Napoleon’s France isn’t as important to the French as you might expect. The bicentenary of his death on May 5 2021 has a few exhibitions, events and talks around the country but no great razzamatazz. Foreign visitors, particularly the British, will probably show more interest in Napoleon’s France. (But might that be because the British always like to claim that they were the saviours of Europe?)
In the Footsteps of Napoleon
You can follow Napoleon’s life on a series of visits which are all described below. Start in Ajaccio, then move on to Paris where his ambitious buildings are magnificent.
You can walk in his footsteps in Boulogne, and drive the Route Napoleon from Golfe-Juan to Grenoble in the south of France. Consider visiting my favorite place, the small Ile d’Aix on the French Atlantic coast where he spent his final three days of freedom.
Napoleon – Hero or Villain?
For Napoleon: Some historians claim that Napoleon destroyed the old feudal and autocratic order in Europe, giving rise to modern nationalism and unity. And today, the European Union. His bureaucratic reforms were extraordinary. Nobody can deny his huge influence on life today through his liberalising of whole countries, his legal Code and his huge modernisation of Paris (and Cherbourg and Lyon).
Against Napoleon: Critics point to the huge numbers of soldiers killed during his long campaigns in Europe to 1815 – estimates vary from 900,000 soldiers to around 2.5 million. Civilian casualties are estimated at around 1 million. And all due to the ambitions of the Corsican boy, born into a family with modest ancestors. He became Emperor in 1804 which demonstrated megalomania, replacing the short-lived French republic after the Revolution, and he restored slavery.
There’s a lot more to both sides of the argument, but that’s for the historians.
Napoleon’s France through his life
The Start of it all in Corsica
Napoleon’s France begins in Corsica where he was born into a relatively modest family on Aug 15, 1769. He only lived here for nine years before sailing to France and starting his military education. But Corsica and particularly the capital of Ajaccio have done their best to commemorate one of the most famous names in European history.
Ajaccio’s Napoleon Sites
The Musée National de la Maison Bonaparte is housed in the former family home. It’s worth visiting for the story it tells rather than the objects.
One of the great surprises of Corsica is the Palais Fesch in Ajaccio. Napoleon’s uncle Cardinal Joseph Fesch was born here and decided to turn the family home into a museum, donating a huge number of paintings as the start. The donation is estimated at 1,000 from the 17,000 he accumulated as a result of his nephew’s policy of ransacking the great galleries and private collections of Europe during the Napoleonic wars.
The museum’s Italian collection is a gem and includes works by Veronese, Michelangelo, Titian, Vasari, Botticelli plus a whole host of other Old Masters. The museum also has an impressive collection of artefacts, including religious treasures and Napoleonic items.
Napoleon’s mother is buried in the chapel attached to the palace, along with the Cardinal. Fesch was a key figure in Napoleon’s life and was responsible for persuading Pope Pius VII to crown Napoleon Emperor in 1804.
Napoleon finished his military education at the École Militaire in Paris before joining the Army in 1785. The military academy is an impressive building and in a corner of Paris very near the Eiffel Tower that I particularly like. It’s well worth a visit.
Right beside is the Champ de Mars where Napoleon held parades and military reviews to impress the citizens of Paris and inspire his troops. He planned a grand one here when he returned from exile in 1815. Two weeks later came his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
The École Militaire is not open to the public generally but the building does open on European Heritage Days in September.
Paris in the 18th Century
In the 18th century Paris had become one of the great centres of the Age of Enlightenment. Paris was the financial capital of France and continental Europe. By the 1740s cafés flourished throughout the city, becoming the places where artists, writers and anyone with intellectual pretentions would meet. It was the main European city for book publishing, fine household furniture and luxury goods, theatres and fashion.
Napoleon’s Grand Vision
But Paris was a city rooted in the autocratic past and Napoleon wanted a capital that reflected the new order and particularly his power. When he became Emperor in 1804, he commissioned buildings that were to change the image of Paris, making it a suitable center of his empire.
The Arc de Triomphe
The foundation stone of the Arc de Triomphe was laid on Aug 15, 1806, Napoleon’s birthday. It remained unfinished at his death in 1821 and was finally opened in 1836.
