Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter VIII

To Mr. M—

LYONS, October 19, 1763.

DEAR SIR — I was favoured with yours at Paris, and look upon your reproaches as the proof of your friendship. The truth is, I considered all the letters I have hitherto written on the subject of my travels, as written to your society in general, though they have been addressed to one individual of it; and if they contain any thing that can either amuse or inform, I desire that henceforth all I send may be freely perused by all the members.

With respect to my health, about which you so kindly enquire, I have nothing new to communicate. I had reason to think that my bathing in the sea at Boulogne produced a good effect, in strengthening my relaxed fibres. You know how subject I was to colds in England; that I could not stir abroad after sun-set, nor expose myself to the smallest damp, nor walk till the least moisture appeared on my skin, without being laid up for ten days or a fortnight. At Paris, however, I went out every day, with my hat under my arm, though the weather was wet and cold: I walked in the garden at Versailles even after it was dark, with my head uncovered, on a cold evening, when the ground was far from being dry: nay, at Marli, I sauntered above a mile through damp alleys, and wet grass: and from none of these risques did I feel the least inconvenience.

In one of our excursions we visited the manufacture for porcelain, which the king of France has established at the village of St. Cloud, on the road to Versailles, and which is, indeed, a noble monument of his munificence. It is a very large building, both commodious and magnificent, where a great number of artists are employed, and where this elegant superfluity is carried to as great perfection as it ever was at Dresden. Yet, after all, I know not whether the porcelain made at Chelsea may not vie with the productions either of Dresden, or St. Cloud. If it falls short of either, it is not in the design, painting, enamel, or other ornaments, but only in the composition of the metal, and the method of managing it in the furnace. Our porcelain seems to be a partial vitrification of levigated flint and fine pipe clay, mixed together in a certain proportion; and if the pieces are not removed from the fire in the very critical moment, they will be either too little, or too much vitrified. In the first case, I apprehend they will not acquire a proper degree of cohesion; they will be apt to be corroded, discoloured, and to crumble, like the first essays that were made at Chelsea; in the second case, they will be little better than imperfect glass.

There are three methods of travelling from Paris to Lyons, which, by the shortest road is a journey of about three hundred and sixty miles. One is by the diligence, or stagecoach, which performs it in five days; and every passenger pays one hundred livres, in consideration of which, he not only has a seat in the carriage, but is maintained on the road. The inconveniences attending this way of travelling are these. You are crouded into the carriage, to the number of eight persons, so as to sit very uneasy, and sometimes run the risque of being stifled among very indifferent company. You are hurried out of bed, at four, three, nay often at two o’clock in the morning. You are obliged to eat in the French way, which is very disagreeable to an English palate; and, at Chalons, you must embark upon the Saone in a boat, which conveys you to Lyons, so that the two last days of your journey are by water. All these were insurmountable objections to me, who am in such a bad state of health, troubled with an asthmatic cough, spitting, slow fever, and restlessness, which demands a continual change of place, as well as free air, and room for motion. I was this day visited by two young gentlemen, sons of Mr. Guastaldi, late minister from Genoa at London. I had seen them at Paris, at the house of the dutchess of Douglas. They came hither, with their conductor, in the diligence, and assured me, that nothing could be more disagreeable than their situation in that carriage.

Another way of travelling in this country is to hire a coach and four horses; and this method I was inclined to take: but when I went to the bureau, where alone these voitures are to be had, I was given to understand, that it would cost me six-and-twenty guineas, and travel so slow that I should be ten days upon the road. These carriages are let by the same persons who farm the diligence; and for this they have an exclusive privilege, which makes them very saucy and insolent. When I mentioned my servant, they gave me to understand, that I must pay two loui’dores more for his seat upon the coach box. As I could not relish these terms, nor brook the thoughts of being so long upon the road, I had recourse to the third method, which is going post.

