FIRST STOP: AJACCIO
It’s hard to believe that the incredible journey of a self-made man to world-wide glory and power starts in the unassuming French island of Corsica, in the town of Ajaccio. The city of Ajaccio is the capital and largest city of Corsica and some say it is among the most beautiful seashores of the world (hopefully, not all of them are proud inhabitants of the city itself). The city was built on the seaside and became one of the preferred destinations for privileged tourists in the 19th and 20th centuries wanting to enjoy the beauty of the sea without the crowds. In addition to myriad sites reminding the visitor that Napoleon was born and lived part of his life here, be sure to enjoy the views from a walk along one of the cliffs. The western cliff wall (La corniche du Couchant), for example, is about one and a half hours long and offer fantastic views of the sea and the beach, as well as the medieval towers known as the Genovese Towers (although not all of them are Genovese).
In 1764, the Bonaparte family moved into the house at Rue Saint Charles 20000, where Napoleon was born in 1769 (according to legend, on a Louis XVI couch). Damaged during the troubled times of the French Revolution, as the family had sided with the Republic, the house was enlarged and renovated, with new furniture added, much of which you can see today. The house became a museum in 1967 and is now filled with Bonaparte memorabilia.
SECOND STOP: EGYPT
“Soldiers, forty centuries are looking down upon you from these pyramids” – this is what history records Napoleon as saying before the Battle of the Pyramids, where his French army won a decisive victory against the Turks and the Mamluks. There are as many as 138 pyramids in Egypt, although the most famous ones are the three pyramids of Giza, just outside Cairo. The largest of these, the Pyramid of Khufu, is known as the Great Pyramid and is the only remaining wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the oldest one.
Visiting the pyramid is a task that takes you back to mysterious times: you enter through the Robbers’ Tunnel and move around throughout smaller tunnels, both ascending and descending. Be sure to arrive early: there are only 150 tickets being given out in the morning and another 150 tickets in the afternoon. You can always take a private tour from Cairo, which will allow you to tour at a leisurely pace and with an interesting commentary. As with many things in Egypt, tours from Cairo are reasonably cheap (only a couple of dollars) but be sure to add a tip at the end, a treasured custom in Egypt.
Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt did not have a solely military purpose: it was also a scientific expedition, with as many as 150 of the most renowned French scientists of the time joining in the quest. Their goal was to get a better understanding of Egyptian civilization and to play a role in evaluating what to take home to France. Among their greatest discoveries was the Rosetta Stone, which later led to the deciphering and translation of hieroglyphics, in 1822.
THIRD STOP: NOTRE DAME DE PARIS
Napoleon was already an accomplished general and the ruler of France by the time he had reached Notre-Dame on his journey. He had reformed France, reviewed its budget, started construction projects and a legislative and judiciary work that would culminate with the Civil Code, on which much of European law is still based. For anyone, this would have been enough for ten lifetimes, but not for Napoleon.
Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France the Cathedral of Notre Dame by the Pope himself (usually, it was the emperor that went to Rome for the crowning ceremony, but, to showcase his power, Napoleon had the Pope travel to Paris for his coronation. In a total break with French heritage, Napoleon replaced the traditional fl eur-de-lis, symbol of the French monarchy, with bees. The bees had been recently recognized as the symbol of the first Merovingian kings. Napoleon did his own thing to the very end: he took the crown out of the Pope’s hand to crown himself, then crowned his wife, Josephine, an event immortalized in a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David. Napoleon knew the truth that behind every great man is a great woman.The Cathedral of Notre Dame was built in the Classical Gothic style on the oldest part of Paris, the Ile de la Cite, mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. The church withstood centuries of devastation and troubled times, including during the Protestant Wars, the French Revolution and the Second World War, to remain one of the most recognized symbol of the French capital and of Gothic architecture (pay extra attention to vaults, gargoyles and other recognizable features).
FOURTH STOP: BRNO, THE CZECH REPUBLIC
It was not really at Brno that Napoleon made this stop, but in Brno’s outskirts, in Austerlitz, which witnessed one of his greatest victories and one of the best military achievements of modern history.
The city of Brno, now in the Czech Republic, was for a long time the capital of the medieval province of Moravia. It is a worthy stop not only because of its medieval buildings, such as the Spilberk Castle, but also due to its modern architecture. One such example is the Villa Tugendhat, built in the 1920s and a symbol of modernism in Europe. The house is an early example of the functionalism style of architecture, characterized by a focus on the purpose of the construction and a simplification of structure and decorations. The Villa Tugendhat also witnessed the signing of the document that confirmed the division of Czechoslovakia into the states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, in 1992.
