The road Napoleon: introduction
This article retraces our epic journey on the Road Napoleon, in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur, in the South of France, in July 2020 with Romain Paillette, my teammate, at the wheel of the mythical orange Citroën 2CV, named Clementine!
The Road Napoleon, whose first routes date back to the end of the 18th century, became famous thanks to Napoléon Bonaparte.
Indeed, the Emperor, after his escape from the island of Elba for the reconquest of power (The 100 Days), landed at Golfe-Juan with 1,200 men to go to Grenoble to receive the authorities.
Presentation of the itinerary
The Road Napoleon thus connects Golfe-Juan to Grenoble. Although we have entirely covered the route in Citroën 2CV, the article deals mainly with the Road Napoleon from Golfe-Juan to Gap and the stages of the course are as follows:
- Golfe-Juan: landing of Napoleon on March 1st 1815
- Grasse: Napoleon’s stay on March 2, 1815
- La Martre: Napoleon’s stopover March 3, 1815
- Castellane: Napoleon’s stay on March 3, 1815
- Digne-les-Bains: Napoleon’s stay on March 4, 1815
- Sisteron: Napoleon’s strategic passage on March 5, 1815.
- Gap: Napoleon’s arrival on March 5, 1815
The itinerary is shown on the map below:
If today the National 85 called “Route Napoleon” almost no longer follows the route that the Emperor once traveled, it is still an extraordinary road with majestic landscapes.
It is also a road full of history and legends thanks to its towns, monuments, statues and plaques that recall the lightning passage of General Bonaparte.
First step: Golfe-Juan
Golfe-Juan (26,672 inhabitants) is a seaside resort that is part of the French Riviera and belongs to the municipality of Vallauris.
- Napoleon landed in Golfe-Juan from the Island of Elba on March 1, 1815.
- This is where our adventure on the Route Napoleon begins, on July 12, 2020.
First of all, when we go to Golfe-Juan, we discover a typical seaside resort of the French Riviera, with its marina, seaside restaurants and bathers.
Golfe-Juan, the beach where Napoleon landed on March 1, 1815
It is the early morning that you have to come! When the beach is still empty. There at the water’s edge, lulled by the sound of the waves, close your eyes and imagine then coming these boats in the distance, with on board, in one of them, Napoleon Bonaparte! If your imagination lets you go that far, then maybe you will have the opportunity to see him disembark and who knows, maybe even greet him!
Let’s get out of our daydreams and go now to the marina. Let’s go to the Avenue des Frères Roustan, for a coffee at l’Escale. It is here, opposite, that there is a mosaic with an Eagle and an inscription:
“Here landed Napoleon, 1815”.
Beginning of the Napoleon Route
In our back, the rue de la Gare with a sign indicates :
“Here the Route Napoleon begins”.
For us it’s the beginning of the adventure! Our Citroën 2CV Clementine is parked at the intersection of the two mythical roads: the National 7 and the National 85. It faces the Arts Décos houses (typical of Golfe-Juan).
At the crossing, a column pays homage to the Emperor:
“Hello France, Land of the Brave! “can be read at the foot of the monument under the bust of Bonaparte. Bonaparte sits proudly at the top of the monument, staring at the marching cars like his troops.
Hello Golfe-Juan, on the way to Grasse!
Second step : Grasse
Grasse (50 396 inhabitants) is a French commune of the French Riviera perched at an altitude of about 400 meters and considered since the seventeenth century as the world capital of perfume.
- Napoleon entered Grasse with his troops on March 2, 1815.
- We stopped in Grasse from July 12 to 13, 2020.
The World Capital of Perfumes
On the way up the hill towards Grasse, the first fragrances from factories, factories and other stores come up to our noses. Thus, the fruity scents manage to mask the smell of hot oil and gasoline from the boiling engine of our old Citroën 2CV.
Indeed, in Grasse the great houses of perfumers Fragonard, Galimard, Molinard have been making the city famous for several centuries.
Under the pink umbrellas that decorate and protect from the burning sun, the city offers a feeling of slowness and a sweetness of life. Thus, Grasse is the ideal place for a regiment having made a long march.
