would be any other means of transportation available if I did lose track of where I was. I tried to ask a few other passengers what station I should get off at, but due to my limited language skills they couldn’t work out where I was trying to go. Careening aimlessly past stations now, I had lost count of stops and didn’t know how many I needed to count anyway. I would have to make some quick decisions if I was going to catch my next bus at all, or perhaps just give up and live on the Madrid subway? I hopped off at the next station and ran across to the opposite platform just in time to catch the train running in the other direction. I had taken note of the name of the station that I left the last bus terminal from, so I would go back there to find a cab. It turned out to be an excellent decision as I would have never found the right subway stop to get off at. The satellite terminal was not close at all and actually seemed to be on the other side of the city. Even going at a good clip, the taxi took about 20 minutes to get there.

We finally pulled up to what looked like a deserted little glass enclosure with stairs going underground. Had the driver understood me correctly, how could this be a bus station? The other terminal had been bigger than most airports and this one looked like a lonely access point for a parking garage and not a bus in sight. He assured me that yes indeed this was it. With only about 15 minutes to spare before my bus was due to leave, I would just have to trust. As I rushed down the long flight of stairs with luggage in tow, a grubby underground bus station did begin to appear! Why in the world the bus company did not provide information during the ticket purchase about the fact that my connecting bus would be from another location across the city is beyond me, and my tickets showed the same station name for both arriving and departing Madrid. Perhaps the same station is just split up across the city? Very confusing and not super handy when your booked itinerary has a short connection time at rush hour! There was no information desk or bus company associates of any kind at this satellite departures area, so I would need to just rely on the information screen. I couldn’t locate an exact match for my bus information but found one departing for Bilbao at a similar time with a few other bus company names attached to it but not mine. I quickly made my way there as it was just finishing up boarding, and happily discovered that I was at the right place. As the bus chugged out of Madrid with my head still spinning, never have I been so happy to leave a place!

As we got closer to Bilbao the landscape grew more mountainous and the sky darker and darker, now ominously slashed through with bolts of lightning and booms of thunder. Then the heavens opened up, pelting the bus with so much rain that the poor driver had his face pressed right up against the windshield and high beams on to see anything as he negotiated the twists and turns. As the lightning briefly illuminated our craggy surroundings, I realized what a challenging drive this must be during such an intense storm in the dead of night. Understandably our driver had to slow down until the weather eased up a bit, so we started to lose time quickly. I only had an hour to make my connection to Paris once in Bilbao, so kept a nervous eye on the clock as our scheduled arrival time came and went and we now got later by the minute. Fortunately, as we got closer to the city the roads were easier to navigate so our bus driver really put his foot down on the accelerator. In spite of his best efforts, we still pulled into the Bilbao station almost an hour late, which meant that my last connection onward to France would be departing at any moment. As I bolted into the station, I was hoping against hope that perhaps it was departing from an adjacent gate. When I consulted the information screen it showed the bus to Paris departing on time at 12:45am but provided no gate information at all. At that hour there was no one available to ask for information, so I just began going from gate to gate to see if I could track it down, or perhaps it had already left? It was becoming clear that Spanish bus stations and I are not meant to mix.

Eventually I stumbled upon a few passengers who spoke some English and confirmed that they were also waiting for the bus to Paris. They had managed to find a security person to ask if the bus was running late but were told there was no update from the bus company. It was now 1:30am and the screen still showed that our phantom bus was “on time” to have departed an hour ago, from gate unknown. I was beginning to get the sinking feeling that this trip was just never going to end. Exhausted, hungry, thirsty and stressed I began considering my options. Did I look for a hotel close to the station and try again the next day, and perhaps revisit all onward options to Paris in the morning after a bit of shut eye? Just as I was gathering information online (did I mention that my phone charger also decided to stop working, so I had very little battery life left) a gruff looking man came into the waiting area and simply barked out “Paris” and then rushed back outside. Our very relieved little group ran out and tried to keep up with the driver as he weaved his way through parked buses and across laneways to the other end of the large underground parking lot where our vehicle was still running in the middle of the driveway. It was already almost full of passengers from earlier stops and was now at capacity with the addition of our crew. Likely feeling the pressure of running so late, the bus and driver both looked like they had seen better days. After chatting for a bit with the elderly gentleman beside me, I popped another Gravol which I had been eating like tic-tac’s and closed my eyes, confident that all I had to do now was just try to get some sleep until we arrived in Paris. Little did I know that the adventure was only getting started!

Just as we began to wind our way up into the Pyrenees Mountains around 2am, another wicked storm encircled us with thunder and lightning, wild wind and drenching rain. Rather than adjusting his speed downward as the last driver had to allow for the poor conditions ours steadily accelerated now, causing the huge motorcoach to thrust its shuttering bulk forward faster and faster down the rollercoaster road. By the time were negotiating the tightest hairpin turns at the highest elevations our bus was literally going so fast that every time we skidded around another corner all of the tires would squeal and screech loudly in protest. Whenever a crack of thunder and lightning momentarily lite up the darkened interior of the bus I could see the terrified looks on other passengers faces. You could have truly heard a pin drop. Everyone had white knuckle grips on their arm rests to help prevent us from flying out of our seats on the tighter turns. I was sitting close to the front, so also had a terrifying firsthand view of our speeding bullet loosely swerving back and forth over the center line and how close we came to the edge on more than a few turns. It was right around this time that the driver also started to sing loudly and offkey to himself. It seemed like an odd choice given the fact that it was the middle of the night and presumably his passengers might be trying to sleep. To wet his whistle during the impromptu performance he was taking big swigs from a bottle wrapped in tinfoil and would then push down on the accelerator even harder. And so on went our hair-raising ride through the mountains into San Sebastian, being serenaded while having several years shaved off of our lives at the same time.

