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On the Emperor's Trail...a trip along the historic Route Napoléon

On the Emperor's Trail...a trip along the historic Route Napoléon

The historic Route Napoléon provides the perfect opportunity for some classic grand touring, particularly during an important bicentenary year as Roger Moss found out...

 A while back I was fortunate enough to retrace Napoléon’s footsteps, in various vintage and classic vehicles owned by members of the Association Amie de l’Automobile Ancienne de Grenoble, in the Rallye de l’Empereur. The adventure begins between Cannes and Antibes in the little port of Golfe-Juan, which somehow manages to appear both glamorous yet unassuming. Luxury yachts line the quayside, while fishermen patiently tend their tiny traditional boats on the beach nearby. 

Napoléon alighted here on his return from Elba on 1 March 1815 but today there are lines of cars... Alfa-Romeo, Cadillac, Citroën, Delahaye, Jaguar and more. I climb aboard a pristine 1937 Citroën Traction Onze-Légère Cabriolet and minutes later we roar out of town, while jaws drop and smiles glint back from passers-by. The Traction, for all its advanced years, is no slouch, and we thread our way through the back streets of Cannes and up towards Vallauris, which since the 17th Century has been producing ceramics. We park the cars in a shady square beside the Musée National Picasso, in whose cool interior we inspect his lively ceramics before moving to the adjoining 12th century chapel selected by the artist as a permanent home for his La Guerre et le Paix panels (1952). Wrapping them around the low nave created a tunnel-like effect, intensifying already harrowing imagery. Outside, though, the old town is just as beguiling in the autumn sunshine as when Cocteau, Léger, Lurçat, Marais and Picasso fell in love with it.

Heading out of town and onto the open road, we pass through Mougins and make for Grasse, which exported fine leatherwork to Italy before becoming a world famous centre of perfume production. The Provençal hills provide lavender and jasmine, while the local climate suits melon, grapefruit and other fruit used in many perfumes. When we hit the road again the following morning I resolve to return to Grasse during rose or jasmine festival time. Today a beautiful 1950 Salmson E72 Cabriolet demonstrates its grand-touring abilities on the long run up to the Roquevignon (or Napoléon) plateau, where the Emperor and his troops halted after an arduous rocky climb. Their onward march was concealed by dense evergreen oaks, but the present Route serves up spectacular views of the Côte d’Azur on the climb to the Col du Pilon (782m). Beyond the medieval fortified village of Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey we storm a hairpin climb via the Pas de la Faye (981m) to Escragnolles, where a plaque in Place du Lavoir honours General Mirreur, a local man killed in the Egyptian campaign of 1792. Passing nearby, Napoléon made a detour to console the mother of one of his most valued comrades.

Beyond the 1169m Col de Valferrière we pause amid the rugged beauty of the plains of Séranon, where the Chappelle de Grattemoine looks as old as a nearby Roman milestone. Napoleon’s troops, having marched around 60km in just two days, rested here before continuing through pine forests to Logis-du-Pin. Their next target was Castellane, which they reached by a rather less tortuous route than our hairpin climb to the 1054m Col de Luens. A winding descent brings us to the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon and glimpse the tiny chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Roc poised dramatically beside a sheer rock-face high above Castellane.

After a relaxing lunch we burble off for a 19km run over the Col des Leques (1148m) to the village of Senez, an unlikely site for a 12th century Roman-esque cathedral. The official Route Napoléon continues along the valley towards Digne-le-Bains, but instead we to turn off beyond Barrême, follow-ing an old mountain pass taken by the Emperor and his troops. Near the tiny hamlet of La Clappe a mule laden with gold coins slipped and fell into a ravine, but 200 years later we negotiate the narrow, winding ascent to the Col de Corobin (1230m) and await our slowest member, a magnificent 1932 Rochet-Schneider open-top coach, among incredible scenery. Digne was developed by the Romans as a spa town and became one of the most important in France. At the confluence of three rivers in deepest lavender country, it’s hauntingly beautiful, and later that evening we roll back the roof of the coach and make for our hotel while the stars twinkle overhead.

The following day I blast off in a street legal 1935 Delahaye circuit racer to roar outrageously along the fertile Bléone valley. 18 exhilarating km later we reach Malijai, which Napoléon reached after a four-day march. The gracious château in which he lodged was constructed beside the river by Pierre Noguier, a wealthy merchant from Marseille. Today the building provides the sleepy village with an unlikely Hôtel de Ville.


Our onward run passes natural rock formations known as Les Pénitents des Mées. According to legend, a group of monks toiling beside the river Durance were distracted by young maidens passing on a raft, and were turned to stone for their improper thoughts. After making it to Sisteron without similar mishap, we park the cars and climb to the 13th century citadel to survey the town. When Napoleon stood on the bridge spanning the river and saw that the garrison had fled the fortress, he exclaimed ‘We are saved… we are in Paris!’

Our spirited run in a 1960 Jaguar XK150 roadster takes us along the broad Vallée des Vergers to Plan de Vitrolles, whose sunshine record and pure air are perfect for fruit-growing. After a dégustation stop we continue north on the Route des Fruits et le Vins towards Gap, where our unexpected appearance delights other motorists. After making the leafy climb to the magnificent Château de Charance, we’re welcomed by the Mayor while Alpine horns on the terraces provide an appropriate soundtrack to magnificent overviews of the historic town and its mountain backdrop.

Next morning I ride in a beautiful 78 year-old Ford Model A roadster, whose muscular V8 powers us effortlessly up the steepest sections of the awe-inspiring Route. At the Prairie de la Rencontre at Laffrey a huge bronze equestrian statue of Napoléon celebrates the Emperor’s encounter with troops sent by the French King. Standing alone before them, he revealed his identity, saying ‘If there is a soldier among you who would kill his Emperor, shoot now!’ Instead they cried ‘Long live the Emperor!’ and joined him. Today, after a stirring welcome from the Grognards de l’Empire (a marching band in full period costume), we descend to the Château de Vizille, to be greeted by France’s greatest chef, Paul Bocuse, who has prepared lunch. It’s perfect, as is the 13th century château, looking much as it did when Napoléon arrived on 7 March 1815. It’s regarded as the birthplace of the Revolution, an event recounted in a fascinating museum overlooking landscaped parkland.

On the final run into Grenoble our adventure is almost over. The Emperor arrived via the Brié plateau on what is now the D5, but we follow the official Route towards the heart of the city. Impressive as the ornamental 1900s stucco façades are, even more so is the Bastille viewpoint crowning the 632m Mont Jalla, accessible by cable-car. Seeing the city nestled between the Massif de Vercors and the peaks of the Parc National des Ecrins is astonishing, and a fitting climax to an unforgettable journey (as is the first glimpse of the Mediterranean if you travel in the opposite direction).


The Route Napoleon

route-napoleonOn 1st March 1815, after just eleven months’ exile on the Island of Elba, Napoléon Bonaparte stepped ashore discretely at Golfe-Juan. Aware that the people of France were disenchanted with their King (and incensed at Louis XVIII’s failure to honour an agreement to pay him two million francs in gold to maintain his personal guards while in exile), the former Emperor had resolved to march on Paris to reclaim power. However, doing so with around 1200 troops would require both speed and stealth, avoiding the Royalist Rhône valley. His carefully chosen alternative route to Grenoble followed the original Grand Chemin des Alpes, now familiar to motorists as the N85 and classified since 1932 as the Route Napoléon.



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