A smooth crossing on the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, then it’s a long drive of 2,500-plus kilometres down to Cosenza, Calabria – Italy’s gorgeous south.
As the Schengen clock started as soon as I hit Cherbourg, the plan is to push down quickly to southern Italy but first, spend a few days exploring Normandy.
Distance: 125 kilometres
Roads: N13, N814, D401
Booked a Studio self-contained apartment through air.bnb, which included a washing machine and toiletries.
A great little spot on a quiet road and close to shops. Our excellent host Simon is very friendly and accommodating. Wanted to extend an extra night but he was fully booked.
As the capital of the Lower Normandy region in northern France, Caen is an excellent base from which to explore all the infamous WWII historical sites, beaches, and museums.
The 3-night stay in Caen didn’t do this region justice – it was but a mere wetting of the lips only – a tease but so glad to experience this area. You really need a week to really experience all the Normandy Beaches, museums, but also local sites.
Super U – Love the wonderful Super U selection that makes my mouth drool every time I’m here. Sad I know, but it’s food after all. This place is my favourite haunt.
Caen to Clermont Ferrand, Lola’s demise – Friday
Today the objective is to do some 600 kilometres from Caen to Clermont Ferrand. It’s much easier to drive this distance in Lola the Peugeot than in Reg the motorhome. All was going splendidly until re-fuelling and swapping drivers, about 80 kilometres out of Clermont Ferrand.
On overtaking a vehicle on the flat, Lola started coughing and losing power on acceleration. Thinking that perhaps it was the cheaper fuel or maybe dirty fuel, off we stopped at the closest Services to fill up with more but expensive fuel.
Swapped drivers again and after about 5 minutes down the road, Lola persisted in coughing. Worse still…the red engine light came on! Strange as Lola wasn’t overheating. Pulled into the SOS bay. This was not going well and so close to Clermont Ferrand…what next? A call to the RAC (UK Road Assist) as the Toll’s SOS phone advertises €126/tow.
With cars zooming by and the highway’s background noise, tried the UK SIM card, which didn’t work. Reluctantly, the Aussie Vodafone “Roaming” card worked and at about €4.80/minute. Not cheap, especially when you’re listening to ‘on-hold’ musac!
Distance: 505 kilometres
Fuel: €20.02 @ €1.44/litre; €26.94 @ €1.299/litre
Roads: A85, A71
Tolls: €46.70 – included tolls during towing of Lola to the Highway’s garage
Accommodation: Paid be RAC
Hotel Bomotel – Excellent hospitality! Although not a planned stop in this city or at this hotel, I am glad we stayed here. Staff are very friendly. It’s about a 25-minute walk to the Medieval site but almost a 3-kilometre walk to the Carrefour Supermarket. Great comfortable room serviced daily, wonderful hot shower with toiletries provided.
A family-run business. The family could not do enough for us; extremely kind, which is what made the hotel, and a very pleasant stay under stressful conditions. The warm, hospitable, and truly sincere help provided during our car saga was amazing and humbling.
Used the SOS phone after all as this is a private Toll road. This also means only the Toll road’s towing company can be used (all wrapped up nicely). With the call made, we waited. Whilst waiting, another older Peugeot pulled over in front of us…also broken down – coincidence or an Omen? I remarked: wouldn’t it be funny if they were towed to the same garage?
Towed to the garage – Friday
The tow truck finally arrived and off we went to the closest garage in Montmarault. Here we waited again and whilst waiting, the other broken down Peugeot from the highway was also towed to this same garage.
After much broken French, calls to the RAC, and hanging around, the mechanic advised at 7 pm that he could not look at Lola until Tuesday (it’s Friday evening now). The RAC, advised Monday…who do we believe?
Excellent! The RAC put us up in the Hotel Bomotel for 3 nights, picked up the bill, and also the taxi bill to Montluçon (€90), some 30 kilometres from Montmarault. Not much accommodation near the garage.
Still waiting – Sunday
Although the schedule is to be just north of Rome today, here we are still in central France, with my Schengen clock ticking. Travelling has a habit of throwing sledgehammers at you. Expect the unexpected as they say and never feel too comfortable, as you never know what’s around the corner!
The continuing saga – Tuesday and Wednesday
The mechanic’s verdict is that it’s something to do with Lola’s coil and plugs but this may not be everything. A full diagnosis and quote tomorrow after 11 am. Today, we should have arrived in Cosenza, but still in central France.
At 11 am today (Wednesday), the mechanic advised he would have an answer by 4 pm. Finally, this afternoon, the dreaded verdict came that we have been waiting for since last Friday: water in the No 4 cylinder, which caused a blown head gasket. The quote to repair Lola is €2,000 and it would take another week or so! We have only owned Lola for just under 2 weeks so still under the 2-month Dealer’s warranty. The RAC will advise if it would repatriate Lola to the UK. What a mess – a car load of stuff and no car.
