Journey through France and Italy (1787)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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"I am just setting out on a journey of three months to the South of France.” - Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth House Trist, Paris, February 23, 1787[1]

On February 28, 1787 the forty-four-year-old Thomas Jefferson left Paris for a three month, twelve-hundred-mile journey to southern France and northern Italy. A trip scheduled 5 months earlier was postponed after he injured his right wrist, and his subsequent itinerary was changed to include the south of France, at the advice of his surgeon. Jefferson wrote: “I am now about setting out on a journey to the South of France, one object of which is to try the mineral waters there for the restoration of my hand, but another is to visit all the seaports where we have trade, and to hunt up all the inconveniencies under which it labours, in order to get them rectified. I shall visit and carefully examine too the Canal of Languedoc.”[2]

Traveling as a private citizen from Virginia, not as a diplomat, Thomas Jefferson paid his own way, and none of his Paris servants went with him. Preferring to travel alone and anonymously, he chose to hire valets in each town. In Dijon, he made an exception, and hired Petit Jean, who stayed with him the entire trip.[3] "I was alone thro the whole, and think one travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more.”[4]

Jefferson traveled in his own carriage drawn by post horses. Every ten miles at a post house, he paid for another postilion and fresh horses. He used three horses until he got to Lyon, and after that time he had four or five.[5] The carriage required frequent wheel repairs.

In Champagne, Burgundy, Beaujolais, and Bordeaux Jefferson compared red and white wines, the soils in which they were cultivated, how well the wines withstood transport, and prices. He wrote in depth about the planting and pruning of the vines. Continuing his agricultural investigation into the north of Italy, he observed techniques used in the growing of rice. "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s culture...” he wrote in 1800 in his list of contributions he had made to his country. On that list he also mentioned having “had a great number of olive plants of the best kind sent from Marseilles to Charleston for S. Carola & Georgia.”[6] He smuggled rice seed, “on his own person,” at tremendous risk, from Italy and sent it to South Carolina. If caught, “Sardinian law prescribed death as the penalty for the unauthorized export of seed rice.”[7]

In his journal, “Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c.,” and in his letters, he wrote in detail about the people he met in each area. “you must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done, look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds under pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft. You will feel a sublime pleasure in the course of this investigation...”[8]

“Architecture, painting, sculpture, antiquities, agriculture, the condition of the labouring poor fill all my moments,” he wrote to William Short.[9] At Nîmes he visited the Maison Carrée, the Roman temple he so admired and chose as the model for the Virginia state capitol. He also visited the Pont du Gard, part of an aqueduct constructed in 19 B.C.

When he reached Aix-en-Provence Jefferson noted that “the temperature of the mineral waters of Aix is 90.° of Farenheit’s thermometer at the spout.”PTJ, 11:427.</ref> Apparently the waters did little to ease the discomfort in his injured wrist, however; he later wrote that he had "taken 40. douches, without any sensible benefit."[10] Smitten by the sunshine in Aix, he wrote to William Short: “I am now in the land of corn, wine, oil, and sunshine. What more can man ask of heaven? If I should happen to die at Paris I will beg of you to send me here, land have me exposed to the sun. I am sure it will bring me to life again.”[11]

The Canal of Languedoc (today known as the Canal du Midi) was of great interest to Jefferson. This waterway, dating to the seventeenth century, united the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean. He wrote to William Short: “I have passed through the Canal from it’s entrance into the mediterranean at Cette to this place, and shall be immediately at Toulouse, in the whole 200 American miles, by water; having employed in examining all it’s details nine days, one of which was spent in making a tour of 40 miles on horseback, among the Montagnes noires, to see the manner in which water has been collected to supply the canal; the other eight on the canal itself. I dismounted my carriage from it’s wheels, placed it on the deck of a light bark, and was thus towed on the canal instead of the post road. That I might be perfectly master of all the delays necessary, I hired a bark to myself by the day, and have made from 20. to 35 miles a day, according to circumstances, always sleeping ashore. Of all the methods of travelling I have ever tried this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade. When fatigued I take seat in my carriage where, as much at ease as if in my study, I read, write, or observe.”[12]

