Following La Route Napoleon
On March 1, 1815, having escaped from a Senate-imposed exile on Elba that began in April 1814, Napoleon, accompanied by a small band of followers, landed at Golfe-Juan. The deposed emperor was intent on marching northward to reclaim his throne as emperor.
Though the details of his journey have been obscured by time, two versions of a local legend about one of his first mainland encounters exist. The first version claims that shortly after landing at Golfe-Juan, Napoleon and his military escort were waylaid by highwaymen unimpressed by his credentials. The other turns the story around, claiming that Napoleon's men, attempting to build a supply of money and arms, waylaid the coach of the prince de Monaco, whose principality, stripped of independence during the Revolution, had just been restored by Louis XVIII. When the prince told Napoleon that he was on his way to reclaim his throne, the exiled emperor stated that they were in the same business and bid his men to let the coach pass unhindered.
In the 1930s, the French government recognized Napoleon's positive influence on internal affairs by building Route 85, La Route Napoleon, to roughly trace the steps of the exiled emperor in search of a throne. It stretches from Golfe-Juan to Grenoble, but the most scenic stretch is in Provence, between Grasse and Digne-les-Bains. The route is well marked with commemorative plaques sporting an eagle in flight, though the "action" documented south of Grenoble revolves around simple stops made for food and sleep along the way.
After embarking from Cannes on the morning of March 2, the group passed through Grasse and halted just beyond St Vallier de Thiey, spending the night. From this point to the end destination at Digne-les-Bains, the route touches only a handful of small settlements; the most notable is Castellane and the village of Barrème, where an encampment was set up on the night of March 3. The next day, the group stopped for lunch in Digne-les-Bains before leaving the region to continue north toward the showdown at Grenoble. Although the relais where he dined is long gone, you can stop at Restaurant Le Préjoly, place du Cavalier Fabre, in St Vallier de Thiey (tel. 04-93-42-60-86). Cozy and historic, with a staff that's consciously tied into the travails and tribulations of Napoleon during his transit through their town, it serves tasty set-price menus for between 19€ and 35€. From May to August, it's open daily for lunch and dinner; but the rest of the year, it's closed on Mondays.
The Office de Tourisme at 10 place du Tour, St Vallier de Thiey (tel. 04-93-42-78-00), can provide you with a detailed account of the trek, a map of the three campsites where Napoleon and his men slept, and a map indicating where the road deviates from Napoleon's actual route, now maintained as a hiking trail where you can follow in his footsteps. The office is open Monday to Saturday 9am to noon and 3 to 6pm.