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5 anecdotes on Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the South of France

The film “Napoleon”, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix, retraces the epic saga of the soldier who became First Consul then Emperor of France in the early 19th century. But how much do you really know about the ties between Bonaparte and the South of France?


Napoleon Bonaparte’s family lived in Toulon and Marseille

But they didn’t live happily ever after

On Avenue Char Verdun, in the little town of La Valette-du-Var near Toulon, stands a small, 3-storey building with blue shutters. The door frame is engraved with a heart pierced with an arrow. It was here, just a few kilometres from the splendid Anse Méjean cove and sandy Mourillon beaches, that the future emperor’s family set down their bags in 1793. At the time, Napoleon’s mother – Maria Letizia Ramolino – and brothers and sisters, had just fled from their Corsican homeland after their house was ransacked and burnt to the ground. A few months later, they settled in Marseille, in a town house on Rue Lafon (6th arrondissement), where the young Napoleon was to live for 3 years. Unfortunately, the misery of the penniless Bonaparte family does not appear to have been lessened by the southern sunshine…

Napoleon wrote a book in the Alpilles

But he got the subject wrong

In the summer of 1793, the young captain Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in Beaucaire, on the banks of the Rhône River and at the gateway to the Alpilles. During his time there, he wrote a work entitled “Le Souper de Beaucaire” (Supper at Beaucaire): a pro-Jacobin political pamphlet in the form of a conversation between a soldier and a member of the bourgeoisie. In hindsight, it’s a shame Napoleon didn’t choose to write about the must-see places in the area instead. If he had, he would no doubt have praised the splendour of the Glanum archaeological site in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and the military excellence of Les Baux-de-Provence‘s medieval castle, perched on its rocky outcrop. Or recounted his intense olive oil tasting experiences at the many olive estates dotted around the Alpilles…

Napoleon nearly got beaten up in Avignon

But he put on a disguise

On April 25th, 1814, the freshly-abdicated ex-emperor Napoleon I was on his way to his first exile on the Island of Elba. On the previous day, the vanguard of his convoy had been attacked in Avignon, at the equestrian relay on Place de la Comédie, now Place Crillon, where furious locals had covered the imperial crest in mud. The mayor decided to move the relay outside the ramparts to Porte Saint-Lazare, to prevent Napoleon from being lynched by the crowd. Even so, the convoy still endured a shower of insults and stones. On the way to Orgon, a Provencal village near Cavaillon, Napoleon disguised himself in the Austrian uniform of an officer from his Guard and successfully went unnoticed. Naturally, he didn’t have time to visit the Popes’ Palace that day. Shame.

Napoleon ate an omelette near Digne-les-Bains

But he said it was too expensive

The great comeback from exile. On March 1st, 1815, Napoleon and his loyal followers disembarked in Golfe-Juan, between Cannes and Antibes, on their way to Grenoble. After swinging by Cannes, they decided to take the Route de Grasse to reach Durance valley while circumventing the Rhône River. The convoy stopped off in Castellane, then Barrême. As they neared Digne-les-Bains, Napoleon began to feel a little peckish and decided to have a bite to eat at an inn in the hamlet of La Clappe. On the menu: an omelette… and a very overpriced one in his opinion. “Are eggs that rare here?”, commented Bonaparte, to which the innkeeper replied, “No, not eggs, but emperors are!”. After further stop-offs in Sisteron and Gap, Napoleon finally reached Grenoble on March 7th, having travelled over 300 km in 6 days. The itinerary was baptized the “Route Napoleon” (Napoleon Road) in 1932.


Napoleon contributed (a bit) to the Liberation in 1944

Even though he died long before

In the early 1810’s, Napoleon ordered the construction of a military fort on Colline Caire hill, in the town of La Seyne-sur-Mer. It was here that, as a young artillery officer several years prior, he had taken part in a ferocious battle against the English army. Building work on Fort Caire – now known as Fort Napoleon – was completed in 1921. This square, bastioned fort features a courtyard and two spaces now dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions. But in actual fact, Fort Napoleon never took part in any battles. With the exception, that is, of the Allied Landings in 1944.

Good reads:

(French language) Napoléon Bonaparte – Anecdotes Impériales, Daniel Appriou, Editions Sutton