Springtime for Napoleon

200 years after the event, we followed the Emperor and his army on the first stage of their walk back to Paris and to Waterloo

On 1 March 1815, the recently deposed Emperor Napoleon landed with a small band of 1000 loyal soldiers in Golfe Juan near Cannes, arriving from his exile in Elba to reclaim the French throne. Exactly two hundred years later, the municipal administration of what is now a small but lively resort town staged a re-enactment of this springtime for Napoleon, one of the most momentous events in 19th century history …

"Springtime for Napoleon - reenaction in Golfe Juan"

… while we made the walk that led the petit caporal and his men to Cannes, the first stage on their way to Paris, on to the battlefields of Waterloo and, eventually, to the petit empereur’s renewed exile and his death in Saint Helena.

"Springtime for Napoleon - trail the army took by beach of Golfe Juan"

When we say that we walked the same walk, however, certain qualifications need to be made. First, we can only guess at the exact location of the road that Napoleon’s party took 200 years ago. They proceeded mainly on foot (although a few horses had been purchased in Golfe Juan), presumably on a road or a path near the beach where the railway line now runs, between the dunes and the swamps for which the area was known at the time.

"200th Anniversary of return of Napoleon to France"

Today, there is no continuous footpath between the tracks and the sea, and you can just about squeeze by the concrete wall on the way from one Golfe Juan beach to the other, but when you get to the big railway bridge, you have to climb the stairway and continue on the main road.

"Springtime for Napoleon - road leading to Cannes for the army"

Secondly, since the army’s disembarkment started at 2:30 pm (and took several hours) and since the troops still had to make their way to Cannes, the only near-by settlement large enough to feed a contingent of 1000 men at short notice, the men walked at night.

"reenaction of Napoleon's army camping on beach of Golfe Juan"

Actually, they waited on the beach until midnight, mainly to give General Cambronne – who had been despatched to Cannes immediately after the landing – the time he needed to arrange everything for the arrival of the troops. (This may have been only a small army, but even so, 1000 men could not just walk into a roadside inn and order something a la carte.)

At first, Cambronne had told the officials in Cannes that he had come from Elba only to bring some “old and sick” soldiers to the mainland for medical treatment, but at 7:30 p.m. he let the cat out of the bag when he requested 3,000 rations of bread and meat to be delivered at midnight. (The officials had initially been relieved to see Cambronne, having feared an attack by North African pirates when hearing about the landing of a ship, but I bet they had mixed feelings on finding out who exactly it was who was on his way to their little town.)

And finally, road and coastal region were nearly uninhabited in the early 19th century, even Cannes itself was only a small village, used mainly as a harbour for the perfume industry of Grasse, the more important town at the time.

Victor Hugo made the same walk in 1839, in memory of Napoleon, and reported that he failed to meet a single human being until had almost arrived in Cannes (when he encountered a woman washing clothes), at which stage he must have already been far down the Croisette. (He obviously did not make his walk during the Film Festival fortnight.)

"following footsteps of Napoleon's army to Cannes"

The beach road from Golfe Juan to Cannes is certainly no longer as idyllic as it must have been back then – it now is a four-lane highway. The good news is that it is largely devoid of distractions, and that, combined with the constant car noise, can induce a Zen-like detachment, which leaves your mind free to think of the men who walked this very stretch 200 years ago. What would Napoleon and his troops have been thinking?

Napoleon in 1815 still had considerable political capital, which was reflected by the conditions of his exile in Elba – he had retained the title of Emperor and was given command over several hundred men in arms.

But now, he had staked it all on one throw of the dice. His small army was no match for a determined foe, although ultimately, this, a determined foe, was exactly what failed to materialize. Grenoble would become the decisive turning point of the enterprise when the army that had been despatched to send him home joined the rebels. (“Soldiers”, Napoleon had addressed them, “if there is a single man among you who wants to kill his Emperor, now is the time to step forward.”)

“Before Grenoble, I was a bandit,” Napoleon would later recall, “afterwards, I was a prince.” When he arrived in Paris two and a half weeks later, Louis XVIII had already run away.

Why was it so easy? In some places, there was a lack of means to stop him, in others a lack of will, and nearly everybody was perplexed at the speed with which events were unfolding. Ultimately, there was no shortage of people along the way who wanted Napoleon to fail, only a shortage of people willing to do something about it.