The Battle of Austerlitz is considered by many to be Napoleon’s greatest military achievement. In 1805, he thoroughly defeated a combined Russian and Austrian army. For the next two years, the Great Army, as the French army became known, would win a string of victories against the Russians and Prussians and become the most powerful state on the continent. Decline would then follow, but for now, Austerlitz represented the height of the Napoleonic glory.
To celebrate his amazing victory at Austerlitz, the following year (in 1806) he commissioned the building of the Arch de Triomphe, which graces this month’s cover. Work on it was stopped for about 10 years after his defeat, but was continued later as a monument to all French forces in all wars.
The Battle of the River Moscow or Borodino took place about 150 kilometers from Moscow and was one of the bloodiest battles in the Napoleonic history. The Russian army, in constant retreat after the French invasion, decided to take a stand and fight to protect the capital. The cry of victory however is subject to interpretation: the field remained in French hands and the Russians retreated, but the staggering losses on both sides made this a very indecisive victory. The great Russian writer Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” in a cottage in a small village that was part of the large battlefront.FIFTH STOP: MOSCOW
Napoleon stayed in the Kremlin (fortress in Russian, but more of a citadel in the case of the Kremlin in Moscow—with as many as four palaces, four cathedrals and a range of other buildings on its grounds) during his month in Moscow, with the obvious symbolism of having conquered the residence of the Grand Dukes of Moscow and, later on, of the Tsars themselves. With Peter the Great, in the 17th century, however, the Kremlin was no longer used as the imperial residence: Peter moved the capital to St. Petersburg. Napoleon blew up significant parts of the citadel, as a good-bye message on his departure from the city.
SIXTH STOP: FONTAINEBLEAU
By the time Napoleon reached Fontainebleau, he was a shadow of his former glory. Once the ruler of Europe, Europe had now turned against him, at all levels. Even in France, once so loyal, people began to grumble that so much blood had been spilled for the ambition of one man… a familiar complaint heard the world over.
It was at Fontainebleau that Napoleon abdicated, for the first time, upon pressure from his generals in 1814. He attempted suicide with poison, but the poison, made especially for such occasions of defeat, was several years old and did not work. On leaving the palace and going into exile on the Island of Elba, Napoleon would say, to his troops “Adieu my children! I would like to clasp every one of you to my breast: I shall at least clasp your flag”. Talk about an electrifying speech. Unfortunately, not many soldiers were left to electrify: his campaigns in Russia and Germany in 1812 and 1813 had led to the disappearance of nearly an entire generation.Every French king has lived at the Palace of Fontainebleau at a time or other, with many born there. Many royal guests, such as Peter the Great of Russia, have also stayed at the palace, which was initially a hunting lodge, a trend we’ve seen before in the Palaces of Versailles (France) and Schonbrunn (Austria), but expanded and transformed by Francis I into what it is today. Important architects and painters of the Renaissance worked on it, including Italian import Primaticcio. The Nymph of Fontainebleau, now at the Louvre, was made by the Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.
SEVENTH STOP: THE ISLAND OF ELBA
Several sites are associated with Napoleon in Elba, the most interesting being his town house and his holiday house, about an hour away by bike (you can actually rent a bike from the city and cycle to the house – although one of the hills is a tough challenge). Each house is worth a short tour, as is a walk in the town of Portoferraio. Read about activities at all price points in Elba in our 50-500-5000 article this month.
After Fontainebleau, Napoleon was assigned sovereignty over the small island of Elba, off the Italian coast. He set about organizing the small state with his usual energy. After a year, he left Elba to stage one last comeback – he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled to the Island of Saint Helena.
A famous English palindrome (a sentence that reads the same backwards and forwards) was attributed to Napoleon: “Able was I ere I saw Elba”. Too bad Napoleon didn’t actually speak any English (apparently, there was a time when you could get by with only French).
Napoleon initially had to content himself with a small tomb on the island of St. Helena, which didn’t even have his name on it, because of quarrels his British guardian, Sir Hudson Lowe, regarding the choice of name (would it be Emperor Napoleon I or simply General Napoleon Bonaparte?…).