Napoleon stopped exactly on March 2, 1815 to have lunch with his generals, it is said that he had to abandon here, 4 cannons, a sedan and several cars. Probably to arrive faster in Grenoble. Indeed, the General and his men will only take 5 days to reach the city.
On the Grande Place, a plaque is dedicated to him. The Espace Napoléon is open to tourists to discover an astonishing collection of 400 objects dedicated to the Emperor, offered by the collector Robert Bartolozzi.
After having impregnated us with the perfume of the city we leave behind us this city with the warm colors. The Marten awaits us!
Third step: La Martre
La Martre (211 inhabitants) commune of the Var located at about 1000 meters of altitude.
- Napoleon made a stopover on March 3, 1815 at the Logis du Pin inn.
- We stayed in La Martre from July 13th to July 14th.
We continue our journey in the footsteps of the Emperor.
As we advance, the road starts to become more winding and steep. But this is nothing compared to what awaits us between Gap and Grenoble. Indeed, the landscapes become more and more mountainous.
There, lost in the Gorges de l’Artuby we arrive in the small village of La Martre which takes its name from the weasel that we call “La Martro” in Provencal.
The Logis du Pin
It was here, on March 3, 1815, that Napoleon and his men stopped for lunch at the Logis du Pin. It is also here that we decided to rest our 2cv in order to walk through the village and to find a trace of the time, a piece of road taken by the “Father of the Fatherland”.
We take small paths lost in the shade of the pines, we cross vast meadows where we can see horses galloping in the distance.
We follow the banks of a turquoise blue river. Finally we pass by the bridge of Madame, a small stone arch dating from the 18th century. Did they pass by here more than 200 years ago? The day begins to fall and still no trace of any passage of the “Enlightened Despot”.
It is while going up by a small path which is supposed to lead us directly to the village of La Martre, that we come face to face with this famous bust of Napoleon erected by Jules Chaperon at the very beginning of the 20th century!
“This old path leads to the Logis du Pin (4 kilos) where the Emperor Napoleon I stopped for lunch on March 3, 1815” we read below.
This is where we are also going and this is where we will leave from!
“Victory in song opens the barrier for us… “
To us Castellane!
Fourth step: Castellane
Castellane (1 524 inhabitants) is a commune of the Alpes de Haute Provence located at 722 meters altitude, gateway to the Gorges du Verdon.
- Napoleon went there on March 3, 1815 to spend the night.
- We stayed in Castellane on the night of July 14, being able to enjoy the fireworks, one of the most important in the region.
You can also see my article on the Gorges du Verdon
Only 17 km separate Castellane from the Martre.
It is on March 3, 1815 at the end of the day that Napoleon arrives in this small city at the foot of the “Roc” crossed by the Verdon. He is welcomed in the smallest sub-prefecture of France.
At the top of the famous rock overhanging the city, Notre-Dame du Roc stands as a protector on the chapel of the same name. Did the Emperor ask for her blessing? Still, his mission to reach Grenoble will come to a successful conclusion.
The Gateway to the Gorges du Verdon
For our part it is the 14th of July, National Day that we arrive. Before enjoying the fireworks we decide to deviate a little from the Napoleon Road. We then take the road of the peaks to admire the Gorges du Verdon.
It is quite simply the largest Canyon of Europe!
These sumptuous and gigantic landscapes leave place to all the daydreams, we are alone in front of so much immensity. In the distance, the vultures begin to climb towards the sun, which will not prevent the bicorn eagle from reaching its goal.
National Day in Castellane
The night begins to fall, we finish our ramblings at the foot of the old pentagonal tower to admire the pyrotechnics that illuminate the city, the Rock and the Virgin, on the occasion of the National Holiday.
Fifth step: Digne-les-Bains
Digne-les-Bains (16 460 inhabitants) is a spa resort in the Alpes de Haute Provence. It is the prefecture of the Alpes de Haute Provence department.
- Napoleon went to Digne-les-Bains on March 4, 1815.
- We were there on July 16, 2020
You can also see my article on Digne-les-Bains and the Durance Valley.
