The Last True Adventure in Europe
Europe: West to East
Some travel elitists will tell you that Europe has been done. It’s all been done. Just about every last reasonable inch of Europe has been conquered and ruined by tourists and that there’s no true, unexplored escapades left to be had. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I have recently participated in what could be arguably and tamely labeled as the definitive European travel adventure. There’s a little something for everyone in this package; danger, resourcefulness, tenacity, diplomacy, physical punishment, mental fortitude, meticulous organization, high speed, white knuckle driving, deliberate starvation, sleeplessness, hygienic challenges and bladder endurance for starters.
Yes, the seventy-two hour, 2,330 mile bus ride from Cadiz, in the southwest of Spain to Iasi, in the northeast of Romania is non-stop, spine-grinding, confined excitement. If you’re really tough or unusually stupid, you might like to make the trip in the unrelenting heat of mid-June. Oh heck, make it interesting by taking a dubious, Eastern European bus company. Then top the whole thing off with the first, and possibly the last, meeting with your new girlfriend’s parents when you are dropped off stinking and near raving lunacy and exhaustion, at 3:30am on a Monday morning. Who else thinks this would be a killer reality TV show?
Before the Horror
Clearly, no sane person would voluntarily undertake this ordeal without a million dollar prize to be had. The decision was pretty much made for me, under extreme duress. I had spent winter/spring in temperate Cadiz, editing my travel writing from the previous seven months of roaming around Europe and experiencing for the first time what it’s like to pass a winter away from my own Minneapolis where I wouldn’t have to face life-threatening wind-chill factors or exhume my vehicle from a three foot snow drift twice a week. During this time I met and started dating Catalina, a cute-as-a-button, Romanian geo-ecology student. As our time in Cadiz came to a close, I decided – actually, I believe I was ordered – to accompany her home to Iasi where I would do three additional months of editing and agent hunting while taking a few breaks to explore what Lonely Planet had deemed the “wild west of Eastern Europe,” where “mass tourism means you, a horse and cart and a handful of farmers.” With the budget constraints that come with being an unemployable travel writer and the perennial travel junkie allure of visiting someplace different and off the beaten path, Romania was actually a very attractive proposition, even without my adorable little tour guide and translator at my side. But I digress.
I did not want to take the bus. I really did not want to take the bus. I wanted nothing less than a nice flight from nearby Malaga into Bucharest, via Paris, supplemented with a couple, quick, non-taxing, supporting stints of ground travel to get me to and from airports. Though, as I mentioned, I am deeply steeped in the budget travel arena. I am also 34 years old, with a temperamental back and finding it more and more difficult to find slumber in anything but near-perfect conditions. From my perspective, three days on a bus in the dead heat of summer would be a demoralizing exercise in cruelty endurance, like walking on hot coals or listening to the collected works of Kylie Minogue. I spent two weeks fruitlessly looking for a plane ticket that didn’t have a price-tag that made me audibly gasp. Even if I took a train for nine hours to Madrid and caught a plane there, I was still looking at a €500 (US$610) plane ticket. Ouch. Then of course there was the chivalry angle. Sending my sweet girlfriend home all by her lonesome on a three day bus ride, while I jetted in quickly and comfortably seemed a bit reprehensible, even if she had already successfully made the trip once before when she came to Spain, was 10 years my junior, all of five feet tall, with a stout back and generally more physically prepared to weather cramped quarters for long periods of time. So after weeks of scouring the Internet and a few bouts of uncontrolled sobbing at the prospect, I made the reservation for the bus and mentally prepared myself for the tribulation of a lifetime.
The final itinerary unfolded as follows:
- 8:00pm Thursday – Get on a four hour bus from Cadiz to Malaga.
- Midnight to 5:30am Friday – Spend the night on the street in Malaga (Neither one of us felt like dropping €35 (US$43) for a hostel room that we would only occupy for about five hours).
- 6:00am Friday – Get on the bus to Iasi.
- 6:01am Friday to 2:00am Monday – Suffer through the worst indignity that I have ever inflicted upon myself on purpose.