Our walk ends in Cannes …

"Hotel Carlton in Cannes"

… on the far side of the Croisette opposite the Festival Palais, where Napoleon’s army arrived in the early hours of the morning. Their camp would have been enclosed by the modern streets of the Rue des Belges (where, on the corner with Rue St Honoré, the Emperor’s tent was erected), Rue des Antibes, Rue Bivouac Napoleon and Rue Buttura.

A plaque on the side wall of the church of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage, where a much smaller chapel would have stood in 1815, commemorates the night of the Emperor’s return to France.

"Notre Dame de bon Voyage in Cannes"

But whereas Golfe Juan was giving its all to celebrate the anniversary, all restaurants having been decked out in the bleu-blanc-rouge of the republican tricolore …

"tables set in blue red and white for Napoleon anniversary"

… Cannes appeared to be indifferent to the historic importance of the day and much more concerned with the Festival des Jeux which had attracted long lines of visitors to the Palais. But then, we spotted them, on a stairway of the very same Palais …

"Playmobil figures in Cannes"

… Napoleon’s army, willing to make a stand for liberté, égalité, playmobilité. And there, apparently, was the Emperor himself, in his trademark triangular hat. Perhaps, after all, the Cannes officials were not that far off the mark when they thought the country had been invaded by pirates.

Read more about our meanderings and discoveries in the French Riviera here. Don’t miss our latest by subscribing to our free updates via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Why not include us in your G+ circles too?

The Remains of the Romans in the Riviera


On the basis of the evidence, it feels safe to say that the Empire’s troops did not come here to enjoy the beautiful beaches The history of the Riviera, if we are honest, begins in the 17th century when its oldest towns were built, and it really picks up 200 years later with the invention of tourism.

Anything that happened before is irrelevant for the modern-day resort towns that are lining the coast. These events are history only in the sense that they are things that happened in this area a long time ago (“one damn thing after another”), not in the sense that they are elements of an overarching narrative that makes sense of the present by showing how it is connected to events from the past.

Still, when you are hiking on the Riviera, you are bound to encounter remains

Continue reading The Remains of the Romans in the Riviera

The Nice of Henri Matisse

matisse hotel mediterranee_1

The capital of the French Riviera was the great love in the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists The list of famous painters who have been claimed as the genius loci of one Riviera town or the other is long: Cagnes-sur-Mer has Renoir, St Paul de Vence has Chagall, Menton has Jean Cocteau, Vallauris and Antibes share Picasso (but there is a lot to share, Picasso being “vast and containing multitudes”). Even so, there is something special about the association between Nice and Matisse.

This is because Nice was the love of Matisse’s life, not some sort of beautiful trophy wife he acquired when he was in his seventies. Matisse came to Nice many times, staying at different places and at various stages of his life and his career, also during periods when he was not yet a household name, while

Continue reading The Nice of Henri Matisse

What Made Sanremo Famous


The Riviera (T)railway Forbidden fruit: taste it and find out what made Sanremo famous

Coastal walks on the Italian Riviera, ideally, connect two seaside resorts that are well worth a visit in their own right. Whether or not these outings are successful, ultimately depends as much on these two resorts as on the walk itself – the more there is to see on either end, the more interesting the trip, even if the walk between the two towns fails to deliver more than the usual mix of beaches, palm trees and the twin azures of sky and water.

This is why, for quite some time, we have wanted to feature a walk to Sanremo, the capital of the Riviera di Ponente in all but name, for the simple reason that there is much to see and to do in this elegant and

Continue reading What Made Sanremo Famous

A Busy Hilltop Town for 2000 Years

thumb vence

With its long history and a strong presence of the modern arts, Vence is the perfect destination for a walk through the Provencal countryside It would be silly to say that if you have seen one Riviera hilltop town, you have seen them all. No, worse than silly: unfair and, above all, ungrateful for the treasures they hold in store for their visitors. At the same time, however, it would be equally silly to deny that certain family resemblances do exist.

What’s more important, at any rate, is this: once you have seen half a dozen or so of these hilltop villages, you are beginning to recognize the patterns of their resemblance and will be better placed to assess their differences, too.

One point of distinction is their distance from the coast: the further inland, the more withdrawn and forbidding these villages tend to be. (Once,

Continue reading A Busy Hilltop Town for 2000 Years