Fortunately for my sanity, at this point I hadn’t yet read the several news stories about bus crashes on these very same mountain roads, and how frequently they occur. The most recent happened only a few months prior and involved a bus taking a corner a little too eagerly, which resulted in it plunging into a ravine. Another article described a head on collision not long ago that caused both vehicles to burst into flames. Just these 2 bus accidents alone caused a heart-breaking number of passenger casualties, and there were other examples too. Yikes, where was this information when I was reading all about the glories of Spanish bus travel prior to booking?! It turned out to be more like participating in an extreme sport then a relaxing journey. Our ride through the Pyrenees definitely felt like doing the luge without having any control. Mercifully as we approached the border with France the weather and driver had settled down considerably, perhaps impressed with himself that we had made up so much lost time during the most dangerous part of our trip.

Something seemed very odd as we pulled up to the border crossing, there were a lot of police vehicles with flashing lights and a line of Border Control Security waiting for our arrival. This was the point at which things began to feel very surreal. After not sleeping for almost 24 hours, little to eat or drink, having just survived a suicide run through the mountains and countless Gravol in, my nerves were jangled, and I couldn’t wrap my head around what was going on. After the bus was waived over to the side of the road several Boarder Agents and Police got on and began asking to see travel documentation and subsequently took several passengers outside into the cold rainy night with their luggage for further questioning and inspection. A few were then taken with their belongings into a building. My head was swimming with questions. What was going on, would we all have to be interrogated and searched, how long would we be here, what if there was a language barrier, what happens when a person is denied entry at this border crossing in the middle of nowhere? As they escorted yet another passenger off the bus the elderly man next to me matched my sentiments exactly, quietly groaning “My God” to himself with head in hands.

Just as despair and confusion were settling in throughout the bus our driver was waived outside and advised that we were now free to leave, and it appeared as though several of our travelling companions wouldn’t be completing the onward journey with us. For a good while after we pulled away there was much nervous chatter and clucking in different languages. Everyone speculating what had just occurred and what the passengers who had been detained were guiltily of. Had we be travelling with criminals on the run or perhaps drug mules? Our humble bus trip to Paris was becoming a night filled with danger, mystery and intrigue!

And so, we road on through the night and into dawn. I won’t go into detail about every little episode but rest assured that it continued to be the twilight zone. In-between short snatches of fitful sleep, I witnessed many little dramas unfold. A woman becoming stuck in the lavatory, two passengers arguing about the volume of snoring, a gentleman missing his stop completely while making use of the onboard washroom a little too long, and a guy running behind the bus as it pulled away from a stop without him while he enjoyed his cigarette. My close to breaking point came when we stopped at a completely automated fuel station in the middle of nowhere and the bus driver’s payment method, a company fob wouldn’t work. With precious little fuel left to move forward, certainly not enough to get us to the next city we just sat there for what seemed like ages. The poor driver made calls on his cell phone, spoke into an intercom several times with great futility, tapped the fob a million times, made more frantic calls while pacing back and forth, and smoked many cigarettes. The latter seemed particularly ill-advised as he was still holding a fuel nozzle in the other hand. To make it this far only to be blown sky high by a careless bus driver seemed an unusually cruel fate. Just as I was seriously getting ready to hop off and begin hitchhiking, the driver did a heroic thing and found a work around by using his own credit card to fill up. After almost an hour at the deserted little fuel station we were once again steaming towards Paris!

The funny thing about being in close quarters with an unknown group of people for an extended period of time is that you start to become attached to each other, bonded by a common experience. Even though most of us spoke different languages, we would still share a knowing glance or comforting smile, sometimes simply a wink or wide-eyed expression as one crazy event or another occurred. We all tried to bridge language barriers as best as possible to ensure that everyone knew what was going on or got the assistance they needed and started to get to know a bit about each other. Chatting with the gentleman next to me I learned about his childhood growing up on the Canary Islands and extensive travel before finally settling down in Bordeaux. Sharing shy smiles and playing peekaboo with the sweet little girl across the aisle from me. Having the dignified older French couple in front of me turn around to smile and sigh with relief when we arrived at their stop, shaking my hand and wishing me a good journey as they left. There was a sense of comradery, that we were all in this together and going to get to Paris one way or the other! As we got closer to the city more and more passengers began getting off at the various stops, and I would actually find myself missing each personality after they disembarked. Somehow our tribe was no longer complete. I knew that it was a night none of us would soon forget, and most would be talking about at dinner parties for years to come!

As our road weary bus finally pulled into Bercy Station in Paris close to 30 hours after my adventure began, I made a silent promise to myself. Once I finished kissing the ground and got settled back into my apartment, I was writing my adventure down before I forgot any details. It was just too good not to share, because contained within it is the essence of travel. Connecting with different people, bridging cultural gaps, being open to change and new experiences, perseverance and adventure, learning to let go, making memories, and hopefully keeping a sense of humor about it all!

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