Dear fellow travellers
On a Wednesday afternoon, there is a real bustle around the central coach station in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. Tucked away behind an Ibis hotel and an Aral filling station, this is Berlin's unsung transport hub for bus travellers. The city's two airports are quite run down but they do at least have a decent range of restaurants and shops. Berlin's showpiece main railway station, opened in 2006, has plenty of entertaining diversions, but coach travellers have to make do with a no-frills terminus on the edge of Berlin's trade-fair grounds.
Valeria has a huge pile of luggage and is defending her right to be the first on board the 16.00 departure to Chisinau in Moldova. A one-way ticket for the 1800-km journey costs €90. And there's a perk for regulars on the route. Every fifth trip is free. Valeria is riding for free today. "The bus is faster than the train and cheaper than the plane," she says. "Especially when I get a free ticket like this."
Over on stand 26, another group of travellers prepares for a marathon ride home. The direct bus to Tutin is also slated to leave at 16.00. Tutin is a small town in the far south-west corner of Serbia, close to the country's borders with both Montenegro and Kosovo. "I'm heading back to see my family," says one young man. "I'll not be back in Berlin until after Ramadan," he remarks.
Just a few steps away, there's yet another departure at 16.00. "Climb aboard," says the driver. "We'll get you to Bucharest by tomorrow evening," he adds. "Just €104 one way." We pass on the offer and wander on past other buses which are loading passengers for destinations across Europe.
People are quietly joining a honey-coloured RegioJet bus which is also due out at 16.00. The journey to Prague takes four-and-a-half hours, which is pretty much the same as the train. Jiri tells us that he has opted for the bus though, as he is connecting in Prague onto an overnight train to Kosice in eastern Slovakia. "That train is also run by RegioJet, so I can buy a ticket right through from Berlin to Kosice." He tells us that it's an impulse trip, a chance to surprise his girlfriend. "I just booked yesterday, but it still only cost €19 for the ticket right through from Berlin to Kosice."
Looking at the departure boards for later in the afternoon and evening, we see that a Eurolines service from Poland to southern Italy is due in soon for a stop in Berlin. There are three different operators offering evening departures to Paris. PolskiBus is due out at 18.50 with an overnight run to Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains - with one-way fares from as low as €12. Ecolines has an overnighter to Lithuania while Flixbus offers a choice of overnight routes to Stockholm or the Austrian Tyrol. Eurolines, we note, has an overnight route to Copenhagen which boasts business-class seating. Deutsche Touring has overnight buses to both Macedonia and Latvia.
The departure listings are fuel for the traveller's imagination, and they are much changed from the days when this bus station first opened fifty years ago. In the 1960s, express coaches were important in maintaining links between West Berlin and West Germany. The trains which linked the Western Allies' Berlin exclave with West Germany were all operated by the East German rail authorities, but the buses were another matter. They were the preserve of West German companies. So bus travel to and from West Berlin boomed, and that's why this bus station was opened in 1966. With the deregulation four years ago of long-distance bus services in Germany, this ageing facility took on a new lease of life. The number of daily departures has more than trebled in just four years and a new generation of budget-conscious travellers are now looking ever more to long-distance coaches as a viable travel option.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)