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Route Napoléon

The Emperor's legendary march from the Côte d'Azur, through the Southern Alps, back to the throne of France.

Napoléon Bonaparte

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader born on the 15th of August 1769. He rose to prominence during the French Revolution eventually becoming emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814, and again in 1815. As emperor, he dominated global affairs and led France in the Napoléonic Wars against countries and coalitions.

He was victorious in the majority of these wars, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its collapse in 1815. Napoléon was one of the greatest commanders in history and his campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. He died on the 5th of May 1821 whilst exiled to the island of Saint Helena off the coast of Africa. In 1840 his body was returned to Paris, where it was interred in the Hotel des Invalides.

Exile to Elba

Although Napoléon was successful in many battles, towards the end of his reign his armies suffered a catastrophic campaign in Russia. Seizing on this as a sign that the emperor was no longer invincible, Prussia allied with Great Britain and Sweden, followed later by Austria and the "War of Liberation" began. Napoléon retreated to Paris where his ongoing political weakness became untenable with the governing parties. The allies offered peace but Napoléon rejected it and Paris fell in 1814. The French were no longer willing to support Napoléon and he was forced to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau ending his rule. As part of this treaty, Napoléon was exiled to the Italian island of Elba where he received sovereignty over the island allowing him to retain the title of emperor. He arrived at Portoferraio on the 30th of May 1814 and within a few months created a small navy and army, developed mines, constructed new roads and overhauled the island's legal and educational systems. A few months into his exile, Napoléon was devastated by the news that his ex-wife Josephine had died in France and planned his return.

Return to France

A year into his exile Napoléon made a dramatic escape, slipping away from Portoferraio on board the brig l'Inconstant with 1,200 men, evading the patrolling English and French fleet that surrounded the island.

On the Ist March 1815 l'Inconstant approached the coast of France under cover of darkness and avoiding the garrisoned port of Antibes, the brig made landfall on the largely uninhabited Golfe-Juan. On disembarking, Napoléon exclaimed "Hail, France, land of heroes".

Napoléon's goal was to reach Paris as soon as possible and regain his throne. To do this he avoided going through the hostile regions of Provence and Dauphiné instead crossing the lower passes of the Southern Alps.

After landing at Golfe-Juan, Napoléon dispatched emissaries to Fort Carre at Antibes but these were not received well and they were incarcerated in the dungeons of the Fort. His army bivouacked for the night on Col Saint-Antoine overlooking Cannes.

On March 2nd Napoléon led his army over the ancient trade route behind Cannes through Le Cannet and up the Val du Mougins, bypassing Mougins itself. They halted at Mouans-Sartoux placing troops on the highway at Grasse. This major trading route links the wealthy Roman towns and settlements to the Rhone Valley. The troops stopped a carriage carrying the Prince of Monaco who took a meeting with Napoléon. Napoléon asks him to participate in his quest to regain his reign but the Prince declines.

The journey continued avoiding Grasse where Napoléon hoped to find a coaching road he ordered to be built when emperor. The road had not been built and they had to continue on mule tracks over an arduous climb through the snow before reaching Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey. Napoléon stopped to rest under a great elm, that today is marked by a bust of the emperor. On leaving Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey, they took a winding, mountainous path where a pack mule carrying gold overbalanced into a ravine nearly causing Napoléon to fall down the cliff.

Napoléon spent the night of the 2nd March in the Château Broundet at Seranon. After only a few hours of sleep, they decamp and head down into the Valle de la Siagne, across the ancient bridge and up to Escragnolles, before passing the Col de Valferiere, and over the Col de Luens onto Castellane. The people of Castellane greeted his arrival with enthusiastic cries of "Long live the emperor". Continuing up the Col de Lèques, the army reached Barrème where Napoléon spends the night in the house of Judge Tartanson. A plaque on the Judge's house now marks the event.

March 4th sees the journey become less arduous with the route climbing up the slopes of Saint Michel de Cousson before the descent into Digne. Napoléon spends the night at the Chateau de Malijai, sending scouts to the fort at Sisteron to gauge troop numbers, only to find the fort unguarded.

On the 5th of March, Sisteron offered no resistance to their passage and they halt at the Volonne in the Auberge du Poisson d'Or (today the Hotel Touring). The journey continued via La Saulce and La Tourronde with a triumphant entry into Gap where they halted for the night. As a sign of gratitude to the people of the area for the welcome, Napoléon gave the Hautes-Alpes a sum of money for the construction of refuges at the top of the passes. However, Les Refuges Napoléon were not commenced until 1854 and some today are nothing but ruins.

