Stranded in the French Mountains: Hiking in Complete Darkness

Stranded in the French Mountains: Hiking in Complete Darkness
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Engulfed by darkness in the mountains of Marseille, I could barely see my five fingers stretched out in front of my face. The only way out was to hitchhike, but no cars were leaving the mountains.

Part 1: An Unforgettable Holiday During ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests
Part 2: Stranded in the French Mountains: Hiking in Complete Darkness

It was a rainy Sunday morning on 16 December 2018. If you’re wondering why I could remember the specific date, it’s a day my friends and I truly feared for our lives.

The Calanques are a series of rocky cliffs and bays between Marseille and Cassis

We weren’t even supposed to go hiking in the first place – our original plan was to take a boat tour to discover the rocky cliffs and bays at Calanques of Marseille. This was how our horrors unfolded.

The Original Plan: Boat Tour

As I mentioned in #7 of how to prepare for your trip, we did proper research beforehand and found out that Integral of the Creeks was one of the most popular boat tours that tourists must take.

Boat Tour Route (Photo by: Maritime Companies Calanques and Château D’if)

This ‘complete creek‘ boat tour (green line) consisted of all 12 creeks, which would cost EUR €30 and take about 3 hours to complete. We planned to visit Vieux Port (Old Port) in the morning to purchase the tour tickets for the tour.

I was excited. Finally, I would get to see the Marseille I signed up for!

We dragged ourselves out of bed at 9am. How could those few hours of sleep make up for the intensity of yesterday? Nevertheless, excited for the awaited boat tour, and we left the hotel before 10am.

We munched on our leftover snacks, from our supermarket trip (our favourite travel hack to save money) the night before, while waiting at the bus stop. At the same time, praying the bus was working today.

We boarded the bus and alighted at the nearest metro stop. On the metro, we sat silently, our eyes trained on the names of each station we passed by. Would we be able to alight at Vieux-Port today?

‘Missing’ Metro Station Found!

Yes, we did!

Grande roue de Marseille, the Big Wheel Marseille at Vieux-Port

Despite the dark clouds and the slight drizzle, we were so excited to finally alight at Vieux-Port, it was almost a cause for celebration.

The first thing that hit us was the intense smell of fish and the salty sea breeze. The Vieux Port Fish Market was bustling with locals and tourists alike, trying to get a glimpse or a cut of fresh fish.

There was a Christmas market surrounding Grande roue de Marseille as well. Though we wanted to look around, we had to get our boat tour tickets first!

We glanced around and spotted a stall that looked like it sold boat tour tickets. We walked over briskly, careful not to slip on the puddles of water, and saw a boat tour sign. I excitedly climbed the wooden stairs to the stall.

“Bonjour, do you sell tickets for the boat tour here?”

Cancelled Boat Tour

“No, no tour today.”

I couldn’t believe what I just heard. I pointed to the sign in desperation. “Boat tour today?”

“No tour today.”

My heart sank. Why? The protests weren’t going on today. Was it the weather? But it’s only a light drizzle. Sigh.

Disappointed, we took a short walk around the Christmas market in hopes of cheering ourselves up. Of course, the rain started getting heavier. We put on our hoods and ran to the nearest shelter. Our spirits were dampened, literally.

Seeking Comfort in Food

Food always makes seems to make the day better so we decided to get lunch. We settled on Restaurant Le Marseillais, which had a 4-star rating online, for a seafood lunch. Where else better to enjoy fresh seafood than in port city Marseille?

Bouillabaisse, a traditional Provençal fish stew originating from Marseille

Thankfully, our lunch was splendid. We had the traditional bouillabaisse, along with a seafood omelette and pasta. However, our favourite was actually the starter! We had so much fun grating fresh garlic and piling on cheese onto a piece of baguette. Food really did brighten up our day!

Noailles at Canebière (Photo by: Torrefaction Noailles)

With a severe food coma, we decided to pop by the popular coffee bar Noailles for a caffeine kick. The smell of coffee and fresh pastries wafted in the air. Noailles was crowded with tourists and locals alike, everyone admiring the old school interior design as they sipped their coffee.