Jefferson began traveling again in his carriage on May 22, 1787. He reached Bordeaux late on May 24, 1787 and stayed at the Hôtel Richelieu where he enjoyed fresh cherries, peas, and strawberries. On May 28 he ferried across the Garonne and stayed in Blaye overnight. The next day he traveled the northwest route to La Rochelle. From La Rochelle he went to Nantes, and on June 1, 1787 he left Nantes and made his way to the north shore of Loire. By June 6th he arrived at Aucenis; he changed horses but didn’t visit the sites of the town and continued on to the north bank of Loire. At Amboise he did some sightseeing and had carriage repairs. By June 10th, he reached Paris after being away more than three months.


Below is an itinerary of the places Jefferson visited during his journey throu southern France and Italy and his observations.

28 February—2 March: Fontainbleau: Jefferson left Paris and traveled as far as Fontainebleau, where he was delayed for two days because of problems with the wheels of his carriage.

2 March: Sens: At Sens he noted paying to see its cathedral and climbed to the top of the cathedral’s tower to see the town’s buildings.[14]
Moret, Faussard, Villeneuve, Pont sur Yonne, Sens

3 March: Champagne. Sens to Vermanton. In his Notes, Jefferson recorded: “ The soil is generally a rich mulatto loam…The plains are in corn…the hills in vineyard, but the wine not good…Few apple trees…no cattle, sheep or swine. Fine mules.”[15]

4 March: Burgundy: Lucy le bois, Cussy les forges, Rouvray, Maison-neuve, Vitteaux, La Charleure, Pont de Panis, Dijon (Hotel de Condé). “The soil a good red loam…All in corn. Some forest wood here…Now and then a flock of sheep…The people are well clothed, but it is Sunday.” “Dijon…The best round potatoes here I ever saw.”[16]

7-8 March: La Baraque to Chagny. Dijon, La Baraque, Nuits, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault. Aussy, Chagny, Chalon-sur-Saone, Sennecey, Tournus.

”The plains are in corn, the Cote in vines.”[17]

9 March: Chalons, Sennecy, Tournus, St. Albin, Macon. “The vineyards are inclosed with dry stone walls…The cattle are few and indifferent..some good oxen…Few sheep…A good deal of wood lands.”[18] Beaujolais: Maison blanche. St. George. Chateau de Laye-Epinaye. ”This is the richest country I ever beheld…Here, as in Burgundy, the cattle are all white…The wild gooseberry is in leaf, the wild pear and sweet briar in bud.”[19]

11 March: Ville franche, Les Echelles, Puits d’or, Lyons (Hôtel du Palais royal). Lyon: "The Almond is in bloom."<source?>

15-18 March: Dauphine: St. Fond to Mornas. St. Symphorin, Vienne. "The Rhone makes extensive plains…the high lands are often very level. The soil…is generally tinged, more or less, with red….In the neighborhood of Lyons there is more corn, almonds, and oaks; the hills are in vines.”[20]

18 March: Principality of Orange. “No forest. Here begins the country of olives…Thyme growing wild here on the hills. Asses very small…The high hills in Dauphiné are covered with snow.” p. 423 19-23 March: Languedoc. Pont St. Esprit. Bagnols. Connault. Valignieres. Remoulins. St. Gervasy. Nismes. Pont Bagnols, Connault, Valliguières, Remoulins, St. Gervasy, Nismes, Pont d’Arles .) ‘’The hills are rocky…The culture is corn, clover, St. foin, olives, vines, mulberries, willow, and some almonds.”

Nimes: At Nîmes his enthusiasm for seeing, for the first time, the Maison Carré, the building design he chose for the Virginia state capitol in Richmond, is seen in a letter he wrote to Madame de Tessé: “Here I am, madam, gazing whole hours at the Maison quarrée, like a lover at his mistress…From Lyons to Nismes I have been nourished with the remains of Roman grandeur.”   Papers Vol.11; p. 226 Letter: TJ to Madame de Tessé, Nîsmes , Mar. 20, 1787.  

