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. Part 1 details the vehicle's make and model. Of the 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.
The LEYTR Jaunts standalone blog will house this whole European Jaunt in full as from tomorrow.