Dec 30 2007
About a week before Christmas, we figured that it was finally time to start thinking about where we actually wanted to spend the holiday. This would be our first Christmas away from family, friends, and home-cooked food, so we needed a festive place that could keep our minds off the homesickness. At first, our sights were limited to Western European destinations, but we quickly abandoned that geographical requirement. After seven weeks in Italy and southern France, we were beginning to feel like everything around us was looking the same. So one afternoon I asked Brittany, “If you could go anywhere you wanted for Christmas, where would it be?”
She responded with no hesitation: “Prague.”
During our travels, we’ve heard story after story from fellow hostelers about the wonders of Prague, especially at Christmas time. A quick online search for airline tickets revealed one-way flights to Prague for 14 euros through RyanAir. The catch? The cheap RyanAir flights leave from Barcelona, and we were squarely in Aix-en-Provence. But back at the computer, a second online search unearthed cheap overnight bus tickets from Marseille, France, to Barcelona. Seeing as Marseille is only an hour south of Aix-en-Provence, we booked a flight for two days later out of Barcelona, and packed our bags for cold weather.
We arrived in Marseille the following evening, and headed directly for the bus station. We still had a couple of hours before our overnight bus would leave for Barcelona, but we’d heard that Marseille is a seedy city without much to see, and we weren’t eager to wander around the streets at night any more than necessary. We quickly located the counter for the overnight bus service, and I approached the lady at the window.
“Two overnight tickets to Barcelona, please.”
“No problem. When would you like to go?”
“Tonight, on the bus that leaves in a couple of hours.”
“No, not tonight. The bus is full.”
“What do you mean FULL?”
I hadn’t noticed until this moment that the other people in the waiting room were all holding reservation slips, meaning they must have had enough foresight to book this trip ahead of time. Seeing as we were relying on this bus in order to catch a plane in the morning from Barcelona, I should have taken a moment to reflect on a lesson about the importance of planning ahead. But instead, I grabbed Brittany’s arm and raced to find another means of transportation. Considering that I have no idea how to get from Marseille to Barcelona, have no knowledge of local driving laws, and can not read French or Spanish road signs, the first thing that came to my mind was obvious: rent a car!
Well, two out of the four rental car companies in the Marseille station were clean out of cars. And I was about to learn why these two companies must be so popular. The third station had an “economy” vehicle available, and it could be ours for one night at the very special price of just 400 euros. When he saw our jaws drop, the salesman shrugged and laughed, and indicated by way of gesticulation that he didn’t totally understand why the price should be so obscenely astronomical either. Has his company ever successfully processed a rental transaction? What logic could compel them to prefer having a parking lot full of unused rentals over the possibility of charging a fair market price? Figuring that his rental company must simply be in the midst of an executive-driven self-sabotage campaign into financial ruin, thereby plummeting the stock price, and ultimately allowing the masterminds to buy it all back up dirt cheap, I decided to try the fourth rental counter. What we learned there compounds a sad commentary on the shady insider trading scandals that must be plaguing the world’s rental car companies. The cheapest car they offered was 600 euros per night.
With rental cars out of the question, we next scurried to the train ticket sales counters, and asked the attendant if he could find any way to get us to Barcelona by the morning. To his credit, the man searched the database for all possible connections that could get us to our flight in time, and actually found us an unlikely series of connections that could put us in Spain with time to catch our flight.
“Great!” I said. “We’ll take it.”
“Very good, sir. And there is just one small inconvenience. From your final stop in Spain, it will be a two hour walk to the airport.”
As eager as we both were to roll our luggage through two hours worth of fields, forests, and unmarked roads of eastern Spain, we graciously declined this particularly enticing travel package.
I was finally resigned to the fact that we would not be in Barcelona in time for our morning flight. Brittany, as usual, was convinced that there existed yet some alchemy by which to render the impossible possible. I watched with horror/pride as she ventured outside to the platform where the overnight bus to Barcelona would soon depart, and proceeded to try and BRIBE THE BUS DRIVER into letting us on his bus. The amazing thing is, if we had only wanted to ride to a destination within France, I think it would have worked. But the border-crossing element must have been too unscrupulous for even him, because when she clarified that we needed to ride all the way to Barcelona, the look in his eye quickly went from “conspiratorial intrigue” to “disappointed refusal.”
With Brittany now in the fold of those who accept they will not make it to Barcelona (I convinced her that there was really no one else to bribe), we made the painful decision to swallow Ryanair’s “flight change” fee of 50 euros, and push our flight forward two days. This meant that we would have two unexpected days to spend in Marseille. We needed to find a hotel, get some food, and since it was now dark, get as far away as possible from the dodgy neighborhood of the train and bus stations. But first things first: we quickly reserved tickets on the overnight bus to Barcelona in two days.