The final decision – Thursday
RAC advised that as Lola could be repaired then repatriation was not an option. As the mechanic is ripping us off and it’s not worth the repair bill of €2,000, we made the decision to scrap Lola. What now without a car to get to Italy?
Another call to the mechanic to advise of Lola’s pick-up as I would not leave the car for this guy to keep as I believe this garage runs a scam. During all of this stress, the Bomotel’s owner has been amazing and helped with calls, even researching and phoning Wreckers.
With a taxi and Wrecker’s truck we arrived at the closed garage. No Lola and no one in sight. The Wrecker phoned the garage and discovered that Lola had been moved from Montmarault to their workshop in Tronget, another 15 kilometres away (now over 52 kilometres from Montluçon).
The taxi driver started to get annoyed as he was driving us all over the countryside and the RAC hire was only to take us to Montmarault to collect our stuff then back to Montluçon. More calls to the RAC and off we all went for another drive, this time to Tronget. At least we were seeing the beautiful French countryside…for free!
Arrived at the 2nd garage, which advised we had €183 to pay before we could remove Lola. This bill was for the work the mechanic had done so far. What work? Another money grab. I refused to pay and stormed outside. Meanwhile, the taxi driver pressured for another call to the RAC to confirm to take us from Tronget to Durdat Larequille (Wreckers’ garage), over 47 kilometres away!
I returned to the garage and was advised that the bill had been wavered, so had the €20 fee for the mechanic to look at Lola if we didn’t go ahead with their repairs, and the €15/day storage until Lola was removed. The lady advised she phoned the RAC and all was paid for – all very strange.
So off we all went on yet another road trip with the elderly taxi driver who was incredulous of what was unfolding – he thought it was a shambles! I did notice there were many cars without number plates at this garage and couldn’t help but feel that these guys had some sort of scam going. They tow broken down cars off the Toll road to their own garages, quote exorbitant repair prices, owner walks away, and the garage keeps the car. Whilst there, a Netherlands-plated older Dodge motorhome came in on a tow truck. Wishing the owners good luck, I cautioned also!
Finally arriving at the Wreckers and clearing Lola out for the last time, signed the paperwork, and handed her over.
Although I asked the boss to give us a little cash for Lola, he flatly refused stating that he had another 5 or 6 of the same make, but also he’d driven all over the countryside for this car. I’m sure if he hadn’t thought Lola was a steal, he would have left her at the garage. Noticed he had cars for sale at the front of his yard also…I guess that’s how he makes his money.
The final countdown – Thursday night
With the deed done, off we went back to Montluçon. Even though Lola cost a lot of money for just two weeks, it is a welcomed relief to finally close this stressful chapter…lesson learnt.
Next, it is time to sort out and pack everything that can’t be carried in backpacks and daypacks; and research couriers to send boxes on to Italy. You have to remember, Lola was full of items such as bedding, kitchenware, car stuff, and more as we are planning to live in Italy long-term. Also on the list is to sort buses to Italy and accommodation in Italy. No easy task as we only have tomorrow left here and out on Saturday; we split the tasks up. Can’t book the courier until our airbnb accommodation is booked as we don’t have a forwarding address for the boxes: Catch 22.
With accommodation booked, it was on to Courier companies. After hours of research, no one would pick up on Friday, all wanted a Monday pick-up. This means that as we are leaving on Saturday, the Bomotel has to store the boxes until Monday, then hand everything over to the courier company on Monday – not a fair. Finally, I found Upela, which stated if I booked before 12:00 noon on Friday with a pick-up time, then parcels would be picked up.
With courier, accommodation, and buses (Flixbus: Montluçon→Lyon→Turin→Rome→Cosenza) booked, we are sorted at last and can now relax!
More hurdles – Friday night
Excellent service from Upela. The 3 parcels (51 kgs) were picked up at 12:37 pm – very impressed and Upela was also the cheapest quote.
The last thing to organise is the taxi to the bus station for tomorrow morning. You think this would be easy in a city?
As the bus leaves in the morning, Jean-Francois (owner) tried to book a taxi tonight to take us to the bus station. After phoning the only 2 taxi companies in this city, no one is available for the Saturday morning pick-up. Frustrated, Jean-Francois advised he would drive us the 2 kilometres to the station. Think he felt sorry for us by now…
I also discovered that it is impossible and a “disaster to try and get anything done in France during July and August as the whole country is on holidays” – how does this country survive? That explains why I hardly see any shops open in town.