- 2:00am Monday – After 78 hours with almost no sleep, no shower, no shave and subsisting on a diet of crackers, cookies and the occasional rest-stop, over-priced, three day old sandwich, introduce my old, unemployed, American ass to Cat’s stunned and appalled parents.
Just to add to the misery, my last two nights in Cadiz were occupied with two separate goodbye parties at the beach resulting in me getting five hours of supremely drunken sleep on the second to the last night and four hours of sober, but pathetically inadequate sleep on the final night.
So, the stage was set and I was in a panic. Packing, squaring things with our hated landlord, squeezing in a final shower, gobbling down a “Last Supper” and getting to the Cadiz bus station was all accompanied by heart palpitations and paranoia of having forgotten something important. I backpacked for seven months straight the previous year, but five months of idleness in Cadiz had brought my travel savvy and nonchalance back down to zero. It was like the scene in “Home Alone” the morning the family leaves for their trip, where everyone is tearing around the house, screaming incoherently, searching for tickets, jumping on suitcases to get them closed, leaving important stuff like young children behind…
We managed to get from Cadiz to Malaga without any trouble and what I had expected to be an excruciating, sleepless night on the street in front of Malaga’s bus station with weirdos, prostitutes and drunks (the station closes from midnight to 6:00am) was only mildly unpleasant, even with my already sizable sleep deprivation problems weighing on me.
Our first sight of the bus that would be our home for 68 hours was actually very encouraging. It was a double-decker affair and being a grizzled bus veteran, I knew that it was imperative that we get the seats on top and up front for the fantastic frontal, panoramic view of the landscape rather than the usual side view of scenery streaking by too fast to really appreciate anything for more than a heartbeat. Also encouraging was the number of people boarding the bus. Malaga was only the first stop, of course, but there was just eight of us sprawled out over a 71 seat double-decker bus. We could each lay full out across an entire row of seats in a relative orgy of personal space. However, by the time we had stopped and brought on passengers in Granada, Alicante, Valencia, Barcelona and countless smaller Spanish cities over the next 16 hours, it was a whole different story. The space problem aside, there were a few ripe individuals who appeared as if they had already gone three days without a shower before getting on the bus. By carefully spreading our bodies and bags across the four front seats, we managed to make the area uninviting enough to new passengers that we succeeded in keeping all four seats to ourselves. Though this might have also had something to do with the deteriorating comfort level up front. As the sun rose higher and beat down on that gigantic window, the front of the bus was quickly turning into a heat bath, making the perk of the superior view less and less appealing.
I’m about as likely to get genuine sleep on a bus as I am to get genuine assistance from a German train conductor, but having had less than 10 hours of sleep in the previous three nights, I unexpectedly and unwillingly lost consciousness the instant that the bus pulled out of the station. This was unfortunate in that the scenery while driving across the coast of southern Spain is spectacular. Until we hit the Alps in Austria, it was by far the best scenery for the entire trip and I missed nearly all of it while drifting through various states of oblivion. There were breathtaking mountains, Arabic ruins and the sparkling sea to ogle virtually the entire way and all I saw of it were brief snippets during the lively moments that I was awake after the driver had taken one of his preferred gut-wrenching turns, causing all of us to list wildly into the window or the person next to us. After each of these maneuvers, we would all take about five seconds to regain our bus composure, during which time I would inevitably be faced with some fantastic vista, but then abruptly my eyes would roll back into my head and I’d return to a coma-like state until the next hard turn.
I finally came to and stayed awake after our stop in Granada. Once the Sierra Nevada mountains dropped out of sight, the scenery became positively dull. Just the open highway and nondescript countryside with nothing but gas stations and rest stops to break up the monotony. It was like driving through Minnesota, except hotter. Much hotter. It reached 95°F by noon on the first day and as a result of my painfully shortsighted desire to have the best vantage point, we were surrounded on three sides by windows with the sun beating down and marinating us no matter what direction the bus turned. From about 10:30am until 7:00pm the heat in the bus was so unrelenting that I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read, couldn’t appreciate the scenery (what little of it warranted appreciating) and couldn’t absorb the on-the-fly Romanian lessons that I was intermittently trying to wrench out of Cat. While the bus was still half empty, we retreated back a few rows of seats so we weren’t sitting and baking in direct sunlight. This gave us minor reprieve, but the day was still long and uncomfortable. The temperature was holding steady at 95° outside the bus, but the top deck was easily 110° in the shade.