The Madeleine was built in 1806 as a Temple de la Gloire de la Grand Armée (Temple to the Glory of the Grand Army). Inspired by the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, the neo-classical building is a Paris parish church.
Arc du Carrousel
Standing in front of the Louvre the triumphal Arc celebrates the victories of the Grande Armée under Napoleon in 1805.
The Place Vendôme is a magnificent square, the ideal place for a grand column. Napoleon commissioned his in 1810 in memory of his victory at Austerlitz.
How did he do it all?
Napoleon’s energy was extraordinary, managing all these projects while mostly campaigning in Europe.
“Make me a little report on the works I have ordered. Where is the Bourse?…What has been done to the Arce de Triomphe? ..Shall I pass over the Pont d’Iena on my return? So much for Paris…” He wrote to Monsieur Cretet, in charge of his work as he marched to Spain in 1809.
Napoleon and the Louvre
The Louvre began as a fortress in 1190 and became a royal palace in the mid 14th century. Falling out of royal favour it was abandoned and by the 1750s was ramshackle with prostitutes and shady businesses occupying the once beautiful buildings.
Renamed the Musée Napoléon so nobody would be in any doubt as to his importance to the museum and to art, Napoleon set about building the north wing and renovating other parts. He also made sure many of the art works he took on his campaigns found their way here. You’ll find objects associated with Napoleon on permanent display at the Louvre, along with paintings by David, the most famous artist associated with Napoleon.
Also check out the Egyptian gallery opened in 1827. It was the result of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and was curated by Jean-François Champollion who deciphered the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone.
If Egyptology is your thing, visit the new museum opening in Vif near Grenoble in Isère. One of the major events of 2021, the Champollion museum is dedicated to the two Champollion brothers Jean-François and Jacques-Joseph and the 19th-century Egyptology obsession.
Napoleon’s Visions for Parisians
For the ordinary citizen post Revolution Paris was a mess. It was crowded; the Seine was polluted; there was no clean water for the poor and the streets were filthy. To Napoleon the plan was clear: clean up Paris.
Paris was hazardous for walkers who used decrotteurs de rues (street scanvengers) to scrape the mud and filth off their shoes. Napoleon’s grand building project improved the grand roads and boulevards but destroyed much of working-class Paris, something which Haussmann finished. The Emperor’s most famous road is the Rue de Rivoli, named after Napoleon’s 1797 victory.
The river Seine broke its banks and flooded the city in 1797, 1801 and 1920. One of Napoleon’s first concerns, he had flood defences and new quays built along the riverside.
River traffic along the Seine was vital for trade. The road system was overcrowded, made more so as there were not enough bridges linking the right to the left bank. Napoleon ordered four major new bridges of which three were built during his time: the Pont d’Iéna, Pont d’Austerlitz and the Pont des Arts, the first iron bridge in Paris.
Sewers came next…
Some 40 years before Joseph Bazalgette built London’s Victorian sewage system, Napoleon constructed a 19 mile/30 km stretch of underground, brick-lined sewers.
…along with Clean Water
The Ourcq Canal was built to bring clean water into Paris from the River Ourcq. Between 1802 and 1808 60 miles (96.5 kms) of the canal were constructed. Make your way to north east Paris for a walk along its banks, lined with bars and cafés.
As part of the improvements, 19 new wells were promised in a law of 1806. The Fontaine du Palmier on the Quai de Gesvres is the only one left of the 14 fountains he commissioned.
The expansion of Paris brought another problem: overcrowded cemeteries. In 1804 Napoleon ordered Alexandre Brongniart to design the layout of Père Lachaise. It was grand and grandiose and quickly became the place to be buried; its ornate 19th-century tombs and mausoleums vying with each other as status symbols.
Père Lachaise is full of the great and the good of French history (many of them now forgotten) including 14 Marshals of the Empire. Balzac, Proust, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Yves Montand are among many other post-Napoleonic figures buried here. But the most popular grave is of Jim Morrison who died mysteriously in Paris in July 1971.
