ONE EASTER DURING the late 1990s, we drove to Provence in the south of France. There, we hired a lovely rural cottage (a ‘gîte rural’) located on the edge of a village next to an orchard of trees overladen with ripe cherries. That year, there was a heatwave in the south of France, daytime temperatures reaching and staying at 37 degrees Celsius. We were pleased that our Saab saloon car had built-in air-conditioning and that our gite had a large garden and a shady terrace.
Despite the high daytime temperatures, we managed to do plenty of sight-seeing. One day, we decided to explore the delights of the city of Orange, which was not far from our gite. The city is rich in Roman remains including a magnificent open-air theatre with steps, on which the audience perched, arranged in a circle.
In the 12th century, Orange and its surroundings became a principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1554, William the Silent, Count of Nassau, who had possessions in the Netherlands and became a Protestant, inherited the title ‘Prince of Orange’. The Principality of Orange was incorporated into what became the House of Orange-Nassau, whose royal family continues to rule the Netherlands today. One member of the family became King William III of England in 1689. Orange remained a Dutch possession more or less continuously until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, under whose terms it was ceded to France.
So much history and clambering around the Roman ruins made us ready for lunch. We had no idea which restaurant to choose in the centre of Orange. My wife had the bright idea of entering one of the local shops, a shoe store, to ask where its workers went to eat their midday meal. They told us about a small restaurant around the corner. This busy eatery had a name which brought to mind associations with the American Wild West, ‘Le Buffalo West’, or something similar. It was a good recommendation and the food it served was excellent quality, reasonably priced French fare.
After a decent meal, we drove to a parking plot near a Roman triumphal arch. To enter the parking area, one had to drive below an arch designed to keep out large vehicles, and then down a steep ramp. Unfortunately, I turned the steering well before the car was fully off the ramp. We became grounded on a large concrete rock. The engine cut-out. I could not restart it. The car was well and truly stuck on the rock. Some people nearby saw our plight and told us that there was a repair garage a few yards away. We walked there.
The garage people sent out a team with a tow truck. Sadly, the truck was too high to pass beneath the height-restricting arch. Seeing the problem, three garage employees set to work with spades to dig around the rock on which our Saab was marooned. After at least an hour and a half’s hard toil in the baking afternoon heat, they removed the boulder and thus freed the car. Then, they pushed it beneath the arch so that it could be attached to the towing truck.
Raised on a ramp, it was easy to see where the rock had ruptured the Saab’s fuel line. It did not take the engineers long to replace the fractured section. Luckily, little other damage was visible beneath our car. Finally, we were ready to leave. It was with some anticipation that I asked to settle the bill. Imagining how expensive this labour-intensive episode would have been in the UK, I was expecting a bill of at least £300. So, I was not surprised when I was asked for about 300 French Francs. Then, a moment later, I could not believe my luck. A quick calculation had revealed that I was being asked not for £300, but for the Franc equivalent of about one tenth of this amount.
We returned to our gite, highly relieved that the car was back in service so quickly. That evening, as the sun set, we sat outdoors and enjoyed glasses of the local rosé wine whilst the charcoal on our barbecue began to reach the glowing stage that is best for grilling the meat that we had bought in one of the local markets.
The Saab remained in use for several more years but, to the surprise of our local dealer who serviced it annually, it began developing ominous cracks in its chassis. It was providential that these did not develop immediately after my driving misjudgement in that car park in Orange.