From Paris to Rennes in 1802

Dr André Guilmot, a 24-year-old doctor from northern France was amongst those drawn to the supposed riches of the West Indies and so volunteered to take part in Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to recapture Saint Domingue. Unaware of the horrors of Yellow Fever and vengeful armies of former slaves, he set off in good spirits in the summer of 1802, heading for the ports of Brittany where the massive invasion fleet was gathering. This is his account of how to get from Paris to Rennes at an affordable price. There are adventures, blisters and an encounter with a polar bear:

“The stagecoach from Rue Montmarte goes to Brest, it takes seven days and costs 115 livres on the cabriolet; I’ll take one from Rue Fossés Saint Germain L’Auxerrois which goes to Rennes in four days and costs 46 livres. It is 91 leagues, and I think it is only 65 from there to Brest. We’ll check once we have got there.

At six in the morning I climbed onboard at Rue Fossés Saint Germain L’Auxerrois, and an officer of chasseurs also got in. He asked where I was going. To Rennes? And then? To Brest? And then? To Saint Domingue. Him too. We stopped for a short while and a few more people joined us, including an officer in civilian attire accompanied by a woman dressed as a man. We knew that she was accompanying this official and only calling herself his wife. We passed St Cyr to Pontchartrain, which is the name of a village notable for being the first place where one has to leave the coach so it can climb a hill; we got down, the view over the valley was charming. We dined at four at a town called Laqueue then set off for Houdan and Dreux.

The journey was not at all dull. There were ten in the coach and two more in the two-wheeled cabriolet. One of the drivers fell off twice and was in danger of breaking a limb. For those of us inside the cab felt like a swing, the rocking was so fierce the one of the ladies would have been thrown through the door had we not held on to her. The roads are in a good state, there’s no risk of being overturned. You don’t stay long in the same coach, we changed at Dreux, our luggage being dropped on the pavement, something repeated when you reach your destination. Passengers are handed a notice that the company is not responsible for any loss of baggage.

The coach stopped at Verneuil. Had a look around three inns, two were bad, the other not so much and not so expensive. A local woman had told us about it and we all went there, just by the market place. We had to cross the entire town that evening, each one of us carrying luggage. A good supper was our reward. We are 29 and a half leagues from Paris.

At seven we rejoined the coach. We ate at Mortague, a small town or village, and slept at Alencon. The town is quite large, quite pretty, there is a small promenade. It costs 10 livres from Paris to Verneuil, and eight from Verneuil to Alencon.The 40 leagues to Rennes cost 28 livres.

The chasseur officer wanted to walk, and I agreed to accompany him, offering my place to a lady who paid me what it would have cost me to complete the journey. We arrived at six and I took a shirt, two handkerchiefs, socks and shoes, making a bundle of them. I put the rest in my portemanteau and took it to the post office that sent mail from Paris to Brest. To prevent my shoes from soiling my shirt I wanted to buy a large sheet of paper but the bakery where I made enquiries, gave me a grey paper bag and didn’t ask for any money for it.

The next day, the 8th, we set off on foot, resolved to walk and to save money. We passed Pré en Pail, home of M., and slept at a village whose name I have forgotten. We were glad to be free from the heat and constrictions of the coach, the countryside was pretty with little valleys and round hills. There are flowers along each side of the road, although the land around Pré en Pail is less fertile. We were eventually exhausted, my comrade, who had a bundle twice as heavy as my own, complained much more than I did. We put eau-de-vie on our feet. On the 9th I made the suggestion that we swap loads, I did less well than him from the bargain. We made two more leagues when we came across some soldiers who told us that an officer and a woman were a little way ahead and so we pushed on in the hope we could travel together. It was a captain and his lady from Versailles and we ate together in the Mayenne suburb, at the Star. The town is on some heights overlooking the main road. The lady, accustomed to the salons of Paris, and who had not spent much time outdoors, felt too keenly the ravages of the climate, having been exposed to them all day in her cart. Her face was burnt red and sore, and i bathed it in some cold tea and recommended Saturne extract. Our two officers went to town to shop and have a look around. As we still had a long journey ahead of us, I determined to avoid further fatigue and stayed behind. At three the lady left for an appointment. At four thirty our comrades had not returned, I wasn’t so concerned and they could follow after me. I told our host that I was ready to leave. He advised me, insisted really, that I pay for everyone and that I set off with a cane in my hand, as the countryside was hilly, dense and there were hedges on either side which could conceal cutthroats. We, the lady and myself, set off and reached Martiniere, and ordered supper. My right heel, which had troubled me at Paris, had begun to play up again, so I used a compress of eau-d-vie to soothe it.  Night was falling, and I had finished washing, when our two comrades finally arrived. We called them over and ate together. Thy had been playing billiards and had then covered four leagues in two and a half hours.