Remoulins: Jefferson “stopped here long enough to see the Pont du Gard” (Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, Vol.I, page 659 footnote 29) 24 March : Nismes to Arles: “The plains extending from Nismes to the Rhone in the direction of Arles is broken in one place by a skirt of low hills…” “The high hills of Languedoc are covered with snow. At an antient church in the suburbs of Arles are perhaps some hundreds of antient stone coffins along the road side.…But the principal monument here is an Amphitheatre, the external portico of which is tolerably compleat…” p. 425(Vol. 11, Papers) Terrasson: St. Remis 25 March: Orgon. Pontroyal. St. Cannat: “From Orgon to Pontroyal, after quitting the plains of the Rhone, the country seems still to be a plain cut into compartments, by chains of mountains of massive rock running thro it in various directions.” 25 –28March: Aix: Aix (Hotel St. Jaques). . “The country is waving, in vines, pasture of green swerd and clover, much inclosed with stone, and abounding with sheep.” P.426 29 March: Marseilles. “Beginning on March 29, Jefferson spent a week in the Hôtel des Princes at Marseilles…” p.84 Shackelford From his Journal he: “The country is hilly, intersected by chains of hills and mountains of massive rock.The soil is reddish, stony and indifferent where best. Whenever there is any soil it is covered with olives…” “There are 6. or 8. months at a time here without rain. The most delicate figs known in Europe are those growing about this place, called figues Marcelloises, or les veritables Marcelloises, to distinguish them from others of inferior quality growing here.” (Journal p. 429) 6 April: Marseilles to Aubagne. 6 April: Hieres. “This is a plain of two or three miles diameter, bounded by the sea on one side and mountains of rock on the other.”

Toulon :  “From Olioules to Toulon the figs are in the open fields.  Some of them have stems of 15.I. diameter.  They generally fork near the ground, but sometimes have a single stem of 5.f. long.  They are as large as Apricot trees.  The Olive trees of this day’s journey are about the size of large apple trees.” (Journal p. 429)

