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Route for victory

Drive a road that follows Napoleon's last epic journey from the coast to the Alps, through some corners of southeast France that remain off the beaten track today
Napoleon and his column took the road past the old stone chapel of Notre Dame de Gratemoine near Séranon, early on 3 March 1815

IT'S DAWN ON THE seafront in Cannes, and the water is still enough that the day's first swimmers leave long wakes. Behind the palm trees along the Boulevard de la Croisette, most hotel room curtains have yet to open. But just one street inland, there's a reminder of a morning when everyone on the beach would have been up at military time. On the side wall of a church, under a stone eagle with wings outstretched, a message is spelled out: 'HERE on the dunes beside the former chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage, NAPOLEON, returned from the island of Elba, set up camp for the night of 1-2 March 1815 before dashing to Paris by the perilous Alpine road.'

It's this adventure that I've come to the French Riviera to retrace, following a road now celebrated as 'la Route Napoleon'. These days it's a drive of around six hours, running for just over 200 miles as far as the Alpine city of Grenoble. It took Napoleon and his men seven days to cover that distance, going at great haste. Unlike him, I am in no rush, and want to leave plenty of time for detours and digressions. Seven days feels right for me, too.

Elba is a little far - 170 miles away - to begin this trip in Napoleonic fashion, so I take a short ferry ride to a smaller island, SainteMarguerite. It was once a fortress and prison, but today is largely grown over by pines. I look around the cell that housed an earlier figure from French history, the Man in the Iron Mask, then emerge into the radiant Riviera sun to get the view from the battlements. Cannes is to the left, across a wide bay dotted with sailing boats. And to the right, Golfe-Juan, where Napoleon stepped ashore with just over a thousand men on 1 March 1815, after evading the British fleet. He had been exiled on Elba for less than a year when he decided to return to France and force out the restored monarchy under Louis XVIII. To reach Paris, however, he would have to avoid the valley of the Rhone - the quickest route, but one dotted with garrison towns loyal to the king. Instead, he formed a plan to take much rougher roads through the mountains, until he had enough momentum to seize Grenoble and then march on the capital.

A sign at the official starting point of the Route Napoleon in the beach town of Golfe-Juan

I take an afternoon ferry back to Cannes, where a dock makes disembarking easier than in Napoleon's time. A game of petanque is in progress by the marina. In 1815, Cannes was a small fishing village; the old encampment to the side has since been overtaken by hotels and apartment buildings, each competing for sea views. I follow the villa-covered coast round to Golfe-Juan, a more low-key slice of the Riviera; it, too, barely existed two centuries ago. The idea of anyone other than fishermen wanting to live as close to the sea as possible - so exposed to attack - would have astonished Napoleon's contemporaries. Standing at the sign that announces the official start ofthe Route Napoleon, I watch a Citroen 2CV trundle past: a momentary pairing of Gallic icons. It should be a signal to leave the warmth of the coast behind, and yet I'm reluctant to speed away on the route just yet.

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