Springtime for Napoleon

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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 …

… 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.

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The Remains of the Romans in the Riviera

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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

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The Nice of Henri Matisse

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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

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A Busy Hilltop Town for 2000 Years

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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,

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A Taste of Provence

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Walks in the South of France On a country walk from St Paul-de-Vence to Vence, you can experience three different flavours of the fabled French “South” One of the French things that foreigners often struggle with is the fine distinction between the different regions in “the South”, a large area sometimes misunderstood as a single cultural unit where old men play boule between the ruins of Roman temples and lavender fields that were once painted by van Gogh while Cary Grant flashes by in a speedboat.

Rather than providing a single cultural experience, however, the neighbouring regions of Provence and Côte d’Azur are divided by a sharp difference in temperament. I often illustrate this point with a small personal observation: in the Italian language course that we attended last year in the coastal town of Menton (with limited success, but that’s another story), every single one of the

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