The Napoleon Road, from Castellane to Digne, is not lacking in anecdotes.
It is March 4, 1815, the troop left very early this morning and the little Corporal of the Revolution has not yet eaten. While waiting for a lunch worthy of the name in the spa, he decides to stop at the hamlet of La Clappe in an inn to taste an omelette :
“A luxury omelette! “Indeed, the note seemed “a hair” salty to our conqueror! “Eggs are so rare here,” he asked astonished. “No, not eggs, but emperors, yes,” replied the mischievous innkeeper.
A Napoleon close to his money? We can understand him! All the more so since, on leaving the innkeeper’s and taking the road again, one of his mules carrying gold would have fallen into a ravine, dropping the small chests full of coins. Legend has it that the soldiers and villagers rushed to collect what they could, but that coins might still be there.
The Emperor finally arrived at his destination at noon and stayed 3 hours in Digne, the time to eat in the Hôtel du petit Paris. A plaque still commemorates his passage at this precise place.
The advance towards Digne-les-Bains!
Let’s continue the Napoleon Road towards Digne-les-Bains which crosses the Bléone River. At this portion, it offers us a remarkable array of colors. Indeed, the turquoise waters of the river mix with the lavender fields and the mountains with their sometimes black, red-orange rocks.
The road is still long and serious things are about to begin. Sisteron the Royalist citadel city stands in the distance.
This next stage is likely to be eventful. Indeed, the city is far from being acquired to the cause. But the night brings advice, it is said. The castle of Malijai will be the ideal place to welcome the infantrymen and the most victorious of the Generals.
The sun sets behind the Penitents of the Mées. A large fire warms the Grenadiers who bivouac in the courtyard. Upstairs, Napoleon falls asleep on the aloud readings of the Fables de la Fontaine read by General Bertrand.
Sixth step: Sisteron
Sisteron (7 460 inhabitants) is a town in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence known for its medieval citadel overlooking the town.
- Napoleon passed through it on March 5, 1815.
- Clementine the Citroën 2CV crossed Sisteron on July 17, 2020
Arriving by the bridge of the Route de la Motte of Cairo which crosses the Durance, one feels very small in front of the Rocher de la Baume. In our back, at an altitude of 500 meters, stands the imposing Medieval Citadel of Sisteron modified by Vauban.
Sisteron worried the Emperor a lot. First of all, the city was famous for its rock and its fortress, a real rampart against the invaders. Moreover, its population was acquired by the King.
March 5, 1815 at 2am. The emperor regained his “serenity” when a horseman who had returned from Sisteron told him that the city was subdued, and all resistance was stifled.
At about 10 o’clock in the morning, Sisteron offered itself helplessly to the Emperor: “Soldiers, we are saved, we are in Paris! “He entered the city and went down to the Hotel du Bras d’Or, on the rue Saunerie (souvenir plaque) for a meal.
But soon the population began to resemble each other and became nervous. Napoleon hurriedly left Sisteron, barely three hours after entering.
Sisteron crossed, direction Grenoble distance of some 150 kms, the reconquest is not very far!
Seventh step: Gap
Gap (40,895 inhabitants) Gap is a commune in the Hautes-Alpes whose highest point reaches 2361 meters.
- Napoleon arrived in Gap on March 5, 1815.
- We stayed there on July 17, 2020
Tallard and its Castle of the XIVth century
On the road towards Gap we decide to make a slight detour on the D46 to admire Tallard and its medieval castle of the 14th century.
Seen from the road the perspective is sublime. In the distance stands the castle with La Rochette, a 1421 meters high mountain nicknamed ” le Chapeau de Napoléon “ because of its special shape which reminds us of the Bicorne.
Let’s go to Gap!
Then, we take the RN 85 and on the roadside a few kilometers from the finish, an eagle proudly erected on its pedestal shows us the way. Gap is not very far any more. Napoleon wrote in his letter to the army on the beach of Golfe Juan on March 1st 1815:
“The Eagle with the national colors will fly from bell tower to bell tower to the towers of Notre-Dame. »
Napoleon’s arrival in Gap
The impressive procession entered Gap south of the city through the Dove Gate on March 5, 1815.
