Instead of sipping lattes and munching on baguettes while people watching, France had something different in store for me – a rollercoaster of adventures that I would never have expected.
My two friends and I were on our university exchange programme in England (where I conquered 14 countries, including France) and our 12-week semester came to an end. Though we still had a couple of assignments to submit, it was finally time to start our holiday!
Travelling from London to Marseille
Without catching any sleep, my two friends and I caught the 2am airport coach and arrived at Stansted airport around 3am. We then touched down in Marseille at 6.50am on the same Saturday morning and needless to stay, we were exhausted. But our journey didn’t end there.
From Marseille Provence Airport, we then took a bus to Gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles, and another metro to our hotel’s nearest station.
After 11 hours and 4 different modes of transport 🚌 ✈️🚐🚅 (coach, plane, bus, and metro), we finally managed to be in the vicinity of our hotel.
We were so famished and exhausted that our body couldn’t decide what we needed more – sleep or food.
In our half-awake state, we unanimously decided on food.
We quickly discovered Coogee, a nearby cafe with 5-star ratings on Google. All of us ordered coffee (to go along with muffins) in hopes of squeezing the very last ounce of energy we had left. We were so tired from the lack of sleep, all that GPS navigating, and dragging our luggage around (this also inspired me to compile a list of important tips to travel luggage-free).
After we were done feeding ourselves, we dragged our luggage across the streets of Marseille and finally checked into the hotel. Of course, we had to get hopelessly lost for a while even during the short walk.
Searching for a ‘Missing’ Metro Station
Getting lost seemed to be quite common occurrence for us, and it happened again later in the day.
We planned to walk around Vieux Port (Old Port) and the city centre, so we took the metro. However, something strange happened – the metro skipped passed our station.
What’s going on…? We looked at each other in confusion. Maybe there’s a ‘stop’ button somewhere that we should press? But there are no buttons around!
We immediately alighted at the next station to cut our losses. We headed to the opposite platform and waited for another metro to take us back in the opposite direction.
Hoping that we could alight correctly this time, the metro skipped our station again! We were baffled.
Lost (again) and puzzled, I googled the station ‘Vieux-Port – Hôtel de Ville’. Apparently, the station was closed for the ‘yellow vest’ protests on Saturdays. Of course, it was a Saturday! Sigh. 🤦♀️
We boarded the metro again, and went back in the original direction to alight at a nearby station instead.
Watching the ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests
Even at one station away, the ‘yellow vest’ protests were still ongoing. Riot police were everywhere, protesters in yellow vests, and motorcycle gangs were zooming across the streets.
Yet there were tourists, such as ourselves, and locals walking along the streets as if nothing was going on – it was surreal to watch.
Nonetheless, my adrenaline was pumping. I mean, I’ve been watching news of the ‘yellow vest’ protests online but now I’m actually seeing it live. I really wanted to get closer, immerse myself in the action, and maybe sneak a couple of pictures and videos. I know, I know… participating in any protest is against #3 of my essential travel safety advice, but I have my curiosities sometimes. 😅
And soon the thoughts of possible injury and death flooded my mind. Would I die from a bullet fired by the police? Would I get slammed in the head by a baseball bat? Would I be painted yellow in the chaos? How much would my travel insurance reimburse my family?
To be very honest, my mind was in a much bigger chaos than what was actually going on. The motorcycle gangs and patrolling police were sure intimidating, but there was no actual violence going on. Just a lot of tension. And fear.
We debated whether we should head back to the hotel, but we didn’t want to waste our precious two days here.
Eventually, we decided to get away from the protest area, as those big men with guns and protesters in yellow vests didn’t let us feel at ease. If violence were to erupt…
We quickly googled for nearby attractions and Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde popped up. A church sounds pretty safe! So we kept our heads down and walked briskly away from the commotion.
Escaping to Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
We waited at the bus stop assigned to us by Google Maps, but there were no buses on that road. Seems unusual…
A passer-by saw our helpless faces and asked, “Do you speak English?”
We warily answered, “Yes…” but our brains were going off the hook. Is he part of the protest? Are we safe? Why would a local ask questions with tourists? Shouldn’t it be the other way round?
“This bus stop isn’t working due to the protests,” he explained. “You can wait for this bus at the bus stop ahead,” he pointed to another bus stop down the street.
“Merci! Merci boku!” We thanked him profusely in our poor attempts at French and set off to the next bus stop. Bless him! 🙌
Still, our bus took some time to arrive because of semi road closures from the ‘yellow vest’ protests.
Thankfully, the basilica was safe from the ‘yellow vest’ protests when we arrived and the view was absolutely spectacular!
Situated at the top of a hill, the skyline merged seamlessly with the sea. Nearby mountains stood majestically and scattered buildings looked like little blocks. We spent about an hour snapping photos and even attempted to attend an ongoing church service, but didn’t stay past 5 minutes because we couldn’t understand a word of French. 😂
We still enjoyed ourselves, because the interior was equally breathtaking. Though it looked old (the church was built in 1864), it was well-maintained with gold-painted interior and aged marble walls. While admiring the intricate designs, it was still pretty cool to listen to a church service in French!
Seeking Comfort in Food
As the sun started to set, we took a bus back to the city centre and plopped ourselves at Taking Food for French tacos. While chomping on our French tacos stuffed with french fries, we had a good laugh about how intense our day was.
Before heading back to our hotel, we consulted Google Maps for the best mode of transport and it suggested tram. Cool, let’s try out the trams! We walked to the tram stop and waited.
“Maybe this stop is closed as well,” we joked.
Soon, a local man came by and informed us the tram route wasn’t in use because of the ‘yellow vest’ protests. No surprise, I guess.
We then rerouted to take a bus instead. Along the way we stopped at a supermarket to grab some snacks and the cheapest bottle of French wine (only EUR €2!) to treat ourselves. It’s a well-known hack among travellers that supermarkets offer the best value-for-money food, so we couldn’t miss this one out.
We recalled our day-time adventures as we strolled back to the hotel for a well overdue night (we’ve been awake for over 20 hours already!). Little did we know, another adventure awaited us the very next day, as we got lost in the darkness of the French mountains. And that’s going to be a story for another day.
Don’t get me wrong though, France was amazing and I’d love to visit again! If you’re seeking inspiration, here’s the Best France Road Trip Itinerary for you to create your own memories in France.
Enjoy a worldwide fees-less travel experience!