Leaving Gap on the 6th of March they marched onto Saint-Bonnet where today a plaque with a bronze eagle and medallion marks his journey. By now Napoléon was concerned about the forces the Parisian government may have sent against him. They spend the night in Corps where Napoléon stays in the Hôtel du Palais.

On the 7th March they set out for Grenoble but at Le Pré de la Rencontre the road is barricaded by the 5th Regiment from Grenoble commanded by Marshal Laffrey. Here Napoléon speaks the famous words "Soldats, me reconnaissez-vous? S'il en est un parmi vous qui veuille tuer son Empereur, me voici" (Soldiers, do you recognise me? If there is one amongst you who wishes to kill your emperor, here I am). The 5th Regiment lowers its arms and a cry of "Vive l'empereur" ring out amongst the soldiers.

Today this event is marked by a statue created by Emmanuel Frémiet of Napoléon on horseback. The statue was first erected in the Place d'Armes in Grenoble later removed in 1870 and moved to its present position overlooking Lake Laffrey in 1930.

After the meeting at Laffrey, the march takes on a triumphant tone. Napoléon arrives in Grenoble on the 7th of March 1815 where he stays in the Hôtel des Trois Dauphins. The return to Paris followed two and a half weeks later and a new reign as emperor began.

The Route

Napoléon's journey today is a series of roads that in 1932 officially became Route Napoléon, the RN 85. Previously called the Winter Alps Route, the 314-kilometre tourist route is marked along the way with commemorative plaques and monuments and is open all year. While today the route is on modern roads and takes various diversions from the original, it still passes through the beautiful landscapes of the Alpes-Maritimes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes and Isère departments.

Beginning at Golfe-Juan the road takes us to Antibes before heading inland to Grasse, and through the Southern Alps via Digne to Grenoble. Col Bayard is the highest pass at 1,246 metres.

The 314 kilometres is around a 7-hour drive although splitting it over two days is ideal as there are many notable viewpoints. The route is marked in places by the French Imperial Eagle, carried at the head of Napoléon's army.


In the 200 years since Napoléon stood on the beach, a few things have changed. Its 856 berth port has a few vessels that Napoléon might have chosen to stay on as opposed to march to Paris. It's wide beach and palm trees may have deceived the soon-to-be emperor that he had arrived elsewhere. To mark his landing there is a commemorative plaque on the quay in the port. There is also a plaque signalling the start of the Route Napoléon and (mounted on a column erected at the side of the N7 road) a bust of the emperor.


A commemorative plaque can on the church Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Voyage.


Grasse was avoided by Napoleon but today is on the route.

La Fare en Champsaur

A monument paying homage to the emperor can be found at La Fare en Champsaur. There are two refuges at Col du Noyer (1854) and Col de Manse that Napoléon donated a large sum to the Department to build.



There is a statue of Napoleon in the town's main square.




The Gap Museum keeps hat belonging to Napoléon as well as a pennant of the Corsican regiment and the painting of Napoléon crossing the Alps. Statues of the eagle are located at the southern entrance to Gap.

Col Bayard

Statues of the Eagle are located at the foot of Col Bayard climb.


A commemorative plaque on a building in the Grande Rue where Napoléon slept on March 6th.

La Mûre

The Matheysin Museum has a trunk that Napoléon left during his visit. Napoléon and his troops made a stop on March 7th on the hill of Calvary to eat there under the gaze of the entire population.


At the request of Napoléon III, the sculptor Frémiet executed a statue of Napoléon on his horse to adorn the Place d´Armes (now Place Verdun) in Grenoble. The defeat of the Second Empire in 1870 led to the removal of the damaged statue. It was later restored and placed at Laffrey, in the centre of the Prairie de la Rencontre. It was officially inaugurated on August 31, 1930. Each year, on March 7th the Flight of the Eagle is commemorated in the meadow. On the wall of Laffrey cemetery, a plaque recalls the passage of Napoléon.


A commemorative plaque bears witness to the meeting between Napoléon and General La Bédoyère.


At the entrance of Rue de Bonne on the site of the old city gate, there is a plaque commemorating the entry of Napoléon into the city. During his stay in Grenoble Napoléon stayed on the 1st floor of the Auberge des Trois Dauphins (now Café Jules Verne) which is located next to the current Auberge Napoléon. Three dolphin mouldings can be found on the facade.


Start Golfe-Juan
Finish Grenoble
Distance 314 kilometres
Highest Point Col Bayard 1246m
Napoléon Bonaparte
Before I reached Grenoble they thought me a soldier of fortune. When I got there I became a princeNapoléon