We were told as we boarded the bus in Malaga that it was a “new” bus and that we should treat it with exceptional care. Barely a minute later, we started to happen on all of the broken bits, which included my first seat that reclined with difficulty and then wouldn’t move from that position for the remainder of the trip, an unsettling clanking noise below the dash of second level, the front shade only going half way down which was absolute torture at the height of the afternoon sun, and what was either a tremendously deficient air conditioning system or the driver’s inability to effectively operate it, as piping hot air was pumping out of the vents just as often as cool air.
The first of many shockingly unpleasant lessons in Romanian bus organization and incompetence (we were on a hateful Romanian line called Atlassib) came when after what seemed like an eternity of suffering with the heat, out of desperate curiosity I lunged to the front of the bus and checked the vents where I discovered the aforementioned A/C shortcoming. Sure enough, hot air was billowing out of the vents. I double checked and dragged Cat up front to confirm this for me. Yes, it was hot air, probably pumped in from outside, but it was so hot that it almost seemed as if the heat might be on. I asked Cat to go down and find out the exact reasoning behind broiling us all on purpose during the hottest part of the day, but she wouldn’t go.
Actually, by that point, no one would talk to the Atlassib people. The bus driver and two onboard assistants had already proven to be rude, discourteous assholes. A few of the exasperating indignities that they had already managed to execute included playing the same CD for the first 10 hours of the trip, which would have been intolerable even if it had been good music played at a reasonable volume, but it was some Turkish crap that sounded as if it had been recorded entirely on a 1983 Casio keyboard and they had the volume cranked up to mid-evening-at-the-bar standards. When one of their favorite songs came on they’d briefly jack up the volume even higher. The speakers were copiously placed above every other row, so there was no escape. When someone finally went down to plead for a music change after the eighth run-through of Turkey’s Greatest Hits, she was greeted by unfriendly grumbles and an attitude bordering on abusive. The behavior of the Atlassib people just got worse from there. At a 10 minute rest stop, they closed the doors and started to pull out of the bus station at nine minutes and 55 seconds while two of us were on final approach to the rear door. Apparently they felt that this passive-aggressive, feigned, near-abandonment was an acceptable manner in which to demonstrate that we had not returned fast enough for them. As I climbed on the bus, I sternly voiced my displeasure with this tactic. The language barrier probably prevented them from getting the full color of my dressing-down, but my attitude was unmistakable and from then on, the air between the staff and myself was icy. Fortunately in Barcelona, at the 16 hour mark, there was a requisite full staff change and the next shift was much better behaved.
The worst, borderline criminally neglectful indecency, however, was the complete lack of stops at places that served actual food. I was more than a little miffed at Cat over this particular situation actually, as she was fully aware of this policy and failed to give me fair warning. Until very late in the trip, the bus only stopped at supremely food-inadequate gas stations. Had I known that I would be going 78 hours without real food – the time that transpired between my last meal in Cadiz and the moment we would be mercifully fed by Cat’s mother upon arrival in Iasi at 3:30am – I would have packed a much larger and varying grab-bag of snacks. I belatedly learned that Cat mysteriously prefers not to eat what I would term “real food” (i.e. not chocolate and potato chips) while on a long bus trip and it never occurred to her that I might desire something more substantial over three days. All we had with us were cookies, crackers, a few juice boxes, water and apples. Moreover, having been on dozens of much shorter bus trips throughout Europe and having every single journey over eight hours include a 45 minute break at a full-on restaurant or café, I was astounded that a trip of this length didn’t allow for a break for the riders to eat honest-to-goodness, nourishing food. Though it must be said that even these requisite restaurant stops aren’t entirely satisfying as they are carefully planned to drop the passengers off in the middle of nowhere, with only a single, over-priced, sickeningly bad café available, when they could just as easily stop in a nice food court with a dozen, more affordable and appealing options, but I get the feeling that the bus companies get a kickback for stopping at the terrible cafés, so there you go. In any case, three days without a satisfying food stop seemed like a formula for a general mutiny if you asked me. When you have 60-some people who have slept sparingly, been constantly jostled and slow roasted over such a long period of time, I imagined that it wouldn’t take much to spark a coup where the passengers wrest control of the bus, duct tape and abandon the driver and assistants in the deep country and head for the nearest McDonald’s. But maybe that’s just me.