In England you know I should have had nothing to do, but to hire a couple of post-chaises from stage to stage, with two horses in each; but here the case is quite otherwise. The post is farmed from the king, who lays travellers under contribution for his own benefit, and has published a set of oppressive ordonnances, which no stranger nor native dares transgress. The postmaster finds nothing but horses and guides: the carriage you yourself must provide. If there are four persons within the carriage, you are obliged to have six horses, and two postillions; and if your servant sits on the outside, either before or behind, you must pay for a seventh. You pay double for the first stage from Paris, and twice double for passing through Fontainbleau when the court is there, as well as at coming to Lyons, and at leaving this city. These are called royal posts, and are undoubtedly a scandalous imposition.

There are two post roads from Paris to Lyons, one of sixty-five posts, by the way of Moulins; the other of fifty-nine, by the way of Dijon in Burgundy. This last I chose, partly to save sixty livres, and partly to see the wine harvest of Burgundy, which, I was told, was a season of mirth and jollity among all ranks of people. I hired a very good coach for ten loui’dores to Lyons, and set out from Paris on the thirteenth instant, with six horses, two postillions, and my own servant on horseback. We made no stop at Fontainbleau, though the court was there; but lay at Moret, which is one stage further, a very paltry little town where, however, we found good accommodation.

I shall not pretend to describe the castle or palace of Fontainbleau, of which I had only a glimpse in passing; but the forest, in the middle of which it stands, is a noble chace of great extent, beautifully wild and romantic, well stored with game of all sorts, and abounding with excellent timber. It put me in mind of the New Forest in Hampshire; but the hills, rocks, and mountains, with which it is diversified, render it more agreeable.

The people of this country dine at noon, and travellers always find an ordinary prepared at every auberge, or public-house, on the road. Here they sit down promiscuously, and dine at so much a head. The usual price is thirty sols for dinner, and forty for supper, including lodging; for this moderate expence they have two courses and a dessert. If you eat in your own apartment, you pay, instead of forty sols, three, and in some places, four livres ahead. I and my family could not well dispense with our tea and toast in the morning, and had no stomach to eat at noon. For my own part, I hate French cookery, and abominate garlick, with which all their ragouts, in this part of the country, are highly seasoned: we therefore formed a different plan of living upon the road. Before we left Paris, we laid in a stock of tea, chocolate, cured neats’ tongues, and saucissons, or Bologna sausages, both of which we found in great perfection in that capital, where, indeed, there are excellent provisions of all sorts. About ten in the morning we stopped to breakfast at some auberge, where we always found bread, butter, and milk. In the mean time, we ordered a poulard or two to be roasted, and these, wrapped in a napkin, were put into the boot of the coach, together with bread, wine, and water. About two or three in the afternoon, while the horses were changing, we laid a cloth upon our knees, and producing our store, with a few earthen plates, discussed our short meal without further ceremony. This was followed by a dessert of grapes and other fruit, which we had also provided. I must own I found these transient refreshments much more agreeable than any regular meal I ate upon the road. The wine commonly used in Burgundy is so weak and thin, that you would not drink it in England. The very best which they sell at Dijon, the capital of the province, for three livres a bottle, is in strength, and even in flavour, greatly inferior to what I have drank in London. I believe all the first growth is either consumed in the houses of the noblesse, or sent abroad to foreign markets. I have drank excellent Burgundy at Brussels for a florin a bottle; that is, little more than twenty pence sterling.