Unlike Sisteron, the Emperor was welcomed as savior and hero by the people of Gap. Everyone or almost everyone! The mayor of the city, the Marquis Jean-François d’Abon, was not pleased with the arrival of Napoleone Buonaparte.
When the latter asked him :
“What do you think of my return Marquis? “
The answer was scathing:
“I think he’s unhappy for France, as he is for you…”
But Napoleon already felt that he was in conquered territory and the regular army was deployed everywhere, but it was always one step behind.
“I’ve been quiet since the hour I set foot in the Hautes-Alpes. »
Napoleon’s Night at Gap
Napoleon dined and spent the night in the only comfortable place in town, the Auberge Marchand. This bourgeois house, formerly the inn of the Marchand couple, still exists at 17 rue de France where a very beautiful fresco was drawn in 1997.
On leaving the city, here is what Napoleon wrote to the Gapençais to thank them for their welcome:
“Citizens, I was deeply touched by all the feelings you have shown me. Your wishes will be granted. The cause of the Nation will triumph again. You are right to call me your father; I live only for the honor and happiness of France. (…) In all the circumstances in which I may find myself, I will always remember with great interest all that I have seen while crossing your country. »
There was one last step left in Grenoble for Paris and France to be conquered again!
Last step : Laffrey before Grenoble
Laffrey (429 inhabitants) is a village in Isère near Grenoble known for the episode of “La Prairie de la Rencontre”.
The Napoleon Road becomes resolutely mountainous from Gap to Grenoble
For Clementine, our Citroën 2CV, the road between Gap and Grenoble was probably the most difficult:
Indeed, the slopes and hills are steep and we sometimes have to climb them first at less than 25 km/h generating a line of cars behind us!
But the descents are not easy either, the clutch and brake pads are put to the test.
Let’s go back to March 6, 1815, the small Napoleonic army was continuing its route from Gap. Thus, the regiment decided to spend the night in Corps then to join La Mure before heading towards Grenoble.
The Meadow of Encounter
On March 7, 1815, the Emperor was only a few kilometers away from his goal. He arrived in front of the village of Laffrey. But in the plain, the one that was later nicknamed “La Prairie de la Rencontre” was a battalion of the 5th line sent by King Louis XVIII.
Fate was going to play itself out here
It was then that Napoleon moved away from Cambronne and its soldiers. He approached the soldiers of the regular army. They had undoubtedly fought at his side during his war epics in Europe.
A silence fell, then the Emperor of all the French pronounced these words that will remain forever engraved in History.
“Soldiers, I am your Emperor, don’t you recognize me? »
These words of Napoleon, pronounced with such aplomb, could not leave anyone who had fought at Wagram, Jena or Austerlitz indifferent.
The emotion was felt, Napoleon approached again within shooting range this time and unbuttoned his frock and let his chest appear:
“If there is one among you who wants to kill his General, here I am!”
To this resounding sentence, King Louis XVIII’s battalion laid down its arms one by one.
Shocked, some soldiers fell crying in front of the “Father of the Fatherland”, others drunk with pleasure ran towards our Herald to the cries of “Long live the Emperor!”. Napoleon turned towards Cambronne, and pronounced, determined :
“It is finished. In eight days we will be in Paris. »
End of our adventure and last stage before Grenoble
Our Napoleonic adventure ends here at the foot of the equestrian statue erected by Emmanuel Frémiet in 1868 under the orders of Napoleon III. At the foot of the mountains and the Great Lake of Laffrey, proudly erected on his steed, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, with his gaze fixed on the future, still leaves behind him an umpteenth legendary history which makes him, still today, a myth and the most victorious of the Generals.
3000km in a Citroën 2CV
For us the adventure also ends. After Grenoble we return by the Nationale 6 and Burgundy. Our old 2cv Clementine is a little tired after 3000 km, however no mechanical problems are to be reported.
We start dreaming about our future trips and conquests and we say to ourselves that “Impossible is not French”.