Campaign trail: follow Napoleon’s progress across Europe

Ajaccio, Corsica, 1769-1778

Napoleon was born in Ajaccio on 15 August 1769, the year the French took back Corsica from the Genoese and just a few months after the birth of Arthur Wellesley – later the 1st Duke of Wellington – in Dublin.

The Bonaparte family owned olive groves in Ajaccio as well as vineyards and grain mills. Napoleon left when he was nine, heading for Autun on the mainland to perfect his French, then went to the École Militaire in Paris. After his family was chased off the island in 1793, Napoleon renounced any special loyalty to Corsica.

The monument to Napoleon in the Place d’Austerlitz, Ajaccio.
The monument to Napoleon in the Place d’Austerlitz, Ajaccio. Photograph: Inga Leksina/Alamy

Besides his birthplace, the Maison Bonaparte, Ajaccio has a statue of Napoleon and his siblings in Place de Gaulle, a marble Napoleon dressed as a Roman consul in Place Foch, and a huge monument in Place d’Austerlitz. The Palais Fesch museum (established by Napoleon’s cardinal uncle) has a collection of Napoleonic art and curios: the “cave” where he used to go as a boy to dream of becoming Emperor, and the Naporama, 23 battle scenes in customised Playmobil figures. The gardens and arboretum at the Bonapartes’ country house, Des Milleli, are open to the public.
Hotel Napoleon has doubles from €62. Le Grand Café de Napoléon has sketches of his notable campaigns on the walls

Nice, France, 1793, 1794 and 1796

Villa Masséna.
Villa Masséna has a superb range of Napoleon artefacts. Photograph: Bernard Bialorucki/Alamy

Napoleon stayed in Nice on three occasions, each time having risen up the military ranks. From captain of the 4th artillery regiment in 1793, he was made artillery brigade general of the army of Italy a year later, billeted with Count Laurenti on what is now rue Bonaparte (a plaque above a shop commemorates his nine-month stay in 1794). Two years later and two days after marrying Josephine in Paris, Napoleon returned as commander-in-chief of the army of Italy and stayed on rue Saint-François de Paul (near Nice’s opera house) before he set off for the triumphant battles of his first Italy campaign.

Nice’s Villa Masséna museum has an exceptional collection of Napoleonic artefacts, including his death mask, a waistcoat, a snuff box and Josephine’s robes and tiara.
L’Abeille’s eco-friendly flats (from €130 a night) overlook the gardens where Napoleon met Laurenti’s daughter. The name and logo of the hotel celebrate the bee, Napoleon’s symbol of power

Arcole, Italy, 15-17 November 1796

An effigy at Museo di Arcole.
An effigy at Museo di Arcole. Photograph: Museo di Arcole

The Battle of Arcole, near Verona, was the high point of Napoleon’s first Italian campaign. Having galvanised his underpaid, underfed army by grabbing a tricolore and attempting to lead them across the bridge at Arcole, Napoleon cut off the Austrian army’s line of retreat after their attempt to lift the siege of Mantua. His success continued to the Battle of Rivoli, January 1797, after which the Austrians surrendered. The French marched on Vienna and Napoleon returned to Paris a military hero.

Arcole, known for asparagus and wine, has a celebratory obelisk built in 1810 on the bank of the Alpone river, and a Napoleonic museum full of miniatures, portraits and a recumbent Napoleon in boots and bicorne hat.
Neoclassical Villa Bongiovanni in San Bonifacio has doubles from €125

Marengo, Italy, 14 June 1800

Napoleon’s chef, Dunand, conjured up chicken marengo from a variety of ingredients.
Napoleon’s chef, Dunand, conjured up chicken marengo from a variety of ingredients. Photograph: Sergii Koval/Alamy

Napoleon won about 80% of the battles he fought, but his luckiest victory was at Marengo, Piedmont. Back from Egypt, and having declared himself France’s First Consul, he crossed the Alps into Italy (in Jacques-Louis David’s portrait, he is on a rearing stallion; in reality he rode a mule) and prepared to face the Austrian army. This last-ditch victory was thanks to French cavalry, but Napoleon was happy to take the credit and strengthen his reputation as a skilful strategist.

The Museo di Marengo in Villa Delavo is open at weekends, with digital displays, a statue of Napoleon and an iron-clad pyramid. There’s also a column topped with a bronze eagle on the former battlefield, and Torre Garofoli, the farmhouse Napoleon used as headquarters, is still standing.

As for chicken Marengo, Napoleon’s chef, Dunan, made the dish from what he could find in the village: tomatoes, garlic, fried eggs and crayfish.
Villa Marengo (doubles from €80) offers complimentary baci di Napoleone cookies

Paris, 2 December 1804

Sarcophagus of Napoleon in the open crypt, Dôme des Invalides.
Sarcophagus of Napoleon in the open crypt, Dôme des Invalides. Photograph: Lana Rastro/Alamy

Napoleon’s coronation as emperor at Notre Dame in December 1804 marked the pinnacle of his ambition, an event depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s enormous portrait in the Louvre. With the pope seated behind him, officials to one side, and his family (his mother is shown in the painting but was not at the ceremony after a family row) on the other, Napoleon, in golden wreath, is about to crown Josephine empress. Not all Parisians were delighted by the event, which came only a decade after the abolition of the monarchy.

