Retracing Napoléon’s footsteps… in style!
Two hundred years after Napoléon made his epic journey from the Riviera to the Alps, David Jackson-Grose follows the “Route Napoléon”, James Bond-style.
Two hundred years ago, on 1st March 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte made his great comeback from exile on the island of Elba. Accompanied by a troupe of soldiers, as well as men who joined him along the way, the erstwhile Emperor marched the 330kms to Grenoble in six days. This winding route through the mountains is now famous as the “Route Napoléon”.
Stretching from the French Riviera to the French Alps, the Route is one of the world’s great road trips. It begins at Golf Juan and passes through Cannes, Grasse, Séranon and Castellane, then on through Digne-les-Bains, Sisteron, Gap, La Mure and Laffrey, before eventually ending in Grenoble.
As beautiful as the five to six-hour car journey to Grenoble is, going the whole way takes some commitment and can provide a few logistical obstacles. If you travel only one third of the way to Castellane, however, you will still experience some of the region’s extraordinary scenery and history. Linger an extra couple of hours and you can also see the breathtaking Gorges du Verdon – a sight that eludes most tourists.
Time to party
If you’re travelling to France this year, it’s the perfect time to retrace at least some of Napoléon’s journey. The bicentennial festivities and commemorations commence on 26th February at Golf Juan (between Cannes and Antibes) and continue at a number of historically significant stops along the Route from March till November.
“Classic” cars for a classic drive
Most visitors choose to drive one or two hours along the Route before returning to the Riviera. If this sounds a little tame, you can spice things up by selecting a special means of transport…
When the journey itself is the destination, an exciting car can make it feel like a real adventure. Who hasn’t always wanted to tour this part of the world, James Bond-style, in a classic convertible? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to feel like your favourite Bond star.
To my mind, it’s the only way to tour the legendary Route. I would highly recommend Rent A Classic Car, run by Fabrice and
Linda Le Roy. The couple has a passion for legendary cars, and they’re quite willing to share it: they claim their classic car rental costs are comparable to the rental prices of “normal” cars.
You can choose from an AC Cobra, Porche 356 Speedster, Porche 550 RS Spyder, Convertible Ford Mustang, Ferrari 308 GTS, “E” Type Jaguar, Austin Healey 100/6… just to name a few. They will even deliver your car to you anywhere between Cannes and Monte Carlo.
Immerse yourself in historic accommodation
If you want to spend a few days touring the Route, Cannes to Grasse makes for a leisurely first day’s drive.
After landing in Golf Juan, Napoléon bivouacked in Cannes. The next day, he marched with 1,200 men through a number of small villages, including Le Cannet, Mougins and Mouans-Sartoux, up into the hinterland to Grasse.
One of Napoléon’s most famous sayings was, “An army marches on its stomach”. So, if you’re driving his Route in a modern sports car, why not show a little respect for history by staying in an historic property with great local cuisine?
Just 7kms to the east of Grasse is the Château de la Bégude in the village of Opio. Stéphane Coste and Nicolas Boissonnas’ private 17th Century castle is set in 220 hectares. It has 41 bedrooms and suites, and an 18-hole golf course. The restaurant specializes in country-style, yet sophisticated,
“terroir” cooking. Napoléon would be proud.
From Grasse to Golf Heaven
From Grasse, Napoléon and his men followed small trails and mule tracks through the hills to Séranon. As you drive from Grasse through Séranon, you really start to appreciate the challenges they faced in this mountainous terrain.
Around an hour and a quarter from Grasse, just beyond Séranon, spoil yourself by taking another well-deserved break in a picturesque setting. Turn west on the D6085 and, after about 10 minutes, you’ll find yourself at another beautiful “golf château” – the 18th Century Château de Taulane.
Set in 340 hectares, this also has an 18-hole golf course, which is rated as one of Frances’s top 10. There are also a heated indoor pool, sauna, spa, jacuzzi and gourmet restaurant.
Back on the Route Napoléon, travel another 35 minutes and you’ll come to the medieval village of Castellane at the base of a steep cliff. Napoléon travelled through here on the afternoon of the third day of his march.
Castellane is 724 metres above sea level and the plateau overlooking the village – “The Roc” – is a further 184 metres up. The Roc has been occupied since the Middle Ages. Town inhabitants would take refuge up there from possible invasion. The chapel – NotreDame du Roc – still stands today and dominates all it surveys. If you’re feeling adventurous, it will take you about 25 minutes to hike to the top from the town centre… and yes, it’s worth it!
The most beautiful canyon in Europe
Most tourists who travel along the Route Napoléon are oblivious to the fact that Castellane is the perfect point at which to take a little detour to visit the Gorges du Verdon. This deep valley (as low as 700m in parts) is one of Europe’s most spectacular sights.
Follow the signs from Castellane to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, located in a deep ravine at the other end of the gorge. Then, backtrack a little before returning, around the other side of the gorge, to Castellane.
Allow a couple of hours to visit the gorge, so you have time to fully appreciate the unforgettable views.
On your return to Castellane, you can continue north towards Digne-lesBains and make your way to Grenoble – the end of the Route Napoléon. On the other hand, you can simply turn back to the Riviera. Either way, you can now tick off two items that deserve to be on everyone’s list of “mustsees” in France – the Route Napoléon and the Gorges du Verdon.
For detailed information about bicentennial commemorations of Napoléon’s return from Elba, visit vallauris-golfe-juan.fr.
For information about the Route Napoléon, visit routenapoleon.com.
To rent a “Classic” car for the journey, visit Rentaclassiccar.com.
To stay at Château de la Bégude, Opio, book direct via chateau-begude.com or via Hotels & Preference (hotelspreference.com) or Chateaux & Hotels Collection (chateauxhotels.com). Prices start at €120 per double room.
To stay at Château de Taulane, La Martre, visit chateau-taulane.com. Prices range from €159 per double room, including breakfast. In 2015, it will be open from 11th April to 1st November.
Stretching from the French Riviera to the French Alps, the
Route [Napoléon] is one of the world’s great road trips.
Statue of Napoléon Bonaparte
Back in time...
Who hasn’t always wanted to tour this part of the world, James Bond-style, in a
classic convertible? Rent A Classic Car’s Porche 356 Speedster overlooking Castellane
Château de Taulane
Back in time... … spoil yourself by taking [a] well-deserved
break in a picturesque setting.
This deep valley… is one of Europe’s most spectacular