As we pulled out of Barcelona, the sun mercifully went down along with the interior bus temperature and soon we were treated to two mediocre, but sufficiently distracting Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies to get us through the night run along the south of France. At the conclusion of the movies, I wrenched myself into a horizontal position in my two meager seats, which is saying a lot for someone who can’t even touch his toes, and managed to enjoy three hours of sleep before the sun rose when I struggled stiffly upright to discover that we were well into Italy.
The scenery in Italy was no better than northern Spain. Just endless, boring, non-descript highways, fields and gas stations selling nothing more nutritious or energizing than a Snickers. As we zipped through northern Italy, we had momentary jolts of excited anticipation as signs for Verona, Padua and Venice came and went, but the best views we got of these places were limited to distant rooftops and broadcast towers. As this was a Spain-to-Romania bus, we were not making any stops in cities between the two countries, therefore there was no need to veer any closer to these places than the perimeter roads would allow.
Late in the day my head jerked out of one of my numerous unintentional, exhaustion fueled losses of consciousness to see the fast approaching Southern Limestone Alps, which may not be as impressive as the genuine Alps, but after over 24 hours of flat nothingness, I couldn’t have been more pleased. There was an intermittent, thick cloud cover, but the views were amazing. With my head cocked straight up, absorbing the new distraction, I completely missed the seamless border crossing into Austria.
I had expected that we would take a spectacular, long, winding, ascending and descending route through the Southern Limestone Alps, but instead we proceeded to drill right through the mountain range in surprisingly short order, utilizing dozens of very long, dark and dispiriting tunnels. Once every few minutes we would burst into open air where we would be surrounded by isolated, little mountain villages, rivers, waterfalls, steep slopes and glorious greenery, but then we’d abruptly enter another tunnel and we would be left to pathetically squint off into the distance for the next hopeful pinhole of light.
As night approached, so did Hungary and the unpleasant revelation that certain Eastern European border crossings are still manned by amateur entrepreneurs. These industrious individuals are perfectly happy to let you sit and rot on the side of the road for the rest of eternity while they leisurely go through each passport and piece of baggage, predictably finding something gravely wrong with virtually everything, requiring substantial paperwork, fines and delays before they can allow you passage, unless of course you roll up to the border with a lavish offering. In our case, the procedure was shockingly organized and matter-of-fact. There was an announcement on the bus that an assistant would come around and collect five euros (US$6.10) from everyone, which was casually accepted by the guards, followed by a quick and careless sweep through the bus to stamp everyone’s passports, without so much as a cursory photo check and we were promptly sent on our way.
The entry into Hungary marked the commencement of an unholy series of two-lane, narrow, ill-lit, crumbling roads, where a double-decker bus and a semi could just barely squeeze by each other without tearing off each other’s side view mirrors, but this being Eastern Europe, these hair-raising passages were coolly performed at full speed. The bouncing and knocking around one experiences while traversing roads that are half reclaimed by nature is multiplied when you are sitting up high like we were, where the slight sway of a moderate pothole can be magnified from a little wobble into a violent lurch that will dump you into the aisle if you don’t brace yourself. Our drive through Hungary was done almost entirely at night, but with the way we were being thrown around on the second deck, there was no sleep to be had. Most of my attention was devoted to not being brained against the window or being pitched across the aisle into Cat’s lap. We all spent the night with a death grip on our seats while watching three more movies that I wouldn’t have rented if they paid me, each of which had warning messages running across the bottom reading: “If you have rented or purchased this movie or are watching it anywhere but on a demo monitor inside a video store, you are watching an illegal, bootleg copy and several agents from the international copyright brigade are going to arrive shortly and execute everyone,” or something to that effect. Atlassib was turning out to be a real class act.