Napoleon’s France: What to see outside Paris
Château de Malmaison
Malmaison was bought by Josephine de Beauharnais in 1796 just after she had married Napoleon. The couple came here to Malmaison to escape their official life. It’s a delighful place and gives a more domesticated idea of the life of one of the world’s greatest generals. The house is full of mementos and there’s a very definite military take on the décor. The gardens are lovely and include an old rose garden laid out by Josephine who was an avid gardener.
Josephine died here on May 29 1814 and is buried in the church of St Pierre and St-Paul in Rueil-Malmaison.
Malmaison is organising various events around Napolean. More details here.
Malmaison is around 15 kms/9.3 miles west of central Paris.
To get there take the RATP train from Porte Maillot metro station to La Defense. Then take the bus 258 from the La Defense-Metro-Rer-Tramway to Ecole La Malmaison. It’s a five minute walk from there to the Château.
A taxi from Porte Maillot to Château de Malmaison takes around 15 mins and will cost £17 to £21.
Château de Bois-Préau
Josephine bought the Château de Bois-Préau next to Malmaison in 1810. She tore down the walls between the two so it became possible to walk to nearby Rueil without leaving the property.
Bois-Préau was initially used to house her staff including her doctor and her estate manager and for storing many of the books of her library, her archives and natural history collection.
The Château is being renovated but you can walk through the park.
Château de Fontainebleau
The huge Château de Fontainebleau is magnificent with1,500 rooms. One of Napoleon’s favorite places to live, he called it the ‘King’s true home’ and ‘house of the ages’. Several rooms at the beginning of the visit show Napoleon’s life as Emperor.
Renovating Fontainebleau was one of Napoleon’s pet projects, spurred on by the need to host Pope Pius VII who was about to visit for Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor. He redecorated to suit his taste and created his own throne room. The small room where Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 is rather sad.
Fontainebleau has a series of itineraries around the Napoleon theme commemorating the anniversary.
Read the full story on the Château de Fontainebleau
Château de Vincennes
The Château de Vincennes is an extraordinary building with a huge central tower inside its defensive walls. It was the French monarchs’ favoured palace until Versailles was built in 1668.
Napoleon used Vincennes as an arsenal in 1808. But the château is associated more with Napoleon’s renowned and eccentric General Daumesnil than the army commander. Daumesnil had lost a leg at the Battle of Wagram in 1809 and commanded the château in the Battle of Paris in 1814. The allies offered generous terms as it was clear the place would be difficult to take unlike the rest of the city. When Daumesnil met them he declared: “I will surrender the castle when you return me my leg”. The redoubtable general held out even after the fall of Paris.
Vincennes is on the northern edge of the Bois de Vincennes in Paris.
To get there either take the Metro line 1 from Gare de Lyon to Château de Vincennes. Then it’s a five-minute walk.
Napoleon’s France from north to south
Napoleon’s Plans to Invade England from Boulogne
On May 16, 1803, war was declared on France by the British and the Third Coalition of European States: Austria, Russia and Sweden. Napoleon’s plan to invade England involved setting up the Boulogne Camp where 120,000 soldiers were placed. The camp went all the way down to Wimereux – the coastal town chosen as the harbour for the French flotilla.
In 1805 Napoleon gave up the plan and marched towards Austerlitz instead. But he still had old defences reinforced and new ones built against a possible invasion from England.
There are a few buildings and Napoleonic forts left along the coast, many of which were used during World War II.
One you may not know is Terlincthun Fort, constructed between 1806 and 1808 at Wimereux and renamed the Fort de la Crèche in World War II. The fort has the added distinction of being the first place outside Paris where the Légion d’Honneur (another Napoleonic innovation in 1802) was awarded.
Check out the Alprech Battery, reinforced by Napoleon which you can visit with an appointment. Find out more at the Le Portel Tourist Office, tel: +33 (0)3 21 31 45 93 south of Boulogne.
At Wimille you can’t miss the Column of the Grand Army. It stands 53 metres high on a cliff with Napoleon on top looking over the Channel towards Britain.
The Hundred Days and the Route Napoleon
When Napoleon abdicated after the defeat of the Battle of Paris in 1814, he was sent to Elba. He sailed back to a divided France, landing on March 1, 1815 with three generals, a thousand men and four cannon.
