Planes, strains and automobiles

SO there we were, rolling peacefully through the lovely French countryside on our way home when... Nothing. We're coasting in neutral, the gear lever as immoveable as Excalibur in its stone and the clutch pedal as floppy as an old lettuce.

MACON is the capital of the French department of Saone-et-Loire, in southern Burgundy, renowned mostly for its wine.

Roughly the size of Ipswich, it stands rather prettily on the east bank of the river Saone. Some very nice people live there.

How I know this is a strange tale, which begins exactly four weeks ago on a road some 30 miles or so to the east of Macon.

Actually, if I was making a film of it I'd begin earlier that day on a mountainside in the Alps. I'd cast Steve Martin as me and Reese Witherspoon (or think Goldie Hawn 30 years ago) as my partner Penny.

It's early morning, we're setting off for home after a fabulous holiday, and Penny is worried about petrol. Finally, after negotiating several miles of steep, narrow, twisting Alpine roads, we see a petrol station. Phew.

Except that it's an automated station with no human being on site, and the machine won't take my credit card. Or Penny's.

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Never mind. A little further on there's a real garage with a real old man and a real old dog and I can buy real fuel with real money. Panic over.

Roll on a little further, over the Col du Lautaret – where the climbers of the Tour de France will be sweating on Sunday – and it's time to stop for breakfast.

There are several cafes at Bourg d'Oisan, but nowhere to park. Finally we find a roadside inn with a real old man – but nothing to eat except minute pre-packaged slices of fruit cake. Well, it's breakfast of a sort.

By 1.0pm, though, we are ready for lunch. That perfect French wayside café with outdoor tables and wonderful food is looming large in our mind's eye as I turn off a roundabout, slip the car out of second gear and…

Nothing. We're coasting in neutral, the gear lever is as unmoveable as Excalibur in the stone and the clutch pedal as floppy as an old lettuce.

Time to phone Green Flag and be grateful Penny remembered insurance. Then sit in the burning sun and wilt and wait.

Thank heaven this didn't happen on one of those Alpine roads with verges made of hundreds of feet of fresh air. That might have been the end of the Aidan Semmens column.

Eventually a mechanic arrives with a rescue truck and a Gallic shrug. It's into the truck for us, onto the back for the car, and off we go to Macon.

More waiting. More phoning.

They won't have the part till Monday. We'll have to stay in Macon for the weekend and miss another day or two of work. (They won't like that on the Star.)

No – it will be at least a week before they can get it fixed. We need to get to our ferry in Dunkerque tomorrow. Which is when we start to notice the kindness of Macon folk.

The receptionist at the garage makes many phone calls to find us a hire car. One of her colleagues gives us a lift across town to collect it. By about 7pm we're on our way again.

Fast forward 19 hours to Dunkerque, where we find: (a) you can't take a hire car on the ferry; and (b) you can't get on the ferry without a car.

So it's a quick drive to Calais (hiring a car would have been much easier if we'd known that was where we were taking it) and on to a boat as foot passengers, with all the luggage we can carry.

Describing exactly what happened when we got to Dover might land me in trouble with a certain car-hire company and a well-known motor manufacturer. So let's fast-forward again to this week, and the trip back to collect our own car, now happily repaired.

The day begins very early with a taxi from Ipswich to Luton. (Are you counting the cost of all this travelling? I hope the insurance people are.) A few pleasant hours later we're in Geneva, where the car hire firm (yup, another one) we're supposed to be booked with has no record of us. Until we realise we're in Switzerland, and we should be at their office in France.

Did you know you Geneva airport straddles the border and you can walk from one country to the other without going outside? No, neither did we.

But hey, here we are on our way back to Macon and our own lovely vehicle. And this time round we know the kindness we receive has nothing to do with travelling with a charming four-year-old, because we have left her in Suffolk.

It's been a long day by the time we arrive at Bar-sur-Seine, where we mean to spend the night.

But there is no room at the inn. Nor at any other for a great many miles around – because the Tour de France is in town.

Do you know how few motels there are on French autoroutes? Well, I can tell you there isn't one between Bar-sur-Seine and Calais, five hours' drive away…

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