Regardless of all the car hassles, still managed to take in some sights in Montluçon.
Dating back as far as the 8th century, snippets of gorgeous ancient architecture still stand in this Auvergne region city, with a rich heritage, south central France.
Take a stroll around the Medieval site, which dates over 1,000 years. Wonderful architecture graces the town, which luckily, survived untouched during during WWII.
Restaurants are pretty expensive but wandering is free.
If you have time, a couple of hours south lies the “Chaîne des Puys” – a chain of volcanoes.
With the last confirmed eruption dating at around 4040 BC, most of these volcanos formed some 70,000 years’ ago have eroded now.
As you can imagine, with all the stress of sorting out Lola going on, the mood for sight-seeing isn’t great. Although, whilst in France…why not take in some historic beauty?
Take a break in this pleasant garden, which named after President Wilson is also known as the City Wall Garden. Although the garden was created in 1937, the original’s fortifications were mostly destroyed in the 18th century.
Church of Notre-Dame
Rebuilt during the 14-15th centuries, the listed 16th century stained glassed windows were also restored. The church houses works-of-art from the 15-17th century, which I didn’t see as the church was always closed when I walked past.
This newly built very modern museum juts out from the surrounding Medieval buildings (€9.50 entry) and provides an interactive walk through music. From here you can walk down to the (free) well-manicured and peaceful gardens behind the museum – very picturesque and a hang-out for locals.
With a history of continual building, this attractive bridge on the River Cher was first built in the 15th century, rebuilt in 1879, and then widened in 1910. During the Industrial Era, many of the factories were located on the Left Bank, which is on the other side of the bridge and was Montluçon’s most highly populated area.
This flamboyant building (No 2 Boulevard de Coutais) from the 1920’s is neo-classical and art-deco style; windows adorned with lion heads and a fleuron between their jaws, quite opulent and intricate.
Food and shopping
- Patapain (26 Boulevard fo Courtais) – Inexpensive coffee (€1.10-1.60) – think it’s the cheapest in this city! Wonderful freshly baked pastries, fresh fruit tarts, breads, and gateau also available as are fresh gourmet sandwiches. If you sit upstairs, you can see the fountains along the boulevard and watch children playing and laughing whilst trying to stamp on the spouts!
- Crêperie Pizzeria Les Forges (2 Rue Porte des Forges; closed Monday and Wednesday) – Arguably the cheapest pizzas (€8-9.50) in town and excellent! The crepes looked great but after pizza and vino, I was too stuffed.
- Flunch – Offering good meals (€5.95+) with an all you can eat veggie bar, this is great value. Gourmet ice creams/crepes are sold as well as pastries, coffees, a salad bar, and much more. Pretty much covers everything.
- Carrefour (in the mall) – massive supermarket offering everything imaginable, food, fresh produce, clothes, kitchenware, and much more (closed Sundays).
- Carrefour Express (80 Boulevarde de Courtais) – great for a few essentials.
- Yves Rocher (33 Boulevard Courtais) – For you every natural beauty requirements pop into this great little find – I used to buy this brand via Mail Order in Australia – a great favourite and cheap in the EU compared to Australia!
- Pimkie (or Pimkle) – Great little clothes shop offering cheap fashions – bought my stylish hat here for €10 – bargain!
- Monoprix – Another large department store with a large grocery section also. Prices are higher than Carrefours but OK for a few things.
- Lox – Had an excellent shampoo, head massage, condition, style cut, and dry for only €27. The young hairdresser was amazingly fast and great!
Disappointed to be leaving Lola behind, but more so that we no longer have a car, it’s now on to the very long bus journey to Italy – some 36 hours and 4 buses.
Up early and at reception by 9 am with our heavy luggage. Jean-Francois went to his car only to find that his car wouldn’t start; flat battery! What else could go wrong? Ever had the feeling that you’d never leave a place through no fault of your own? Felt like ‘Welcome to the Bomotel Montluçon’ (think Eagles)!
Luckily, Jean-Francois borrowed his son’s car and finally arrived at the bus station with plenty of time to spare. Touch and go there as the owner said he’s never had a problem with his car and his battery is only 1-year-old.
Montluçon to Consenza (Italy)
The roomy Flixbus turned up a little late as it should arrive 15 minutes before departure, but we left around about the right time, so all cool. After only 25-minutes’ driving, the bus pulled into the Services and advised everyone had 45-minutes as a stop here.
No wonder the journey takes so long!
After hours of travel, we’re at a standstill, stuck on the motorway in traffic on the outskirts of Lyon. Cars are zooming past on the opposite side. At this rate, we’ll miss our connecting bus in Lyon…