Napoleon was forced to abdicate in 1814 and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. He’d been living there for a year when he found out he was to be banished to an island in the Atlantic Ocean and so decided to escape. Only a small circle of people knew of Napoleon’s escape plan. Basically two of his loyal generals, Bertrand Drouot and Cambronne, also in exile with him, and Fleury de Chaboulon, an attendee at the Council of State meetings who was in a position to keep Napoleon informed of all events taking place in France.
On 26 February 1815, at nightfall, Napoleon boarded a ship called the Inconstant to escape from exile in Elba. In total, seven ships left their port in Elba in the utmost secrecy. The flotilla carried 1,100 men, about one hundred horses, arms, and a few cannons. Only Napoleon and his two generals knew their final destination.
Napoleon was able to evade the British during his secret, three-day return to French shores. Disembarking at Golfe Juan on 1 March 1815 with an army of around 1,000 men, Napoleon marched through the southern Alps all the way to Paris – skirting hostile territory and rallying support as he went. On 20 March, he marched victorious into the Tuileries Palace which had been hastily abandoned a few days earlier by King Louis XVIII. It was the start of the period known as the 100 Days War before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
This legendary itinerary became France’s first touristic trail in 1932, when it opened as the Route Napoleon. Spanning some 325 kms (203 miles) of the Route Nationale 85, it’s one of the prettiest panoramic journeys in France, connecting 42 communes between la mer et les montagnes. As the road winds into the hills, signs of the imperial eagle mark the way. Although it took a week for the Emperor to forge through the snow and reach Grenoble, today you could drive the route in a day.
After leaving Golfe Juan, Napoleon set up a bivouac in Cannes the following night. Though this Riviera resort town has a reputation for high-octane glamour today, back then it was just a fishing village. Cannes was more famous for its offshore islands, namely L’Île Sainte-Marguerite, where ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ was imprisoned, and the Île Saint-Honorat, home to the Abbaye de Lérins’s wine-making monks.
A commemorative plaque on the church Notre Dame de Bon Voyage marks the spot where Napoleon camped in Cannes. The next morning, Napoleon passed through the medieval hilltop village of Mougins.
The Emperor stopped for a break at the Place de la Foux in Grasse, the perfume capital. Napoleon loved cologne, carrying it with him on expeditions. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the landing, Galimard released a Napoleon 1815 cologne in May 2015, which includes subtle hints of rose and violet, to allude to the Emperor’s many lovers. These flowers are also used by local confectioners, the Confiserie Florian, who are known for their crystallised violets.
Beyond Grasse, in the small village of St-Vallier de Thiey, there’s a bust of Napoleon and the stone bench where the emperor took his rest. Then, as the Route climbs into the alpine foothills of the Haute-Provence, the lavender fields give way to pine forests and rocky terrain. From Castellane, you can turn off for the Gorges du Verdon, one of the region’s most popular attractions. Europe’s largest canyon, it’s flanked by limestone cliffs and the Verdon River’s waters sparkle turquoise in the sunshine.
On 4 March 1815, Napoleon arrived in Dignes-les-Bains, which is famous for its thermal waters, before staying overnight at the Château de Malijai, where the Bleone and Durance rivers meet. Today, the Château serves as the mayor’s office and visitor centre. The following evening, Napoleon reached Gap, where the villagers welcomed him with open arms. To mark that bicentenary, Gap unveiled a new plaque facing the Auberge Marchand where Napoleon spent the night.
Probably the most dramatic portion of the ‘Eagle’s Flight’ occurred outside Laffrey on 7 March 1815, when Napoleon was confronted by the royalist army, which included some of his old soldiers. As they advanced, he addressed his former comrades.
Soldiers of the 5th Regiment of the Line, I am your Emperor; recognise me!
The moment was charged with emotion, the soldiers hesitating in confusion, and then Napoleon opened his jacket and said:
If there is among you a soldier who would kill his Emperor, here I am.
Obviously, no one did and today, an equestrian statue of Napoleon lords it over the ‘Pré de la Rencontre’.
The strenuous hike through the Alps became an easy stroll into Grenoble, where Napoleon slept at Hôtel des Trois Dauphins, which is now, most fittingly, named the Hotel Napoleon. Thereafter it took just a few days more for him to reach Paris.
As I mentioned yesterday, in France Napoleon remains a controversial, figure though beyond l’Hexagone, there’s universal fascination with this grand personnage – his charisma, his genius and the mark he left on history.