8 April : Toulon, Hyères, Cuers, Pignans, le Luc (Hotel St. Anne 9f). 9 April: Vidauban, le My, Fréjus, Lestrelles, Napoule, Antibes: Antibes, Nice. “There is snow on the high mountains. The first frogs I have heard are of this day (the 9th). At Antibes are oranges in the open ground, but in small inclosures: palm trees also. From thence to the Var are the largest fig trees and olive trees I have seen.” 10 April: Nice: (Hotel de York) . 11 April. Nice. “The pine bur I used here for kindling fires.” 13 April: Scarena, Sospello. “There are no orange trees after we leave the environs of Nice.” 14 April: Ciandola. Tende. 15 April: Limone. Coni 16 April: Centale. Savigliano. Racconigi. Poerino. Turin. “The alps, as far as they are in view from North to South, shew the gradation of climate by the line which terminates the snows lying on them.” 19 April: Settimo. Chivasco. Ciliano. S. Germano. Vercelli. “ The country continues plain and rich, the soil black.” 20 April. Vercelli, Novara, Buffalora, Sedriano, and Milan (Albergo reale) . “From Vercelli to Novara the fields are all in rice, and now mostly under water.” 21-22 April: Milan. “Figs and pomegranates grow here unsheltered, as I am told.” “—Among a great many houses painted al fresco, the Casa Roma and Casa Candiani by Appiani, and Casa Belgioiosa by Martin are superior.” 23 April. Leaves Milan. Casino. Rozzano. Parmesan Cheese. “It is supposed this was formerly made at Parma, and took it’s name thence, but none is made there now. It is made thro all the country extending from Milan 150 miles.” “The ice-houses at Rozzano are dug about 15.f. deep, and 20.f. diameter and poles are driven down all round.” Binasco. Pavia. “Near Cassino the rice ponds begin and continue to within 5. miles of Pavia, the whole ground being in rice, pasture, and willows…They gave me green peas at Pavia.” 24 April: Voghera. Tortona. Novi. 25 April. Voltaggio, Campo Marone. and Genoa “At Novi the Appenines begin to rise. Their growth of timber is oak, tall, small, and knotty and chestnut.” 26 April: Genoa. “Strawberries at Genoa. 28 April: Noli. “The Appenine and Alps appear to me to be one and the same continued ridge of mountains, separating every where the waters of the Adriatic gulph from those of the Mediterranean.” 29 April: Albenga 30 April: Oneglia and St. Remo (Augerge de la poste). “The wind continuing contrary, I took mules at Albenga for Oneglia. Along this tract are many of the tree called Carroubier, being a species of Locust…It’s pods furnish food for horses and even for the poor in times of scarcity.” 3 May: Luc. Brignolles. Tourves. Pourcieux. La Galiniere. Aix (Hotel St. Jaques). 4 May : Le Grand Pin, Marseilles (Hotel des Princes, May 6th). Memorandum Book I, p.665 7 May : Aix, St. Cannat, Pontroyal, Orgon. 8 May: Orgon. Avignon (Hotel de St. Omer) Vaucluse. 10 May: Nismes (Hotel de Luxemburg). Lunel. “Hills on the right, plains on the left. The soil reddish, a little stony and of middling quality. The produce olives, mulberries, vines, corn, St. foin….Lunel is famous for it’s vin de Muscat blanc, thence called Lunel, or vin Muscat de Lunel.” 11 May: Montpellier. 12 May: Frontignan. Cette . 13 May: Agde. 15 May: Beziers. Argilies. LeSaumal.----On the Canal of Languedoc. “The Canal of Languedoc along which I now travel is 6. toises wide at bottom, and 10 toises at the surface of the water, which is 1. toise deep…The locks are mostly kept by women, but the necessary operations are much too laborious for them. The encroachments by the men on the offices proper for the women is a great derangement in the order of things. Men are shoemakers, tailors, upholsterers, staymakers, mantua makers, cooks, doorkeepers, housekeepers, housecleaners, bedmakers.” 16 May: Le Samumal. Marseillette. 18 May: Carcassonne. Castelnaudari. (Hotel de St. Jean Baptiste) 19 May: Castelnaudary (Hotel de Notredame). St. Feriol, Escarmare. Lampy. 20 May: Narouze, Villefranche. Baziège. 21 May: Toulouse ( Hotel du Griffon d’or) “At Toulouse the canal ends. It has four communications with the Mediterranean.” 22 May: Toulouse. 23 May: Agen (Hotel petit St. Jean), St. Hilaire, Port Ste. Marie, Aiguillon, Tonneins, Marmaude, Mottelandron, Le Preole, Cauderat, Langon, Barlade, Castres. May: Bordeaux. (Hotel de Richelieu) “The cantons in which the most celebrated wines of Bordeaux are made are MEDOC down the river, GRAVE adjoining the city and the parishes next above ; all on the same side of the river.” 28 May : From Bordeaux to Blaye. 29 May : From Rochefort to Le Rocher.. 30 May: Bacha, Le Rocher, Rochelle, Usseau, Marans, Morelles, Ste. Hermine. 31 May: Chantenay, St. Fulgent, Montaigu, Aigrefeuille, Nantes (A la Croix verte). 1.2. June: Le Temple, Moere, Pontchateau, Rochebernard, Massellac.

Thex, Vannes, Auray, Landevant, Hennebont, L’Orient (Hotel de Epée Royal).   ‘’The country from Nates to LORIENT is very hilly and poor, the soil grey.”

