On the first of March, 1815, Napoléon, who had escaped from exile on the Isle of Elba, made landfall at Cannes with a few hundred followers. His intention was to march on Paris, oust the king, and set himself up as emperor once again.
He was met initially with hostility, indifference and indecision, but as he progressed past Grenoble, he was greeted ever more rapturously by the population. Having achieved his goal of glory, he only lasted a hundred days before being deposed and removed to the island of Saint Helena, from which he never escaped.
Our aim this year was to follow Napoléon’s route as far as Sisteron and then deviate northward, through the wild mountains of the Vercors to Burgundy, to connect with a previous starting point at Cluny.
The reason that we started from Saint-André-les-Alpes was that we had begun from this village on our first French walk, in 2002, and we wanted to link this walk to our previous one.
By any other reckoning we should have started at on the coast at Cannes and followed in the steps of Napoléon all the way to Sisteron, which would have taken us a good week, although Napoléon and his followers did it in three and a half days.
Hence the walk from Saint-André-les-Alpes to Barrême was no more than a preliminary jaunt before connecting with the Route of Napoléon. After Barrême we stayed close to the imperial footsteps (or those of his followers – Napoléon himself was on a horse).
We were constantly impressed with the speed of their travel, especially in the cold of early March, but then we were not impelled by a sense of destiny to march on the capital and overturn Sarkozy.
Getting to Saint-André-les-Alpes
We arrived in Saint-André-les-Alpes after a 24-hour trip from Beijing.
The final part of this marathon was from Nice, on the hundred-year-old narrow-gauge local train known as Le Train des Pignes, named after the pine-cones that fuelled the first steam engines on the track.
This little train toils up the valley of the Var, with its rushing chalky river, then crosses into the Verdon valley through a tunnel.
We got out at Saint-André-les-Alpes, but the train continues to Barrême and around to Digne-les-Bains.
This train is not part of the normal French railway system, the SNCF, and goes from a different station, a few blocks away from the main one. The timetable for la Pigne is here.
Darkness was falling in the Alpes of Provence when we arrived in Saint-André-les-Alpes. We hurried down from the station, under the railway line and past the village to the camping ground, whose whereabouts we knew from our previous visit in 2002.
The office was closed and the camping sites all flooded. We found out from a man in a nearby caravan that it had rained every day for the preceding six weeks. We pitched the tent on a slight rise, out of the shallow sea, and returned to the village for dinner.
The dry, brightly lit interior of the restaurant was very comforting and we had a fine meal of gnocchi with cream and tagliatelle with pistou, the Provençale equivalent of pesto. With plentiful wine and bread the bill was €30.
Day 2: Barrême to Digne-les-Bains
Day 3: Digne-les-Bains to Volonne
Rest Day: Volonne
Day 4: Volonne to Sisteron