Following Day One’s Plan

Cours Julien, Marseille’s Trendiest Neighbourhood (Photo by: Jeanne Menjoulet)

Since we couldn’t walk around Vieux Port the day before, we decided to cover the destinations that we missed out. One of them was Cours Julien, a trendy neighbourhood filled with street art and bars. It was truly a sight to behold – street art at on every wall, around every corner.

But we quickly ran out of things to do. It was only slightly after 2pm.

New Plan: Hiking at Calanques National Park

Parc national des Calanques, Calanques National Park

I did look up hiking at Calanques National Park beforehand. The instructions shared online were pretty clear, along with Google Maps, the hike seemed doable.

Determined to make the most of our Marseille trip, we decided to embark on our hike.

We took a metro, followed by a bus, and it took awhile for us to find the starting point of the hike. It was 4pm when we reached the entrance of the park. Sunset was at 5.30pm. It wasn’t a wise choice.

Nevertheless, we began the hike excitedly because the photos on Google looked amazing. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself!

An hour passed, the steep path was taking a toll on our energy levels. The sun was slowly setting. Would this be worth it?

A few cars drove past us and we contemplated if we should hitchhike, but we were too afraid and shy to ask.

It was 5.45pm when we entered a little village. We saw a few parked cars that passed us previously, and it turns out that people live here – way up in the mountains! A few locals seemed to be laughing as we passed by. It was 6pm by the time we reached the shores.

Disappointing View

The view was, just like our whole Marseille trip, a disappointment.

Massif des Calanques on a cloudy day

It was a cloudy day. Instead of clear, blue skies, we had thick, grey clouds, which when reflected in the waters, made the sea appear grey as well.

After the rain, the rocks were wet and slippery. It would be dangerous to climb. There was also no way we could climb to the peak of the cliffs in time. We reached our destination a little too late.

We spent about 15 minutes taking more than a few disappointing photos and turned back.

As we made our way out of the village, the same few locals, who were laughing previously, said something along the lines of “Cannot see anything.” We smiled at them, embarrassed.

An Awkward Encounter

Cloudy grey skies in the mountains

It was getting late, the sky was getting darker by the minute. We were really worried. If we couldn’t see the path, could we even make it out of the mountains safely? Were there any nocturnal creatures in the mountains? We imagined a pack of wolves, ready to attack. We thought of the path ahead that would take at least another hour and a half – how long could we drag our tired bodies in the dark?

We were desperate. Despite the poor mobile connection in the mountains, we tried our best to get an Uber. “There aren’t any drivers in your area at this time. Please wait and try requesting again.”

It seemed that the only way out was to hitchhike, but no cars were leaving the mountains. Of course, no one in that little village would be leaving the mountains at 6.30pm.

We had no choice. We started our hike back, silently. It was going to be a long journey.

Then we saw it.

Headlights! A car was leaving the mountains! We’re saved!

We quickly discussed on how to approach the car owner and decided that after a round rock–paper–scissors, the loser would have to ask for the ride. I can’t remember who lost, but in the end we decided to approach the car together.

The car engine was still running but the windows were all fogged up. Probably due to the rain earlier. We knocked lightly on the car window, “Bonjour? Hello?”. We could hear fumbling in the car, but no one responded. We knocked again, and the driver lowered the car window.

The driver’s seat was lowered into an almost horizontal position. A couple was in the car. There was an awkward silence. We might have interrupted something.

“Erm… Hello? Bonjour? Are you leaving the mountains?”

Non non. Pardon.” The couple said as they waved us away.

“Oh… Okay… Sorry…” We backed away from the car feeling incredibly awkward.

Okay, so we didn’t get a ride.

Hiking in Pitch Black Darkness

Our hopes were dashed. We continued our hike in silence. It was getting darker. The mountains and the trees blended into darkness. I stretched my palm in front of me, I could barely see my five fingers. This was bad.

Hiking on a road to pitch black darkness

I was in the middle. One friend was hiking ahead, and the other was behind me. Once, I turned around, and the friend behind me was gone. I freaked out. I couldn’t see her. I called out her name frantically.

“I’m tying my shoelace.”

Oh gosh. I squinted, and could barely see her silhouette bent over, tying her shoelace in the dark. How were we ever going to make it out?

There were still cars entering the mountains, on their way home to the village. The drivers stared at us as if we were crazy. We used the flashlights from our mobile phones to ensure our safety. Thank goodness we brought our power banks.