The country from the forest of Fontainbleau to the Lyonnois, through which we passed, is rather agreeable than fertile, being part of Champagne and the dutchy of Burgundy, watered by three pleasant pastoral rivers, the Seine, the Yonne, and the Saone. The flat country is laid out chiefly for corn; but produces more rye than wheat. Almost all the ground seems to be ploughed up, so that there is little or nothing lying fallow. There are very few inclosures, scarce any meadow ground, and, so far as I could observe, a great scarcity of cattle. We sometimes found it very difficult to procure half a pint of milk for our tea. In Burgundy I saw a peasant ploughing the ground with a jack-ass, a lean cow, and a he-goat, yoked together. It is generally observed, that a great number of black cattle are bred and fed on the mountains of Burgundy, which are the highest lands in France; but I saw very few. The peasants in France are so wretchedly poor, and so much oppressed by their landlords, that they cannot afford to inclose their grounds, or give a proper respite to their lands; or to stock their farms with a sufficient number of black cattle to produce the necessary manure, without which agriculture can never be carried to any degree of perfection. Indeed, whatever efforts a few individuals may make for the benefit of their own estates, husbandry in France will never be generally improved, until the farmer is free and independent.

From the frequency of towns and villages, I should imagine this country is very populous; yet it must be owned, that the towns are in general thinly inhabited. I saw a good number of country seats and plantations near tile banks of the rivers, on each side; and a great many convents, sweetly situated, on rising grounds, where the air is most pure, and the prospect most agreeable. It is surprising to see how happy the founders of those religious houses have been in their choice of situations, all the world over.

In passing through this country, I was very much struck with the sight of large ripe clusters of grapes, entwined with the briars and thorns of common hedges on the wayside. The mountains of Burgundy are covered with vines from the bottom to the top, and seem to be raised by nature on purpose to extend the surface, and to expose it the more advantageously to the rays of the sun. The vandange was but just begun, and the people were employed in gathering the grapes; but I saw no signs of festivity among them. Perhaps their joy was a little damped by the bad prospect of their harvest; for they complained that the weather had been so unfavourable as to hinder the grapes from ripening. I thought, indeed, there was something uncomfortable in seeing the vintage thus retarded till the beginning of winter: for, in some parts, I found the weather extremely cold; particularly at a place called Maison-neuve, where we lay, there was a hard frost, and in the morning the pools were covered with a thick crust of ice. My personal adventures on the road were such as will not bear a recital. They consisted of petty disputes with landladies, post-masters, and postillions. The highways seem to be perfectly safe. We did not find that any robberies were ever committed, although we did not see one of the marechaussee from Paris to Lyons. You know the marechaussee are a body of troopers well mounted, maintained in France as safe-guards to the public roads. It is a reproach upon England that some such patrol is not appointed for the protection of travellers.