He landed at Golf-Juan in the Alpes-Maritime in Provence beginning his Hundred Days which ended at the Battle of Waterloo.
He took a route which ran north west along the foothills of the Alps finishing in Grenoble in Isère. Following the muleteers’ footpaths it took 6 days to cover the 324 kms (201 miles). At Grenoble he was greeted by French troops who overwhelmingly deserted the official army to join the returned Emperor. When he entered Paris on March 20 it was clear that he had the support of the vast majority of the French. And it had been so easy.
As Honore de Blazac remarked: “Did ever a man before in history win a great empire simply by showing his hat?”
The Route Napoleon was officially set up in 1932. It makes a great drive through some beautiful scenery.
Napoleon spent his last three days of freedom here from July 12th to 15th, 1815 after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 and his abdication on June 22. His plan had been to slip past the Royal Navy blockade and escape to America – an impossible idea that he rapidly abandoned. He boarded the British ship HMS Bellerophon to be taken to Portsmouth and from there to his final exile on St Helena.
On Ile d’Aix you can visit the small house, now a museum, where he stayed before his final exile. It’s small with just a few mementos, portraits and sculptures of the man.
There’s an excellent boutique hotel called of course the Hôtel Napoleon with a good restaurant. Otherwise just cycle the paths around the island and soak in the atmosphere of the Atlantic.
More about Ile d’Aix, a place for chilling out.
Napoleon died on St Helena and was buried there, despite his wish and those of many of the French to be buried in France. It wasn’t until 1840 that his body, remarkably intact, was brought back to France.
King Louis Philippe ordered a grand state funeral. The horse-drawn hearse went from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Élysées, across the Place de la Concorde to the Esplanade des Invalides and then St Jérôme’s Chapel, where Napoleon’s body remained until the tomb designed by Louis Visconti for Les Invalides was completed. In 1861 he was finally laid to rest in the crypt under the dome of Les Invalides in a splendidly ornate tomb.
Napoleon’s France: French Events
There are very few major events in France around the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on May 5, 2021. You will find some on this Napoleon website.
More on Napoleon events in Paris.
The most important event is the exhibition Napoléon at Grande Hall de la Villette until Sep 19, 2021. It displays 150 relevant objects from furniture to porcelain, from the famous black felt hat to his campaign tent. It’s a good overall picture of the private man and the public Emperor. Details here.
The Musée de l’Armée (which is well worth a visit for more on Napoleon) is holding the exhibition Napoléon n’est plus (Napoleon is no more). It runs until Sep 19, 2021 and concentrates on his death of St Helena. The exhibition covers the end of his life comprehensively using archaeology, medicine, and chemistry to provide more information.
The museum is also putting on a contemporary art exhibition around Napoleon, Napoleon? Encore! From Marina Abramovic to Yan Pei-Ming (Napoleon? Again!) It’s rather fitting, given the controversial nature of the Emperor, that one of the exhibits has enraged critics. It’s a plastic replica of the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo which passed into British ownership. (The skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum in London.) Critics have deemed the exhibit tasteless, irrelevant and generally a ‘bad thing‘.
Napoleon’s France: The achievements you don’t see
Napoleon was an exceptional visionary. He reformed higher education, brought in a new tax code and established the Banque de France, the first central Bank in France. He instituted the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and created a new relationship with the catholic church.
He helped found the modern system of departments in France.
He instituted a set of civil laws, now known as the Napoleonic Code which has influenced a quarter of the world’s jurisdictions in continental Europe, the Americas and Africa.
He sold the French Louisiana Territory to the USA in 1804, effectively doubling the size of the country.
He certainly plundered much of Europe’s art collections during his campaigns. He also founded 15 provincial art museums across his Empire in Europe, distributing the works from the Louvre. It means that many of the Fine Arts Museums have superb collections, well worth visiting. The repatriation of art works stolen during war remains a problem.
But did Napoleon introduce driving on the right side of the road? The jury is out on this one, though most historians think it was down to the French Revolutionaries. But he did enforce it in the rest of Europe, so the myth is partly true.
So Napoleon – hero or villain? You decide.