On the 10th all four of us set off in light rain which got heavier and continuous. We drank a little eau-de-vie in a shack and ate a piece of bread. Here the fate of a roasted chicken which B. had brought from Paris was decided. Then we watched as an entire regiment marched by, with the officers asking that the young comrade, they meant the captain’s wife, be enrolled. We didn’t allow it. Her determination and good humour diminished the unpleasant parts of the journey, she had a lovely voice and would sometimes sing. When we were strolling along such songs chased away sad and distracting thoughts. We didn’t need to hurry, just as well really. We were sheltering from the rain when a man on a horse came and told us that he was looking for a partridge which no longer had strength to fly. So we jumped over the hedge and there we were hunting without a dog or a rifle. We wasted half an hour there and got soaked. We reached Laval and went up to light fires in our rooms. We stripped and I rubbed myself down, drying my clothes by the fire whilst I wrapped myself in a sheet from the nicely made bed. We got warm and the rain hadn’t harmed us, so we drank a bottle of wine and rested.

At around noon someone had to go down to the kitchens to see what was going on. As I was youngest, apart from the lady, it was only fair that the privilege fell on me and I went down. Not being in the mood to leave my bed, I put on my slippers and draped myself in my sheet, tied around my neck with a golden cord, if you please. This costume left me with a free hand and covered me completely. I carried out my visit and returned to my bed. An hour later we went down to dine. Our things were dry, apart from our tunics. The weather was improving, so I suggested leaving. The captain suggested we look at the town, the lieutenant too, despite his wish to save money. I eventually agreed, and we went to a cafe. After having played and watched several games of billiards I went off to look around the town. It was large, hilly, badly built and there are a few old towers from some old fortifications, along with a very small promenade. They say there are 15,000 inhabitants, and the women are good looking. There are two silk works. Coming back to the cafe, I was surprised to bump into V. [the lieutenant] who told me he had won money from the captain but that he was refusing to pay, and that they had quarrelled. He wanted me to take his side, but as I never trusted him, I refused to do so. I hadn’t quit the coach in order to get involved with some stupidity. He seemed afraid of the captain, who they said was a swordsman. He wanted to buy some pistols and try them out, but the seller, seeing what he was about, asked him to leave a deposit. As V. had no money he wanted me to lend him some, which I avoided doing, so no pistols. They later went off, unarmed, with an old officer and an accommodation was reached. Supper went well. We persuaded a lady who was leaving the following morning by coach to take our luggage, but when it came to paying her our lads again fell into argument about who owed what, and things went steadily downhill from there. Plates and glasses started flying. They then went for the bottles. The captain’s lady, who was close to him, threw himself at him just as my lieutenant, who had not yet thrown his bottle, reached out to grab it. I, seeing that he would throw prudence in the air along with his bottle, grabbed and restrained him. After another hiatus when the bottles again nearly played a part, I managed to calm them saying that we were worse for drink and that officers could obtain satisfaction making far less noise. We settled for supper and whoever breaks a glass buys it, as the saying goes. Our hosts, good people, very attentive, were astonished. I sat thinking about the damage a bottle could do to the face, and about how such disturbances might encourage the police to get involved.

The next day, the 11th, at six in the morning the captain’s lady offered to take V.’s bundle. He thanked her, but it was my idea. We didn’t travel with them although we left at the same time, reflecting on our stupidity. The lieutenant said he’d wanted to leave the evening before. Apparently he had beaten the captain and had wanted the captain to be able to win his money back, but he had refused to bet at the cafe in Laval and the lieutenant had refused to pay him back. That’s what it had all been about.