3 June : Hennebont, Baud, Locminé, Josselin. 4 June : Ploemel, Campenéac, Plélan, Mordelles, Rennes. 5 June : Bout des Landes, Roudun, Brecharaye, Derval, Nozay, Bout de Bois, Gesvres, Nantes (St. Julien). 6.7.8. June: Nantes. Ancenis. Angers. Tours. Manves, le Plessis, Ancenis (Hotel de Bretagne). “Tours is at the 119th. Mile stone. Being desirous of enquiring here into a fact stated by Voltaire in his Questions encyclopediaques. Art. Coquilles, relative to the growth of shells unconnected with animal bodies at the chateau of Monsr. De la Sauvagiere near Tours, I called on M. Gentil premier Secretaire de l'Intendance, to whom the Intendant had written on my behalf at the request of the Marquis de Chastellux.” 9. 10. June : Blois. Orleans. “At Blois the road leaves the river, and traverses the hills, which are mostly reddish, sometimes grey, good enough, in vines, corn S. foin.” 10 June: Returned to Paris


  1. PTJ, 11:181.
  2. Jefferson to James Monroe, December 18, 1786, in PTJ, 10:612.
  3. MB, 1:656.
  4. Jefferson to John Banister, Jr., June 19, 1787, in PTJ, 11:477.
  5. MB 1:656.
  6. "Summary of Public Service," [after September 2, 1800], in PTJ, 32:123-4.
  7. George Green Shackelford, Thomas Jefferson’s Travels in Europe, 1784-1789 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 94. See also PTJ, 11:436.
  8. Jefferson to Lafayette, April 11, 1787, in PTJ, 11:285.
  9. Jefferson to Short, March 15, 1787, in PTJ, 11:215.
  10. Jefferson to Short, April 7, 1787, in PTJ, 11:285.
  11. Jefferson to Short, March 27, 1787, in PTJ, 11:287.
  12. Jefferson to Short, March 27, 1787, in PTJ, 11:372.
  13. The itinerary is based on Jefferson’s: “Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c. Memorandums taken on a journey from Paris into the Southern parts of France and and Northern of Italy, in the year 1787,” in PTJ, 11:415-462; itinerary in Edward Dumbauld, Thomas Jefferson, American Tourist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 233-235; itinerary in Roy & Alma Moore, Thomas Jefferson’s Journey to the South Of France (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999), 7; and Anthony Brandt, ed., Thomas Jefferson Travels: Selected Writings, 1784-1789 (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006), 186-230.
  14. MB, 1:656.
  15. PTJ, 11:415.
  16. PTJ, 11:416.
  17. PTJ, 11:416.
  18. PTJ, 11:418.
  19. PTJ, 11:419-20.
  20. PTJ, 11:422.

See Also

Report : Betty Goss, May 5, 2009 Sources: “Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c.”, Papers, Vol. 11, 1787, pages 415--464

George Green Shackelford, Thomas Jefferson’s Travels in Europe, 1784—1789, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1995, pages 75--127

Roy & Alma Moore, Thomas Jefferson’s Journey To The South Of France, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1999 (This book covers Jefferson’s travels in the south of France. There is a nine page introduction by Lucia Stanton . There is an itinerary and map at the beginning of the book. In the authors own words: The book tells “ the story of Jefferson’s tour with [reproductions of paintings Jefferson admired], their own photographs and letters written to and by Jefferson.” P. 159 New York Times review 1999:

Lucia Stanton’s article:

James A. Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, Editors, Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, Volume I, pages 655—670

Edward Dumbauld, Thomas Jefferson, American Tourist, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1946, , pages 83—109. Complete “Chronological Itinerary” pages 233—235.

Marie Kimball, Jefferson The Scene Of Europe 1784to 1789, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1950, pages 184—201, 233--235

Dumas Malone, Jefferson And The Rights Of Man, Little, Brown And Company, Boston, 1951, pages 112—130

William Howard Adams, The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997, pages 108--114

Anthony Brandt, Thomas Jefferson Travels, Selected Writings 1784—1789, National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2006 (This book includes a detailed map of Jefferson’s travels and selected writings) Much of the itinerary and Jefferson’s own words were taken from “Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c.”, Pages 186-230.

“Jefferson’s Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe” found in Papers, Volume 13, 264—76

There are discrepancies in the itineraries in Dumbauld and Jefferson’s Notes. 1-Jefferson recorded payments in the Memorandum Book at a certain place at one date and in his Notes he had a different date. Dumbauld included the names of vineyards and hotels where Jefferson lodged.