We tried to quicken our pace. We were afraid that by the time we made it out of the mountains, we would miss the last bus. But we were exhausted, both physically and mentally drained. It was getting colder. Would we even be able to leave the mountains?

20 minutes into our hike, we heard a sound coming from behind us.

First Hitchhiking Experience

Wait… It was a car! And not just any car, it was the same car with the couple!

Headlights from a car signalled our saviour!

The slope was so steep, it took awhile for the car to come to a complete stop.

The couple rolled down their windows and gestured for us to get in. Our saviours! A wave of relief swept over us. “Merci. Merci beaucoup!” we said as the three of us squeezed into the back seat.

I looked out of the window as we drove along the mountain path, still in disbelief. We were actually saved! Goodbye trees, goodbye darkness!

It was a quiet ride. We didn’t speak French, they didn’t speak English. The couple typed into Google Translate, “Where do you want to alight?” I showed them the location of the nearest bus stop on Google Maps. Technology truly has changed the way we communicate.

We were out of the mountains in 10 minutes. When the car arrived at the bus stop, we once again thanked the couple before they drove off. Their simple act of kindness really saved us.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Heavy Downpour

We were overwhelmed from the chain of events, grateful, surprised and ravished. We found a pancake restaurant online and started to navigate our way there.

Rainy roads and pavements

As we were walking, it started to drizzle. The drizzle evolved into rain, and became a heavy downpour. By the time we reached the restaurant, we were tired, drenched, and extremely cold.

As we wolfed down our pancakes, we were hoping for the rain to let up. Eventually it did. We navigated our way to the nearby bus stop promptly.

We were tired out from the events of the day. However, we still had to pack up after reaching the hotel. Our train to Paris was scheduled to leave at 9.30am.

Goodbye Paris

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel, dragged our luggage up and down the bus and the metro to reach the train station at 9am. We found our platform and decided to meet back at 9.15am after grabbing some sandwiches for breakfast. Unfortunately, the breakfast crowd caused some delay and we only reached the platform at 9.20am.

The train conductors refused to let us board.

It was partially our fault, because the ticket had fine print which required us to be at the platform 30 minutes before departure.

In our defense, the fine print was in French. The train conductors still allowed some others to board, but refused us. We suspected it was due to us having bigger luggages. Sigh, travelling luggage-free is always better.

We pleaded our case to the train conductors, but they didn’t care for it, insisting that we couldn’t board. Our train to Paris left right before our eyes.

Train Ticket Trouble

France Train Ticket Machines (Photo by: Jebulon)

We had no choice but to buy new train tickets. We went to the nearest ticket kiosk, but they didn’t have the train provider we booked from previously. These train tickets cost twice the amount of what we paid before, at about EUR €150. No way were we paying SGD $230 per pax for train tickets.

We found our initial train provider online and tried booking the tickets, but it didn’t go through. All of our cards failed.

Maybe bookings can only be done via laptop, we reassured ourselves. We tried on one laptop, it didn’t work. We tried on all three laptops. It didn’t work. Our international credit cards, Singapore bank cards, UK bank cards all failed.

What was going on? Were we doomed to never leave Marseille?

After an hour, somehow, one of our cards worked, the booking went through. Phew. Okay, now all we had to do was the print the train tickets as stated in the fine print.

We approached the customer service staff, but they didn’t speak English and didn’t seem very friendly. We used Google Translate to get our message across as we eyed the printer behind the counter. They refused to help us print our train tickets and waved us away.

We searched for nearby printing shops and left the train station to print our tickets. We came and waited for another hour before we could board the train.

Only after the train departed Marseille, did we dare heave a sigh of relief. It was finally over.

The Marseille we never got to see

I love Marseille, it truly is a beautiful coastal city. But the adventures were too much for me to handle. Well, at the very least, bad experiences make good stories right?

Read: An Unforgettable Holiday During ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests

Read: Best France Road Trip: A Fabulous French Itinerary

Read: How to Prepare for Your First Solo Trip in 10 Simple Steps

Read: How to Avoid Losing Money During Overseas Exchange Trips

Read: How I Conquered 14 Countries in 4 Months on Exchange

Enjoy a worldwide fees-less travel experience!

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