Escape from Elba Tour Report

Tour Guide Alan Rooney writes:

The British Airways flight touched down early at Nice airport – a good omen for the week to come. An easy transfer and check-in at the wonderful Hotel Ellington in the centre of the city meant that we were ready to take a gentle stroll to the Musee Massena, overlooking the famous Promenade des Anglais. This beautiful late nineteenth century villa was built by Marshal Massena’s grandson and gifted to the city in 1919 and became a museum in 1921 containing amongst others, a wealth of Napoleonic memorabilia. Within its grounds we took the opportunity to discuss the growth of the Napoleonic legend – how a man who was so vilified, as he rode through France to embark for Elba, could return to general acclaim 10 months later, lose a pivotal battle at Waterloo and yet capture the imagination of millions of people for the next 200 years. And we were about to start our journey in his footsteps, 200 years later to the day. At La Source restaurant we ended our first day with a delightful a la carte dinner which we enjoyed with a generous amount of wine.

After a hearty breakfast we walked the short distance to Nice railway station where we caught the train to Antibes to visit Fort Carre. The curator debated with us as to whether Napoleon was actually imprisoned here in 1794 because, other than a letter written by Massena at a later date, there is no evidence for it. The fort offered some great views over Antibes’ Port Vauban and the Gulf of Napoule generally. After a lazy lunch in old Antibes we travelled two stops up the line to Golfe Juan to enjoy the first of the two scheduled re-enactments. This afternoon the Polish Lancers provided a display of their agility. To be honest, it was a bit drawn out and we were soon looking forward to our dinner amongst the re-enactors. Our intrepid tour guide, yours truly, took the opportunity to address the ‘Emperor’ himself and was rewarded with a characteristic tweak of the ear. Others were more fortunate and found themselves sharing a drink with him in one of the local bars (the Emperor that was, not Alan Rooney, although that did frequently happen too!). Dinner was followed by a wonderful firework display over the bay which explained the presence of a landing-craft in the bay that afternoon – some speculated that it might be there to bring the Emperor ashore tomorrow.

Today was the 1st March. It would be 200 years to the day that Napoleon would have returned to commence his 100 days. The programme had a march past of his troops scheduled for late morning, which allowed us a late start. But after lunch from our grandstand seats looking out to sea, a boat was spotted approaching – not the landing craft from last night – that had disappeared. But as this boat got closer, the commentator seemed to be getting irate – this was not part of the script. “Go away” he shouted over the beach tannoy. But the craft was having none of it – they had found a prime spot from which to enjoy the re-enactment – and they were staying. Queue the coastguard – bouncing over the waves. Time was running short, the emperor was due any minute. After a very short and unheard confrontation, the boat left the scene fairly smartly. And then there was silence and anticipation. All heads were turned seaward – eyes searching the horizon. The sun was shining (and strongly into our eyes), glistening, nay dazzling on the sea, when a small row boat was spotted approaching. As it came closer, a characteristic silhouette became apparent, standing upright on the bow. One arm fully stretched waving a familiar hat, the crowds started to murmur, people started pointing, they raised their cameras. And as the little boat reached the small makeshift pier, Napoleon (for it was he), dressed in his familiar grey greatcoat, which was unbuttoned to reveal the uniform of a colonel of a Grenadier of the Imperial Guard, took one step towards land to the multitude’s cries of “Vive l’Emperor”. The Emperor had returned and ‘le vol de l’Aigle’ commenced, just as it had exactly 200 years ago.

A small representation of the Guard turned out to greet their master. Napoleon was accompanied by his faithful: Bertrand, in his scarlet uniform of marshal of the palace, Generals Cambronne and Drouet. Even Roustan had curiously turned up! The Emperor read out his declaration, “in my exile I have heard your complaints and wishes………” But after riding around the beach a few times, he was off to Cannes for the night (not the first Frenchman to do that, I bet). And so after the excitement, we made our way back to Nice for an evening in the old city. Indeed back to 1794, where a young Brigadier Bonaparte spent almost 9 months thinking and planning his future Italian campaigns. Another enjoyable a la carte dinner, with copious toasts to the Emperor, followed.

Route Napoleon. We stole a march on the Emperor and his merry band, and caught up with his route at St Vallier, where the local barman had sold thousands of the original glasses from which the great man had taken a drink of water. The D2085 (the down-classed N85) follows the original route for most of the way, excepting that between Bareme and Digne. It is a spectacular road, its many twists and turns threading through magnificent scenery. It hovers above the steep-sided gorges, clings to the sheer mountainside and when it can’t, it bores itself through the rock. Within hours we were we over 1200 metres above sea level. It was incredible that Napoleon covered so much distance (up to 40kms per day) along which, in 1815, were little better than rough snow-covered tracks hewn through the mountainside, much of the time in the bitter cold and dark. In order to reach Grenoble this day, we had to cover almost 300 kms and it took us all day to do so on modern roads ensconced in a comfortable coach. Napoleon did it in 7 days! That night in Grenoble we visited a fondue restaurant. This was a polarising dinner – some loved it, others didn’t. Next time we’ll try a different experience.

And so to our penultimate day. Yesterday we ended our pursuit of Napoleon at the Col Bayard. Due to the vehicular restrictions on the N85’s descent from Laffrey to Grenoble, we had to set out this day in chauffeur-driven MPVs. ‘La Prairie de la Recontre’ was were, famously, Napoleon offered himself up to be shot by any man who opposed him from the 5th Line Regiment which had been sent to stop his march. Today it was covered in virgin snow, the statue that had been raised to commemorate the event standing proud above the field and Laffrey lake. We traipsed across the white blanket, at times the snow coming up to our knees, and reached that famous monument. The sun was shining brightly and reflected gloriously on the glistening ground. We gathered together, some having photos taken with them bearing their chests and took some wonderful group photos. It was a magical moment – one to treasure for a long time. But eventually we tore ourselves away and made our way to Vizille for a quick coffee. Here we discussed the causes and outbreak of the French Revolution, for it was here that the rights of the nation were presciently declared by all three estates in 1788 (sic!). Thence to Brie et Argonne, where Colonel de la Beydoyere brought his 7th Line regiment over to Napoleon and joined him on his march to Grenoble, to which we returned for lunch. This afternoon we visited the site of the Bonne Gate, which was broken to down by the citizens to facilitate Napoleon’s victorious entry, the Auberge Napoleon, where he spent his two nights and then we caught the cable car up to the Bastille from where we gained magnificent views of this Olympic city and its environs. For some, personal time followed, for others, a few beers in a local hostelry. Thence to our final dinner in a wonderful Michelin restaurant, again on an a la carte basis. Great food, fine wines and wonderful and stimulating company. A perfect ending to a fantastic tour which will stay in my memory for the rest of my life.


View details of this tour - Escape From Elba

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