At Sens in Champagne, my servant, who had rode on before to bespeak fresh horses, told me, that the domestic of another company had been provided before him, altho’ it was not his turn, as he had arrived later at the post. Provoked at this partiality, I resolved to chide the post-master, and accordingly addressed myself to a person who stood at the door of the auberge. He was a jolly figure, fat and fair, dressed in an odd kind of garb, with a gold laced cap on his head, and a cambric handkerchief pinned to his middle. The sight of such a fantastic petit maitre, in the character of a post-master, increased my spleen. I called to him with an air of authority, mixed with indignation, and when he came up to the coach, asked in a peremptory tone, if he did not understand the king’s ordonnance concerning the regulation of the posts? He laid his hand upon his breast; but before he could make any answer, I pulled out the post-book, and began to read, with great vociferation, the article which orders, that the traveller who comes first shall be first served. By this time the fresh horses being put to the carriage, and the postillions mounted, the coach set off all of a sudden, with uncommon speed. I imagined the post-master had given the fellows a signal to be gone, and, in this persuasion, thrusting my head out at the window, I bestowed some epithets upon him, which must have sounded very harsh in the ears of a Frenchman. We stopped for a refreshment at a little town called Joigne-ville, where (by the bye) I was scandalously imposed upon, and even abused by a virago of a landlady; then proceeding to the next stage, I was given to understand we could not be supplied with fresh horses. Here I perceived at the door of the inn, the same person whom I had reproached at Sens. He came up to the coach, and told me, that notwithstanding what the guides had said, I should have fresh horses in a few minutes. I imagined he was master both of this house and the auberge at Sens, between which he passed and repassed occasionally; and that he was now desirous of making me amends for the affront he had put upon me at the other place. Observing that one of the trunks behind was a little displaced, he assisted my servant in adjusting it: then he entered into conversation with me, and gave me to understand, that in a post-chaise, which we had passed, was an English gentleman on his return from Italy. I wanted to know who he was, and when he said he could not tell, I asked him, in a very abrupt manner, why he had not enquired of his servant. He shrugged up his shoulders, and retired to the inn door. Having waited about half an hour, I beckoned to him, and when he approached, upbraided him with having told me that I should be supplied with fresh horses in a few minutes: he seemed shocked, and answered, that he thought he had reason for what he said, observing, that it was as disagreeable to him as to me to wait for a relay. As it began to rain, I pulled up the glass in his face, and he withdrew again to the door, seemingly ruffled at my deportment. In a little time the horses arrived, and three of them were immediately put to a very handsome post-chaise, into which he stepped, and set out, accompanied by a man in a rich livery on horseback. Astonished at this circumstance, I asked the hostler who he was, and he replied, that he was a man of fashion (un seigneur) who lived in the neighbourhood of Auxerre. I was much mortified to find that I had treated a nobleman so scurvily, and scolded my own people for not having more penetration than myself. I dare say he did not fail to descant upon the brutal behaviour of the Englishman; and that my mistake served with him to confirm the national reproach of bluntness, and ill breeding, under which we lie in this country. The truth is, I was that day more than usually peevish, from the bad weather, as well as from the dread of a fit of the asthma, with which I was threatened: and I dare say my appearance seemed as uncouth to him, as his travelling dress appeared to me. I had a grey mourning frock under a wide great coat, a bob wig without powder, a very large laced hat, and a meagre, wrinkled, discontented countenance.

The fourth night of our journey we lay at Macon, and the next day passed through the Lyonnois, which is a fine country, full of towns, villages, and gentlemen’s houses. In passing through the Maconnois, we saw a great many fields of Indian corn, which grows to the height of six or seven feet: it is made into flour for the use of the common people, and goes by the name of Turkey wheat. Here likewise, as well as in Dauphine, they raise a vast quantity of very large pompions, with the contents of which they thicken their soup and ragouts.

As we travelled only while the sun was up, on account of my ill health, and the post horses in France are in bad order, we seldom exceeded twenty leagues a day.

I was directed to a lodging-house at Lyons, which being full they shewed us to a tavern, where I was led up three pair of stairs, to an apartment consisting of three paltry chambers, for which the people demanded twelve livres a day: for dinner and supper they asked thirty-two, besides three livres for my servant; so that my daily expence would have amounted to about forty-seven livres, exclusive of breakfast and coffee in the afternoon. I was so provoked at this extortion, that, without answering one word, I drove to another auberge, where I now am, and pay at the rate of two-and-thirty livres a day, for which I am very badly lodged, and but very indifferently entertained. I mention these circumstances to give you an idea of the imposition to which strangers are subject in this country. It must be owned, however, that in the article of eating, I might save half the money by going to the public ordinary; but this is a scheme of oeconomy, which (exclusive of other disagreeable circumstances) neither my own health, nor that of my wife permits me to embrace. My journey from Paris to Lyons, including the hire of the coach, and all expences on the road, has cost me, within a few shillings, forty loui’dores. From Paris our baggage (though not plombe) was not once examined till we arrived in this city, at the gate of which we were questioned by one of the searchers, who, being tipt with half a crown, allowed us to proceed without further enquiry,

I purposed to stay in Lyons until I should receive some letters I expected from London, to be forwarded by my banker at Paris: but the enormous expence of living in this manner has determined me to set out in a day or two for Montpellier, although that place is a good way out of the road to Nice. My reasons for taking that route I shall communicate in my next. Mean-while, I am ever — Dear Sir, Your affectionate and obliged humble servant.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30