France roadtrip in footsteps of Napoleon

If you're looking for a scenic French drive, follow the clever little Corsican despot Napoleon in the weeks before he rode into history and an ABBA song. Historical authenticity would oblige you do it on horseback, but you're better off hiring a car and taking to the driving route, created in the 1930s, that follows Old Boney's trail from the Mediterranean to the Alps.

Napoleon escaped exile on Elba on March 1, 1815, in an attempt to regain power. It was the start of his dashing "Hundred Days" restoration that ended at Waterloo on June 18. The Route Napoleon follows his movements north-west from Cannes through Provence and the Maritime Alps to Grenoble in the foothills of the Alps proper. It's mostly concurrent with the N85, marked by brown tourist signs and plinths topped by a French imperial eagle.

Though mainly a mountain road, the Route Napoleon is well surfaced, properly cambered and no particular challenge. Cyclists and motorcyclists consider it a top European ride: you'll be asked to snap photos of hardy cyclists on every col. The 330 kilometres takes six hours of drive time, but you'll want to take two or three days to absorb the scenery and sights.

The route begins on the French Riviera. Napoleon set foot back on French soil at Golfe-Juan and marched west to Cannes, where he rested on the beach before turning inland to Grasse, then as now centre of the French perfume industry. You might want to stop here a night: Grasse has a hilly mediaeval old town of archways and chatter-loud cafes scented with orange blossom.

Napoleon abandoned his carriage in Grasse and veered into the mountains with a mule train to avoid the army already mobilised to capture him. Today, a narrow single-lane road quickly has you into rugged terrain that culminates at the 1169-metre Col de Valferriere. Look behind you as you go for views of the Mediterranean coast. The bicorn-hatted general paused under an elm tree in Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey for lunch; a plaque in the Place d'Apie marks the spot. Later, you drive past the now-ruined Chateau de Broundet where Bonaparte spent the night. The fascinated French have set up signs and statues everywhere in commemoration of every Napoleonic sleep and passing snack.

Further north, Castellane is a pretty town enfolded in a pine-clad valley on the Verdon River, punctuated by mediaeval towers and full of shops selling soap and honey. A hairpin journey next tests your car's gears over the 1146-metre Col des Leques to Digne and (passing an unexpected roadside McDonald's) to Malijai, where Napoleon spent a night in the chateau, now the town hall. 

"Napoleon stayed here, so should you," suggests a sign as you enter the village, though the best accommodation along the Route Napoleon is seven kilometres further on at La Bonne Etape in Chateau-Arnoux. It's a lovely half-hour walk into Volonne, where a mural commemorates the watering of Napoleon's horses in the town's 16th-century fountain.

The most scenic part of the route is now behind you. The final section does have some splendid landscapes but can get busy with trucks and caravans. Stop at Laffrey, where bright blue lakes sit in an alpine valley presided over by a bronze equestrian statue of Napoleon, who faced off here with a small Bourbon army. "Which one of you will kill your emperor?" yelled Napoleon, flinging back his great coat and pointing at his chest. The soldiers cheered and came over to his cause.

Your drive finishes in Grenoble. The pleasant capital of the French Alps is lively and easy-going, with mountain views at the end of every street. Napoleon stayed in a hotel on Rue Montorge, now a restaurant, Auberge Napoleon, where you dine under gilt mirrors and Napoleonic prints. Look out for the bee motifs that were the emperor's emblem. As you tuck into your celebratory foie gras, ponder your choices: 114 kilometres to Lyon, 143 kilometres to Geneva. Waterloo in Belgium is 860 kilometres away, but there's no need for that. When you follow Napoleon, you might as well finish in a blaze of glory.              

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TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION 

rhonealpes-tourisme.com and route-napoleon.com

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai  with onward connections to Nice . Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au

GETTING AROUND

Leading Australian self-drive specialist DriveAway Holidays offers car hire in France from around $27 per day for a mid-sized vehicle. Phone 1300 723 972, see driveaway.com.au

STAYING THERE

La Bonne Etape in Chateau-Arnoux, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux brand, is housed in a 17th-century house and has an excellent restaurant. Rooms from $252. Phone 1300 121 341, see relaischateaux.com

Brian Johnston was a guest of Relais & Chateaux and DriveAway Holidays but paid for his own flights.

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