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Walking in Napoleon’s footsteps in Paris

As a teenager, Napoleon was sent to Paris to train at the École Militaire, which still stands at the opposite end of the Champs de Mars from the Eiffel Tower. He left hurriedly just a year later, having graduated 48th in a class of 56 and returned to Corsica to help his family in the aftermath of his father’s death. At that point no-one – not even he, though he had a high opinion of himself – had any idea of the enormous influence he would go on to have on the city of Paris. Today there are many places you can visit to piece his story together says Marion Jones…

Notre Dame Cathedral

Following his military successes in the 1790s, Napoleon was voted Consul for Life in 1802, and his self-belief reached epic proportions. His coronation as emperor in December 1804 in Notre Dame Cathedral can be seen in a painting by Jacques-Louis David, commissioned by the emperor himself, in the Louvre. Napoleon invited the pope to crown him but decided to show his superior authority by turning his back on the pontiff and placing the crown on his own head and then placing a crown on the head of his kneeling wife, his beloved Josephine.

Place Vendome

The enormous statue of Napoleon in the middle of Place Vendôme, near the Ritz Hotel was erected at Napoleon’s behest to celebrate his 1805 victory at the Battle of Austerlitz (top photo). There is nothing remotely modest about it. Napoleon stands dressed as a Roman Emperor atop a 40m high column. It is decorated with bronze reliefs portraying scenes from the battle, made from hundreds of canons captured from the defeated Russian and Austrian armies. Quite a message. The whole thing was briefly torn down in the 1870s, criticised during the Paris Commune as a ‘symbol of despotism’, but re-instated just a few years later.

Arcs de Triomphe

Two more monuments Napoleon commissioned in his own honour are the Arcs de Triomphe. The smaller Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, built in pink marble in 1806 stands at the Louvre end of the Jardin des Tuileries. The much larger and better-known Arc de Triomphe, stands at the end of the Champs-Élysées. Napoleon promised his troops at Austerlitz that they would have the honour of ‘going home beneath triumphal arches’ and building began when the first stone was laid on his birthday, August 15th, 1806. But it took decades to be completed and was only finally inaugurated in 1840 when Napoleon’s coffin was carried beneath it to reach his final resting place at Les Invalides.

Chateau de Malmaison

A visit to the Château de Malmaison, the country retreat Napoleon bought because Josephine fell in love with it, gives an insight into a more personal side of his story. Some of its rooms are very Napoleonic in style. The Salle de Conseil (meeting room) is decorated to resemble a military tent and the large library houses his desk and some 500 books, which are leather-bound and bear his monogram, B-P for Bonaparte. Upstairs is the Arms Room where you can see another Jacques-Louis David painting, ‘Napoleon crossing the Alps’, and the Austerlitz table, commissioned by Napoleon, on which a large central portrait of him is surrounded by smaller pictures of the generals who helped him win the battle.

On the ground floor are the dining room, where they hosted candlelight dinners for important visitors from Paris, music room and billiards room. Upstairs are sumptuously decorated bedchambers, extensive wardrobes and dressing rooms – important to Josephine who once bought 520 pairs of shoes in a single year.

Chateau of Fontainbleau

The Château of Fontainbleau , previously a royal palace attracted Napoleon as soon as he became emperor and he had the French Revolution-damaged castle repaired and refurbished.

There are mementoes ranging from paintings to pieces of his furniture and his coronation sword. It was here that Napoleon signed his abdication in 1814 and made a moving farewell speech to his Old Guard before leaving France for exile on the Island of Elba.

Les Invalides

It is fitting to end a tour of Napoleon’s Paris at Les Invalides, home to the Musée de l’Armée. There are displays of some of his field equipment, medals, clothes, and one of his famous bicorn hats. More widely, there are displays of the weapons and uniforms of his day. And, connected to the Invalides is the magnificent Église du Dôme where his tomb is on display in the middle of a vast circular domed hall. By the time his body was returned from exile 19 years after his death, the Bourbon royal family was back on the throne, but half a million people still turned out to line the streets to honour this former Emperor of France.

In the space beneath his tomb the wall is decorated with some of his words, expressing what he saw as his legacy. His Code Napoleon, which revolutionised the laws of France did, he said, more good for France than all the laws which preceded it. His reign, in his own words, had ‘left well-being everywhere’. Immodest, yes, but there is no doubting Napoleon’s lasting legacy to France and to Paris, where his presence can be seen if you know where to look…

Marian Jones is a former teacher of French now travel writer with a podcast – City Breaks, bringing listeners and readers the background history and culture which will inform their travels in l’Hexagone. citybreakspodcast.co.uk

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