10 Travel Tips From the Age of Napoleon
By Suzanne Raga
Portrait by Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Born in 1746, Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint-Aubin was a French author and harpist who tutored young members of the French royalty. Known as Madame de Genlis, she wrote historical and romance novels as well as plays intended to teach morals to children.
Pulling on her travel experience—she trekked to Britain, Switzerland, and Germany while fleeing the French Revolution—she wrote a language book called Manuel Du Voyageur, Or, The Traveller’s Pocket Companion in the last years of the 18th century. In a series of sample dialogs, Genlis gave both advice and language scripts to help travelers find good accommodations, ask for directions, order food, and arrange for long-term stays in a foreign country. After the French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte helped support her literary contributions by paying Genlis 500 francs per month.
Manuel Du Voyageur was so popular that it was reprinted in additional languages such as English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Although it's more than two centuries old, the book contains some surprisingly relatable and relevant advice for modern travelers. Take a look at some of Genlis’s tips:
1. ASK AROUND TO ASCERTAIN THE BEST ROADS.
“Pray, what sort of road is it?” Inquiring about the roads around you will let you know whether they’re sandy, rocky, well paved, narrow, or full of treacherous precipices. You might ask: “Is the road very dreadful?” Ask the locals or your driver if the roads are safe, and avoid the forests when it gets dark outside.
If you have to choose between two different roads, be clear about what your goal is: “I know there are two distinct roads to go from hence to … Which is the best of them? I don’t mean by the best the shortest, but that which is in the best condition.” And if part of your journey requires mules, don’t forget to ask how many mules you'll need to safely make the trek.
2. GET A GOOD PAIR OF SHOES.
Because some roads require walking, you’ll have to say goodbye to your mules and carriage at some point. “As you will perform a great part of this journey on foot, I advise you to get a pair of good, stout, and easy shoes made, and to take with you an umbrella, parasol, and some sheets and eatables," she writes.
3. IT’S OKAY TO BOSS YOUR DRIVER AROUND.
According to Genlis, being a backseat driver is the way to go. Depending on the quality of the road, you should order your driver to go faster or more gently. If your driver pressures you to take a shortcut off the beaten path, hold your ground: “Driver, do not turn into any bye-road. I insist upon it; I will not leave the high-road … I will not turn into any bye-road, short as it may be.” And if you lose your shoes in the carriage, don’t be afraid to promptly instruct your driver to look for them.
4. DRUG YOURSELF TO DEAL WITH SEASICKNESS.
Before setting sail, it’s important to ask a bunch of questions about your maritime voyage: “If we have favorable weather, how long shall we be on our passage? What would be the expense of a whole gondola, or vessel, for myself? ... Are the pilots and vessels good? ... How much must I pay for the small cabin, for myself? ... How many passengers have you? Are there any ladies amongst the number? ... When shall we set sail, if the wind permits?”
After drilling down on the logistical details, know what to do when you get seasick. “I advise you to take a few drops of ether, or of Hofmann’s drops, which are a sovereign remedy against the sea-sickness. How am I to take these ethereal drops? You must pour out from fifteen to twenty-two drops into a spoon, on a small lump of sugar.” (In the 1800s, ether was used as a medical anesthetic, recreational drug, and alcohol alternative for women who didn’t drink; Hoffmann’s Drops consisted of 3 parts alcohol to 1 part ether.)
And if you get a toothache, which “happens frequently at sea,” stay inside during the morning and evening, chew on cochlearia (a plant in the cabbage family) and sage leaves, and wash your mouth with brandy.
5. CAREFULLY EXAMINE THE BEDDING IN YOUR INN.
After the innkeeper has shown you a suitable room, make sure your room isn’t on the ground floor, doesn’t face the street (the carriages are noisy), has the number of beds you desire, and has window shutters. Then inspect the bed. Tell the innkeeper that you won’t accept rumpled sheets, and if you have a baby, check that the cradle is clean and bug-free. Some questions and instructions for the innkeeper:
“The beds must be made. Can you provide us with a mattress, instead of this feather-bed? Bring us another pillow. I should prefer a bolster to this pillow. This coverlid is dirty. It is too heavy. It is too light. Give me another. Bring us some good clean sheets. I must tell you that I shall examine them very carefully. These sheets have certainly been used already. They are damp, I will not have them, I must have some others. I have my own sheets; but I always have sheets from the inn, in order to spread them over the mattress, afterwards I spread my own over them.”
