I have always loved France and my family and I holidayed there regularly when we lived in the UK. One year we innocently decided to drive south for a cycling holiday in Provence, via a few stops on the way to enjoy the Tour de France.


It would be magnifique. Or so I thought.


Ooh La La (What’s that Smell?)

The worst way a road trip can go wrong is for your car to play up with potentially deadly consequences. So naturally, on the first day the clutch fried like an onion on a sunny terrasse. The clutch fluid had not been topped up during the last car service. Result: every time I went to change gear, the clutch pedal clung to the floor instead of springing back.


That meant I had to inch my toes under the pedal and spring it back up, which in hindsight is not a very clever thing to do. This happened not on lovely flat terrain, but as we drove up the mountainous, winding 1,600 metre peak of Col de la Colombière to watch a stage of the Tour de France.


We made it to the summit alive, and although I felt like Indiana Jones meets Schumacher, it was clear that it was unlikely we could drive on with the car in such a state. Undeterred and with the gritty determination for which us Brits are known, we banished thoughts of being  stuck there for hours.


Instead, we set out our picnic on a thin patch of grass and waited for the mechanic to arrive, watched by locals who couldn’t quite believe that tourists had decided to picnic on the ugliest part of the ridge.


As the picnic got warmer in the afternoon heat, we rued the day we chose a German car for a cross-country drive in France. But a few hours later, the mechanic arrived and topped up the clutch fluid. We packed up the crumbs of our pique-nique and headed for our next destination: the lakeside town of Annecy.


How relieved we were that the traumas of the day were over, as we enjoyed a delicious meal and a walk around the lake before returning to our hotel. We were all ready for a good night’s sleep but a strange aroma pervaded the room. It was une crotte de chien — my British reserve means I cannot bring myself to write this in English but let’s just say it was an unwanted present from a local dog — thoughtfully brought in on my husband’s shoes. How we laughed (through gritted teeth) after we had cleaned shoes and carpet and fumigated the room.


We slunk out at daybreak (hoping that we had not made reception smell like an uncleaned dog kennel) for the next leg of our journey, stopping some 100 kilometres away for lunch and chortling at the farcical nature of our trip. I laughingly mentioned that bad luck comes in threes. Just before my husband remembered his briefcase was still sitting in the hotel.


Lock Stock and One Broken Car

Two hours later we were back where we started, to begin all over again. Then, for a couple of days, we were mishap free. Until we arrived in Provence.


The countryside was bathed in the shimmering summer heat, as we prepared to start the first day of our biking holiday. My eight-year-old son decided to go down to the car to fetch his book. Minutes later he was back, white as a sheet and hyperventilating. After getting him to breathe again, he managed to tell us that he had shut the boot of the car — and then realised that the car keys were inside.


Once again we called a mechanic, but the sturdy German engineering of Mercedes was too much to handle. To make matters worse, the boot was independently locked so he had to break into the car and lug out the back seats to wriggle into the boot. Meanwhile, the car alarm could not be disabled, adding an unwelcome siren to the still Provencal air.


I opened my mouth to say that bad luck comes in threes only to be silenced by an icy stare from my husband, who was still smarting at his shiny new car being dissected like an old Transformer. Some 100 euros poorer and a half a day behind on our trip, we did consider calling it a day and going home, but Provence beguiled us into staying. Surely things couldn’t get any worse?


Our persistence paid off. Meandering roads, scented fields of lavender and the sun-drenched cries of cicadas made the next few days heavenly as we cycled around the region.


Feel the Burn

That was until we headed for our last stop: a 17th century coaching inn nestled in the heart of the countryside. As we climbed the hill to look at the valley below, we noticed curling tendrils of grey smoke. A cottage chimney, perhaps. “How charming” we thought, until the smoke parted to reveal a sea of angry orange flames.


At this point we felt that the holiday really would go out in a blaze of glory. We made it to the inn, but were unable to sit on the terrace as ash was falling like hot snow and we were warned that evacuation might be necessary if the wildfire moved any closer in the night.


I’m pleased to say the fire abated and we didn’t get burned to a crisp. And happily the journey home was uneventful  — even though it was made in trepidation, travelling in a car that in the space of 10 days had almost been totally rebuilt.


As a result, Provence will always have a place in my heart. But sadly not for the right reasons.


The Worst Trip of My Life: Pandemonium in Provence

BY Alison Marshall

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