France: Walking in Napoleon’s footsteps

Napoleon and his column took the road past the old stone chapel of Notre Dame de Gratemoine near Séranon, early on March 3, 1815
Photographer: Philip Lee Harvey

Drive a road that follows Napoleon’s last epic journey from the coast to the Alps, through some corners of southeast France that remain off the beaten track today

WORDS RORY GOULDING
PHOTOGRAPHS PHILIP LEE HARVEY

It’s dawn on the seafront in Cannes, and the water is still enough that the day’s first swimmers leave long wakes. Behind the palm trees along the Boulevard de la Croisette, most hotel room curtains have yet to open. But, just one street inland, there’s a reminder of a morning when everyone on the beach would have been up at military time. On the side wall of a church, under a stone eagle with wings outstretched, a message is spelled out: “HERE on the dunes beside the former chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage, NAPOLEON, returned from the island of Elba, set up camp for the night of 1–2 March 1815 before dashing to Paris by the perilous Alpine road.’’

It’s this adventure that I’ve come to the French Riviera to retrace, following a road now celebrated as ‘la Route Napoléon’. These days, it’s a drive of around six hours, running for just over 321km as far as the Alpine city of Grenoble. It took Napoleon and his men seven days to cover that distance, going at great haste. Unlike him, I am in no rush, and want to leave plenty of time for detours and digressions. Seven days feels right for me, too.

Elba is a little far – 274km away – to begin this trip in Napoleonic fashion, so I take a short ferry ride to a smaller island, Sainte-Marguerite. It was once a fortress and prison, but, today is largely overgrown by pines. I look around the cell that housed an earlier figure from French history, the Man in the Iron Mask, then emerge into the radiant Riviera sun to get the view from the battlements. Cannes is to the left, across a wide bay dotted with sailing boats. And, to the right, Golfe-Juan, where Napoleon stepped ashore with just over a thousand men on March 1, 1815, after evading the British fleet. He had been exiled on Elba for less than a year when he decided to return to France and force out the restored monarchy under Louis XVIII. To reach Paris, however, he would have to avoid the valley of the Rhône – the quickest route, but one dotted with garrison towns loyal to the king. Instead, he formed a plan to take much rougher roads through the mountains, until he had enough momentum to seize Grenoble and then march on the capital.

I take an afternoon ferry back to Cannes, where a dock makes disembarking easier than in Napoleon’s time. A game of pétanque is in progress by the marina. In 1815, Cannes was a small fishing village; the old encampment to the side has since been overtaken by hotels and apartment buildings, each competing for sea views. I follow the villa-covered coast round to Golfe-Juan, a more low-key slice of the Riviera; it, too, barely existed two centuries ago. The idea of anyone other than fishermen wanting to live as close to the sea as possible – so exposed to attack – would have astonished Napoleon’s contemporaries. Standing at the sign that announces the official start of the Route Napoléon, I watch a Citroën 2CV trundle past: a momentary pairing of Gallic icons. It should be a signal to leave the warmth of the coast behind, and yet I’m reluctant to speed away on the route just yet.

The hilltop towns inland provide excuses to linger. In the market square of Vallauris stands Man with a Sheep – a rare statue by Picasso in an open setting. This old pottery-making town brought inspiration late in life to the exiled Spanish artist, who turned his talent towards ceramics. “It was the first time we had a relationship between traditional potters and a contemporary artist,” says Yves Peltier, director of the Madoura studio where Picasso worked. “Now people have the opportunity to see the pieces in the atmosphere they were born.” The simple stone walls of the studio and the grander surrounds of the town’s château-turned-museum provide contrasting settings for Picasso’s artistic imprint in Vallauris. But perhaps he had an indirect effect on the town as well: even after its main business of making utilitarian cookware moved away, a few kilns in town, such as  Golfe-Juan, keep the artisan tradition alive.

Picasso died in 1973, aged 91, just a little further up the Route Napoléon in Mougins. The village’s streets curl round the hilltop like a snail shell. Its Musée d’Art Classique juxtaposes art from the modern and ancient worlds in surprising ways; the Roman helmets and Egyptian mummy-cases could almost be a tribute to the military commander who stood at the foot of the pyramids. Napoleon’s growing band had a breather just outside the town, on the grounds of what is now Le Mas Candille. Its Michelin-starred cuisine goes far beyond the bread and soup that would have fuelled a day’s march, but the dining terrace gives a clear line of sight to Grasse: the most significant town Napoleon had yet to enter.

Two of Grasse’s current claims to fame were already established in his time. It was home to the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, famous for his scenes of pre-revolutionary aristocrats frolicking in idyllic countryside. And, from a side-business of growing and distilling flowers to disguise the smell of its main product – leather gloves – Grasse emerged as the ‘perfume capital of the world’. The fragrant notes of the area draw plenty of people from abroad. Francesco Barberio, from Italy, is in his second year working in the gardens of the Musée International de la Parfumerie. Though lavender is the flower that outsiders most associate with Provence, the signature scents of Grasse are jasmine and tuberose. “You should come in the early morning or evening when the aroma is even stronger,” says Francesco, picking out some of the hundred varieties of jasmine for comparison. “It’s great to work outdoors – I love being in symbiosis with nature.”

To try my hand at the final stage in the perfume process, I head to the Galimard studio, where Finnish-born Kirsti Kanervo takes budding parfumiers through the stages of building a bottle of scent. Starting with a ‘perfume organ’ (in the church sense of the word) of 127 bottles, we pick base notes first, then the heart and finally the peak. “The peak notes are the opening of the perfume, but they blow away after 15 minutes,” Kirsti says. “The heart notes are the most important – you keep them for many hours. When people say, ‘you smell good,’ it’s the heart notes they’re describing.” My creation leads with scents including green tea, bergamot and pineapple, developing into bamboo, wild jasmine, ginger, white musk and sandalwood. “Interesting,” says Kirsti. “You were more classical when you started, but then you turned to the modern.”

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