Paris remains a physical atlas of Napoleon’s life, with the Arc de Triomphe (1806), the 44-metre bronze Vendôme Column (1810), the Musée de la Légion d’Honneur and the Musée de l’Armée, which has an exceptional collection of Napoleonic weaponry and uniforms. The Dôme des Invalides houses Napoleon’s granite and quartzite tomb under a golden cupola.
Five-star Hotel Napoléon has doubles from €383 and is close to the Arc de Triomphe. The more affordable Hotel Bonparte (doubles from €169) is across the Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Austerlitz, Czech Republic, 2 December 1805

A re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz.
Fog shrouds a re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz just as it did in 1805. Photograph: wrangel/Getty Images

The Battle of Austerlitz was a decisive victory for Napoleon and his Grande Armée against Russian and Austrian forces. The new emperor’s strategy included luring his enemies from the fog-covered Pratzen Heights and bombarding fleeing Russian soldiers as they crossed frozen ponds. There are monuments all around Austerlitz as well as small museums, a chateau, a restaurant in the old post office, and the Cairn of Peace memorial.

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Visitors need a car to reach the battlefield, except on 1-3 December, when hundreds of re-enactors recreate the triumph with cannon and horses.
Vila Austerlitz has doubles from €105

Elba, Italy, May 1814-February 1815

Palazzina dei Mulini, Elba.
Palazzina dei Mulini, Elba. Photograph: Rolf Richardson/Alamy

Following his crushing loss at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon was forced to abdicate. He chose exile on the island of Elba and took possession of Palazzina dei Mulini in Portoferraio, with nearby Villa San Martino as his summerhouse. The villa has an Egyptian room, Napoleon’s library and an octagonal bathtub.

Other reminders of his stay include the Vigilanti Theatre, which he paid for by selling off its 65 boxes to Elba’s noble families, and Madonna del Monte church, where he met with his Polish lover, Maria Walewska.

When he wasn’t reading or playing cards with his sister Pauline, Napoleon spent much time in the bath; he also redesigned the island’s legal and educational systems. A tourist industry began to develop from visitors wanting to meet Napoleon, but on 26 February he escaped and made for France.
Agriturismo Montefabbrello (doubles from €110) produces wine and olive oil

Route Napoléon, France, 1-7 March 1815

Hotel de la Poste in the small town of Corps, on the Route Napoléon.
Hotel de la Poste in the small town of Corps, on the Route Napoléon. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

Landing in Golfe-Juan, east of Cannes, Napoleon began a campaign to regain his crown with a 200-mile march to Grenoble. Accompanied by 1,100 soldiers and gaining support along the way, he passed through Grasse, Sisteron, Gap and Vizille. His path through the mountains was officially named the Route Napoléon in 1932.

With imperial eagle waymarking, it is dotted with Bonaparte plaques, restaurants and anecdotes. It’s the perfect length for a few days’ cycling, with a formule Joséphine set lunch at Grenoble’s Auberge Napoléon to finish.
Le Relais Impérial in Saint-Vallier de Thiey has doubles from €70

Waterloo, Belgium, 18 June 1815

The Lion’s Mound was built in the 1820s.
The Lion’s Mound was built in the 1820s. Photograph: JJS-Pepite/Getty Images

The battlefield site is just outside Braine l’Alleud, south of Brussels. Two armies of the Seventh Coalition, one led by the Duke of Wellington, the other a Prussian army under Field Marshall von Blücher, defeated Napoleon’s army. It can be “done” on a day trip from Brussels, visiting sites including the 40-metre Lion’s Mound, built from earth taken from the battlefield, a museum, memorials to the fallen and Hougoumont farm, where the fighting began.

Relics from the battle, including bugles, musket balls, Wellington’s shaving mirror and the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, Marengo, are in London’s National Army Museum.
Hotel Le 1815 has doubles from €90, and plenty of large rooms for families

Île d’Aix, France, 12-15 July 1815

Musée Napoléon on the Île d’Aix.
Musée Napoléon on the Île d’Aix. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

Napoleon spent his last few days in Europe on the Île d’Aix, a tiny island off La Rochelle. He had expected to escape to America or be comfortably exiled in an English manor house, but the Royal Navy took him to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, a 10-week voyage on HMS Northumberland. Île d’Aix has streets named after battles, and busts, swords and a cabinet of clocks (all stopped at 5.49pm, the time of his death on 5 May 1821) in its Musée Napoléon. His camel, used in the Syrian campaign, is stuffed and housed in the nearby Musée Africain.
Hotel Napóleon has doubles from €100 and is open April to early November

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is released on 22 November


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