6. WHEN YOU ORDER FOOD, BE SPECIFIC ABOUT YOUR PREFERENCES.
Just because you’re on the road doesn’t mean that you should have to give up your dietary preferences. Whether you’re asked how strong you like your coffee, if you prefer eggs poached or boiled, or how you want your meat cooked, don’t be afraid to answer truthfully. Speak up about your culinary preferences for white versus brown bread, fowl leg or wing, and sugar and cream for your tea. “I beg you will not put butter in the soup or gravy … I neither like cinnamon, nutmeg, nor cloves. Put none in the ragouts, and very little salt. I will have no mushrooms in any of the dishes.” Just make sure to thank your host or chef for their trouble.
7. IF YOU’RE SHOCKED BY SOMETHING YOU SEE IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY, DON’T SHOW IT.
Table manners are important, and politeness will take you far, especially when you’re in a foreign country. Have respect for the culture you’re visiting, even if it’s not your favorite. If you prefer the Germans’ food and way of life to the English, don’t show your disdain: “In traveling, we must accustom ourselves to the different usages of the countries through which we pass, not appear astonished at any thing, and above all, not to despise any thing.”
8. ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH A FIRST AID KIT.
Accidents happen on the road, so be prepared. If one of your horses falls down and your driver gets hurt, first tend to the injured, then whip out your first aid kit. According to Genlis, you might say: “I always carry with me every thing that is requisite in such accidents. Reach me my small casket. In this casket are bandages of linen, good plasters, Cologne water, fine parchment, brandy, two viols…” And show compassion to anyone who’s injured: “Take courage, my friend! Your fall does not appear to be dangerous. Poor man! I sympathize greatly with your sufferings, I assure you.”
Treating a bruise, a hole in someone’s head, or gushing blood requires different tools. “He has a hole in his head. We must first wash the wound well with fresh water, and afterwards apply a rag to it dipped in Cologne water mixed with fresh water … Afterwards, if the bleeding continues with the same violence, we must apply sugar well pounded to the wound. I have some in my box.”
9. STAND FIRM WHEN YOUR SERVANT HAGGLES FOR A BIGGER TIP.
Traveling can be expensive, and it’s easy to overpay when you’re in a new place and don’t know the going rates. Negotiation takes practice, so whether your driver tries to shake you down for a bigger tip or your servant tells you that your heavy carriage will incur an extra fee, consider these sample dialogs:
“How! are you not satisfied? You drove me well, certainly, but I have paid you handsomely. If you had driven us better, I should have given you more. I generally give to a coachman who drives well ...” “I ought to pay no more than the regular charge…I assure that it is not heavy, neither has it much weight to carry. In short, I have hitherto done very well with two or four horses, and I shall certainly take no more.”
10. ASK YOUR DOCTOR TO HELP YOU FIND A BATHTUB.
Getting sick when you’re away from home is tough. But Genlis has you covered, whether you come down with gout, rheumatism, a fever, a pain in your neck, jingling in the ears, nose bleeding, diarrhea, or a dullness and confusion in your head. Ask the physician who comes to treat you at your inn about the healing powers of bathing:
“Do you think, sir, that bathing would be beneficial to me? ... But what shall I do for a bathing-tub? It is very difficult to procure one, even if we pay dear for the loan of it. Would you oblige me so far as to procure me one? ... Pray tell the maid to procure a tub large enough for me to bath in. When will you have the tub? ... How long must I stay in the water? ... How often am I to bathe?”
And even if you’re not sick, ask your innkeeper to bring you a pail or bucket of lukewarm water (with soap mixed in) so you can dip your feet in. Warm water always feels nice on feet that are tired from traveling.
[h/t Wonders & Marvels]
All images via iStock except where noted.