When you think of public transportation in Europe, what do you picture? Is it the towering red double-deckers of London, the bright-yellow trams of Lisbon, or the high-speed trains of Switzerland? Whatever the case, you’re probably not envisioning the long-haul buses of France.
Neither was I.
As Americans, we tend to romanticize European transit. We regularly travel around our own country in cars and airplanes, so the idea of powering through the countryside on a train feels foreign and exciting. I studied French for years, and one of the things I learned in my earliest class was that the French had special trains de grande vitesse (TGVs or high-speed trains) for moving between cities. So when I moved to Paris for a summer internship with a transportation startup, I was surprised to discover how important and relevant buses are in French society.
Two years ago, Emmanuel Macron, the French Minister of Economy, proposed a law that would revive many aspects of their economy, including bus transportation. Soon after, private companies were allowed to operate long-distance bus lines on French soil for the first time in history. The government’s bus line, Ouibus, was suddenly competing with companies all across Europe.
This was revolutionary — these buses move travelers from point A to point B at a fraction of the cost of a train ticket. By the time I moved to Paris, travelers could catch Macron buses from thousands of locations across France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, among other countries.
So although I spent the weekdays of my internship blogging and researching, I spent my weekends riding Macron buses to my dream destinations around Western Europe.
I visited Bruges, Belgium, where I climbed a 272-foot-tall belfry, relished waffles drizzled in chocolate, and stumbled upon a secret garden. The garden was built into an abandoned home and watered by the rain that fell through the gaping hole where the roof should have been. Herbs grew in wooden boxes, flowers bloomed from pots, and tourists strolled past without so much as a glance.
I went to Strasbourg, France, where I explored small historic islands in the mornings and cruised down canals in the evenings. The air seemed to glow in the soft light, as the reflection of half-timbered buildings shimmered on the canal. The city felt enchanted when I was the only one roaming its streets, but electric when chattering people filled every seat at the street cafés.
I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where I prowled the historic streets for a few hours before catching another bus to Annecy, France. I divided my weekend between lakefront paths and cobbled streets. I fell in love with that city, the pearl of the Alps, as I paddle-boarded on its water, painted idly on its shore, and indulged in gelato in its old town.
I explored Reims and visited the historic cathedral where most French kings held their coronations. I went to Rouen and wore out my feet touring cathedrals, a medieval hospital, and a fine arts museum.
Since I traveled on buses and slept in hostels, my costs were pretty low. I chose to splurge on food and entertainment, paying for memories instead of nights in lavish hotels. I cherished the little moments more than anything else — strolling through narrow streets, boarding lake cruises, dining in friendly cafes, watching passersby from shadowy spots — so the tradeoff was worth it. But I began to see that those little enjoyable moments weren’t only found at my destinations, they were also waiting for me on the road.
During my (somewhat bumpy) cross-country bus tour, I rode alongside young professionals, children, couples, parents, and grandparents. I took late-night coaches on Fridays and shared Sunday evening buses with the same people. We belonged to different races, religions, and nationalities, but we rode together. We hoisted each other’s backpacks and suitcases into overhead compartments in comfortable silence, and we napped in close quarters. We paid our fare for different reasons — to sightsee, to visit loved ones, to work — but we spent a few hours together. With no first-class tickets or business-class amenities, those buses were the most egalitarian form of transportation I’ve ever experienced.
Completing my internship filled me with purpose and pride, but being a traveler on those weekend buses changed the way I saw the world.
At the end of the day, travel is supposed to break down barriers. I watched that unfold firsthand on long-distance buses, bumping down the rural highways of France, en route to somewhere new.