At 5:30 the next morning, we entered Romania shaken and bleary-eyed. The crossing into Romania was another exercise in back-alley bureaucracy, but not as greedy and brazen as in Hungary. Up until recently, it was nearly impossible for Romanians to travel abroad. The costs of travel being far beyond what the typical Romanian could muster aside, the government had all but caged the populace in with so many laws, paperwork and hoop-jumping that the only feasible way for the average citizen to travel outside of Romania was to buy a shovel and tunnel out. Even now, Romanians have go through ludicrous amounts of red tape for something as simple as a quick vacation jaunt to Greece. In a best case, simple trip scenario, one only has to present some kind of proof of a return voyage and also inexplicably present €700 (US$853), in cash (an absurd amount of money considering 44.5% of the population lives below the poverty line), to prove that they can support themselves at their destination. Maybe it’s just me, but with busloads of people leaving Romania carrying €700, I’m surprised that there aren’t several teams of banditos loitering just outside of all of the Romanian border crossings, waiting for an easy payday. The travel discouragement doesn’t end there. If a Romanian spends more than 90 days outside of their country, unless they have a pile of official supporting documents and visas, when they try to return to their country they either have to bribe the border guards with €200 (US$244) or get slapped with a passport interdiction confining them within Romania for two to five years, depending on how overdue they are. With all these harsh rules, punishments, restrictions and the world’s worst welcome home ritual, I don’t see why Romanians ever return home once they get the hell out. Relief is in sight, however. Romania is hoping to make the 2007 cut to get into the European Union, at which point they should be able to whimsically swagger out and take a look around Europe and EU friendly countries whenever they please.
After a few naughty, tardy Romanians were pulled off the bus to cough up €200, we were on our way on roads that were unfathomably even worse than the roads in Hungary. By European standards, Romania is a very big country (slightly smaller than Oregon) and we had to stop in each city of moderate size for people to disembark, so it took nearly a full day to inch across the country to the northeastern edge. This crawl included two maddeningly lengthy bus transfers. One of which left all of us standing in a sweltering dirt lot, with no shelter for three hours as the Atlassib people paraded us back and forth across the lot with our bags to load and board a bus, then let us sit and bake on the bus for 45 minutes, then order us get off the bus, retrieve our bags, drag everything to the other side of the lot and do the same on a different bus. This happened four times to varying degrees. There was the distinct possibility of a crazed riot on the fourth tramp across the lot as all of the hot, frustrated and angry people simultaneously lost it and started screaming and going nose-to-nose with the inept Atlassib reps. The delays that went along with these bus transfers took us from running a refreshing three hours early to being almost two hours behind schedule.
Finally, at 3:30am we puttered into Iasi. We were so deep in the throes of sleep deprivation, hunger, aggravation and pathetic feebleness that we could barely talk. Cat’s sweet parents didn’t have me deported on the first chicken truck into Bulgaria, but instead helped us home where we ate a hot meal, somehow pooled the strength to scrub off the filth from the trip and then rapidly fell into Snow White-like slumber. It was nearly two days before I felt I had the cognitive capacity to venture out and thoroughly tour Iasi.
Perhaps with better preparation, a reputable bus company, decent food options, cooler weather and a bucket of Dramamine, this trip would have had a few more redeeming qualities. I had almost convinced myself before departure that the novelty of covering Europe from west to east, on the ground in three days would provide some great views, memories and adventure, but it was really just one long, sucky series of the suckiest situations that ever sucked. It was the kind of odyssey that could only be appreciated by the caliber of people who find exhilaration and fulfillment in going to the brink of discomfort, pain and insanity and living to tell the tale. And quite frankly, people like that should not be allowed to travel without a chaperone.