We had done two leagues when V. realised he had left his purse behind in the bedding. He said it contained nine Francs. He decided not to go back, but to make use of his travel expenses. I lent him money when he no longer had sufficient funds.

We met a chouan rebel.

We dined at Vitre, a poor town, badly built. Our host was not dissimilar, but honest enough and we ate reasonably and well. He had lost one of his sons on the day he himself had received a sabre cut from the brigands, and he still had his hand in a bandage. We spent a few hours lying down, but were sure to keep our socks and gloves on, and with a handkerchief on our heads. Around three miles from the town there is a freshwater lake, it has a circumference of three miles and it is surrounded by woods. Vitre has an old chateau, with fat, round towers mingled up amongst thin, square ones.

We slept quite well at the posting inn at Chateaubourg, 13.5 livres. The town scarcely has 30 houses, their roofs of slate, common in these parts. I had forgotten, the night before, to soak my feet in eau-de-vie. My right heel hurt every time I took a step, and it was getting swollen. There was nothing in my boot to cause it, just perhaps the boot was too heavy. I put on an eau-de-vie compress. My companion decided to wear slippers as his boots had given him corns, but I told him feet and corns were more troubled by slippers than boots. After walking for 18 miles he was obliged to resume walking in his boots, and was better off for it.

On the 12th, at around 10.00, we reached Rennes, six livres. We rested until dinner. I put another compress on my right heel, which was still causing me pain, until after dinner. I put on a shoe so I could see the town, leaving V. in his bed, as I felt like walking for pleasure.

The city is quite large and some of it well-built, these parts having three-storey buildings of brick and grey stone, and streets laid out in a grid. Two large squares meet at one of their corners; one of the squares, the New Square, is planted with trees, and, on one side, the buildings back onto it. This square was built by the last of the intendants, the other one is rather spoilt by a ruined church. The lower town has a few gates but, for the most part, the city blends with the suburbs or is only separated from them by boulevards. These are built only slightly raised, and, generally, beyond them, one sees charming prairies and country houses. The Champ de Mars is beyond these boulevards, and there is a small promenade there. Further on, where the road forks, there is a house with wonderful bowers.

The town’s water is good and, by the Champ de Mars, there is a deep well which gives pure water. Such is also the case at a few other wells, which they call fountains here, outside the town and this is brought in to be sold. What is astonishing is that these wells do not have buckets and do not have ropes or pullies. They never have had, one brings a jug and it is lowered in. I saw one waterseller filling a barrel by using a can which barely contained two cup-fulls. During my walk I spoke to a cobbler, for I wanted some repair doing to my shoe, and as I sat waiting he told me much about the town.

Next to the road to Paris there is the La Motte, a raised, oval walkway surrounded by a wall and a double row of trees. Within the centre there is an open space which can be used for whatever public festival they might wish to put on. At one end there is a neat lawn from which can be seen the town’s best houses, the rolling countryside and an old, and rather mean, church which seems to have been built on some old ramparts.

On one of the quieter streets I noticed the following inscription on a door: “Thabor and Botanical Garden”. It was closed. The Thabor is an old path that ran through the former bishop’s palace, connecting up some alleys and dark, sunken roads which ran up the heights and looked out over the countryside. Monsieur Baudoin left.

I went to a zoo in order to see a white bear which was there. On first sight, you’d mistake it for being a tame creature. There was another creature, of an unknown type, that they think was the product of crossing two of the most ferocious creatures. It wasn’t any larger than your average butcher’s dog, but it had a horrific maw. When it saw that the meat was being prepared, it threw itself at the bars emitting terrifying shrieks. The first piece of meat, weighing three pounds, was swallowed whole without any chewing. It must have been hunger which made it behave thus because earlier on the keeper had stroked it on the shoulder and opened its mouth. A tiger was rolling on its back like a cat, a lion roared from time to time – it sounded peaceful, like the mooing of a cow. The keeper went up to the polar bear and the creature slipped its paw through the cage, but not in an aggressive way. A naval officer assured me that he had seen several docile ones in Greenland, and suggested that it was hunger which  caused it to become furious and to attack the crews of ships.”