When people ask us why we picked Marseille and not somewhere nicer like say, Nice, we don’t really have a proper answer. We planned the France portion of our trip during a few stormy days in a beach bungalow in Cambodia – and Marseille fit our criteria. It’s on the Mediterranean, easily accessible by train and most conveniently of all, is a hub for cheap flights to London – which is our next stop.
Marseille might not be the most beautiful city (it is kind of on the ugly side but is surrounded by beautiful pale cliffs which drop into a sparkling sea) but it is entertaining. Everyone there is so laid back. Postal workers don’t wear uniforms (unless gold chains and earrings count – and I am referring to the men here). The city workers digging up the road to lay new pipe were hilarious. They seemed to spend most of their time on breaks, sitting on the pipe drinking from their big beer bottles.
Curtis booked our accommodations in Marseille. Up to this point, I had arranged literally all of it. He decided to help out by booking us a charming looking, cheap private room at Le Cigale Et La Fourmi.
The bus ride from the train station was easy enough to figure out and we knew that the hostel was a short walk from the bus stop. Navigating the confusing streets of Marseille in the dark without a map is another story. Fortunately we got pointed in the right direction (ask as many strangers as necessary – one of them is bound to have heard of the street you’re looking for) and didn’t have too much trouble locating Le Cigale Et La Fourmi (unlike a few of the other guests we met who said they wandered around lost for some time before stumbling upon it).
Upon arrival, we climbed the narrow winding staircase to the “reception” area where three old men sat chain smoking on a couch and lots of young people were scattered about the kitchen/dining area eating and drinking. Jean, the owner, spent enough time fiddling with some paperwork that I began to get nervous. Sure enough, he said that he had given our private room away and we would have to spend the night in the dorm. He apologized and said we would get a private room the next day.
As long as there was somewhere for us to sleep, I wasn’t too worried about it. We got led to our bed for the night, which was in the “house” a few doors down which we had passed by earlier. It had caught my eye because the garage door was rolled up to reveal an area that looked to have been converted into more of a dining room. Several people sat smoking and eating giant plates of pasta around the table.
The door off the dining room/garage led to the rest of the “house” which consisted of a small kitchen, a small bathroom, one double bed stuck right in between the two and a three foot cubby/loft area where everyone else slept. It was a very open concept where the only place one had any privacy was in the bathroom.
We met a couple of Australians on their gap year who showed us where we could buy beer and introduced us to the local pizza joint. It was our first taste of Mediterranean style pizzas and was definitely not our last.
These thin crust pizzas were simply topped with a little tomato sauce, lots of cheese and four whole olives and baked in a wood oven for about five minutes. The result was perfection (for only 5 Euros)!
Armed with our pizza and beer, we passed the rest of the evening on our front steps until it was time for bed.
Our “frat” house consisted of us, and about eight young guys from various parts of the world, most of them students in Marseille.
I was tucked into bed with a book, while Curtis brushed his teeth, when a few of our housemates came home slightly drunk. They seemed quite happy to see me – one very friendly fellow from Sweden sat down on the foot of the bed and chatted to me while emptying his pockets onto the bed and taking inventory. He wasn’t put off by Curtis’s reappearance from the bathroom at all, he settled in deeper and chatted to us for ages
before stripping down to his underwear and socks and climbing up the ladder to his bed.
Since our bed was located right outside of the bathroom, every time I opened my eyes in the night when awoken by a noise, I saw a different guy in their underwear – it was very entertaining.
The next day we were moved to a “more private” room – not to be confused with an actual “private room”.
This one was in the main house, up the narrow staircase, up another winding staircase then up a ladder, through a trap door and voila – two double mattresses about a foot apart from each other with a sloped roof ceiling.
The really great thing about this room though was the roof top patio with outdoor kitchen.
This has got to be the craziest hostel ever in terms of oh say, fire code regulations. It looks like at one time some of the rooms had 9 foot ceilings – which have now been cut in half or even thirds horizontally – so that some people can’t even stand up in their 3 foot rooms.
Jean, the pervy old French owner, had made some comment to Curtis that he was a lucky man to be sharing this room with two beautiful women (he actually got much more graphic than that – and also told us about some caves where we could “make love on a flat rock where the slapping of our bodies would echo in the caves”). Turns out we were to share this room with a young Asian student – who vacated the premises after Jean scared her away with graphic descriptions of an upcoming night of passion. (We learned all of this later from friends who had overheard the conversation – we never even met the poor girl).
Our roomies for the first two nights were two nice girls from Switzerland – although the petite one snored like an old man with a sinus infection. On the third night, we bunked with a couple from New Zealand, who weren’t too happy to find out that the private room they had booked had been given away as well. Turns out that there are very few actual private rooms at this place and booking one in advance means nothing. Anyone who ended up getting one was considered very lucky.
One of those lucky couples was next door to us. Not only did they have their own room – they also had their own toilet. We shared the roof top deck with them but they had to go through our room to get to the shower or to leave the building.
Jonathan and Jessica are from Iowa but are living in London for a few years. We kept running into them throughout Marseille and discovered that we were on the same Ryanair flight to London at the end of the week. We spent a few nights drinking wine, talking and laughing with them out on the deck. When the European travelers joined us, they just didn’t seem to get our North American humour – but the four of us were usually in hysterics over something silly. We especially enjoyed cornhole jokes (the Iowans became the butt of many jokes) and steamroller references (you know the game you play at sleepovers as a kid –Jess admitted to finding it kinda hot).
We spent a couple of days swimming and lazing at the beach, where the water was cool and clear, surrounded by topless sun-crinkled retirees.
There is a phenomenal hike called Les Calanques that was the highlight of our stay in Marseille (well that, and meeting the Cornholes, of course).
With a backpack full of Brie and bread, we took a bus to the beginning of the trail.
The hike snakes through these amazingly beautiful pale stone cliffs that drop into an azure sea. It is simply stunning.
We make our way down to one of the coves where we hop across the painfully sharp rocks and into the pleasantly cool sea. A perfect way to spend the afternoon!
When it’s time to leave Marseille, we journey to the airport with Jessica and Jonathan via bus, train and another bus only to find our Ryanair flight is delayed by two hours. Once on board, the American pilot announces, “Sorry for the delay folks. It was due to the French air traffic control but they have a saying here in France – it’s c’est la vie. With the tail winds though, we should arrive at London Stansted only an hour and a half behind schedule. In America, that’s what we call progress.”