The Flight of The Eagle – Meeting Napoleon

My father came and got us from the stable; “Napoleon is in La Mure. The cows can wait until the Emperor has gone.” – Seraphique Troussier, March 1815

A little over a year ago, Google sent, for the first time (to me at least), something called ‘Your Timeline‘. It was an image with a wee map of the world showing all the countries I had visited (was it for that month, or that year?) Below was a number, representing the percentage of the world that constitutes. I don’t recall the details, but as this arrived in February 2020 – one month B.C (Before Covid) – I remember looking at it and thinking; ‘The UK, Spain, Nepal, Bhutan, Israel and Qatar, ok not bad for just two months into the year. This will be fun to post at the end of the year; show off a little how much I always travel‘.

Well, here we are thirteen months A.C (After Covid – which should really be ‘D-uring’ C of course) and the last several of these reminders – they now seem to arrive monthly – have mostly featured just two comparatively forlorn looking pins; Vaujany and Barcelona.

Occasionally, it has rather optimistically, included a third pin somewhere like, Narbonne, Perpignan or Montpellier. In the classic travellers debate; can one count as having been to, a country where all one has visited is the airport? Google, with a nudge from Corona, is now responding in the affirmative – for cities and train stations at least. So, I gaze from the window of my train each month, as it sits, inevitably delayed, at a platform of one or other of these Southern French destinations. Scant comfort drawn from the fact that if we sit for more than five minutes, with luck, Google will get excited and award me with a pin for this.

I returned to the French Alps last summer, to simultaneously begin one new, and resume one old, job. Tourism, certainly the guided style that I have made a twenty-year living from, was gone and after five months of countless postponements or cancellations of ‘just next month’s tours’, I decided that it was time to shift from ‘Doubting Thomas‘ to ‘Decisive Thomas‘. Tours are not about to return – find a job, before each available one has thousands of applicants. I do love it here in The Oisans, so the choice of destination for this next chapter was not hard – it being within a day’s journey of Barcelona and my young son, the clincher. Since then I suppose in a way I have still ‘travelled’ a great deal (confinement and curfew permitting) – once a week, at least, climb some nearby mountain, traverse a ridge, seek out a lake, stroll through a forest. However, from a Google, pin-awarding point of view, clearly never far enough from my blue home pin, to warrant a differently coloured one.

Often in our desire to add destinations to our personal ‘Your Timeline‘ or seek out the exotic, we ignore what is on our doorstep. I know I have, with exactly 99 countries visited, been guilty of this. This very website, also encourages people to up-sticks and come travelling with me. However, times and not least finances, being what they are, apart from said monthly trip to Barcelona, most of my longer journeys since August, have been of 45 mins each way, every Saturday to a rather anonymous and forgettable town called Vizille. Here I frequent a German-owned supermarket (my local, much closer, Casino is officially recognised as the most expensive supermarket in all of France – baked beans at nearly €5 a can – surely that merits some sort of pin? A golden one perhaps).

However, on this particular Saturday I set off early, a little, actually a lot, more excited that unusual. Seven days ago, I noticed a sign – one of the fun brown road signs (these are the best ones) – pointing left up a mountain pass to Laffrey and – La Prarie de la Recontre. Next to the words, the unmistakable outline of a Napoleonic Eagle had been stencilled on in white paint. I am not even sure exactly who met whom on this ‘Field of The Meeting‘, much less what happened – I decide to do no research prior to going. And, unlike the past one, this Saturday, I have time, packed my camera and carry a real desire to make this truly feel like ‘travelling’. And it does feel like a real adventure, it’s the first time I am doing what I used to as a guide on my free-time, on an almost daily basis in a long time; I am off to discover something new. Grocery-laden and very much in the slow lane, my aged Renault eventually breaches the mountain pass and I pull off the road and left into an empty car park. It is March, there is a touch of frost still on the grass, but the snow has melted, the sky is blue and the sun will soon make it feel almost warm. My car doesn’t lock and I briefly consider the safety of my unsecured groceries in the boot, maybe I should have come here before shopping? But as I do, I look up and then, in the distance, I suddenly see him

One day, this place will bear a statue fifteen or twenty feet high, showing Napoleon dressed in the clothes he was wearing that day‘ – Stendhal.

I didn’t bring anything with which to measure it, but it is – unlike the supposedly diminutive figure (Napoleon was in fact 5 feet 7 inches tall) – big. And it is imperial. Napoleon sits astride his horse, high on an escarpment overlooking deep blue Lac Laffrey below; as a backdrop, the snow-clad Alps, through which “le petit caporal” had just travelled from the Mediterranean coast. More than two centuries have passed, but the I am only a week out from the date he was here. He confidently overlooks the would be battlefield – today a minefield of large mole hills and unusual white poles – where, in the end, not a single shot was fired. However, that day – March 7th 1815 – the place was set as a trap, which, had it sprung, would indeed have provided us with an alternative history.

The Eagle will fly from belfry to belfry all the way to Notre-Dame’, Napoleon proclaimed when he landed in Golfe-Juan, from his first exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. ‘When I left Elba, I promised myself I would get to Paris without firing a shot‘. He kept his promise, neither he, nor the roughly 1100 soldiers who stood with him on this frozen field that day discharged their weapons. But it was a close call. After disembarking, Napoleon decided to avoid the Royalist areas of Provence and the Rhone Valley in favour of a safer route through the Alps. The enthusiasm with which the population greeted their former Emperor increased with every stage of Napoleon’s journey north, and it was to great acclaim that he arrived in Gap. He was starting to think that he would reach Grenoble unhindered, but when he got to Corps, he learnt that the King’s troops were waiting for him near La Mure.

Louis XVIII’s troops reached La Mure on the 6th of March, 1815, intending to blow up a crucial bridge. Too late! Napoleon had already crossed. Major Delessart, ahead of 1028 soldiers at Laffrey – the 5th Infantry Regiment and a company of sappers from 3rd Engineer Regiment, moved his troops back to a meadow next to Grand Lac Laffrey – blocked the road, took up position on the hillside and waited for Napoleon to enter the trap. ‘The layout of the meadow is perfect, a real trap! The terrain is in our favour. But a doubt strikes me. Will this wily tactician fall into the trap?’ – Captain de Tournadre, 5th Infantry Regiment. In the end, he didn’t so much ‘fall’ as deliberately march right in.

The setting is beautiful, Stendhal admitted what he called ‘my childishness‘ as he surveyed the spot; ‘My heart was beating hard, I was extremely moved’. I was not so much moved as fascinated and impressed. Less so by what actually happened here (thus maybe missing the point); Napoleon had supposedly ridden out in front of his men and challenged the opposing King’s soldiers. He had undone his riding coat and opened his waist-coat to expose his chest to their rifles. ‘Soldiers of the 5th, don’t you recognise me? I am your Emperor’, he cried. And no one had fired. Nope, what I am thinking about, as someone partial to a long walk, is the almost superhuman feat of schlepping through Alps with 1000 men and equipment in March. Then subtract 200 years on top of that in terms of North Face, Garmond and Goretex. And just 13 days later, on March 20th, Napoleon was in Paris to commence the 100 Day Reign, which ultimately ended on June 22nd 1815 after defeat at Waterloo, with his second and final abdication.

I stroll around the site. The white poles, of which there are maybe three dozen or so, have been placed in the centre of the field. They face each other like ranks of opposing tin soldiers. Each carries a plaque with a tale of what happened. Most have a story or a quote from someone who had stood here that day; One thing is sure – it won’t be me who fires the fatal shot; the breach of my rifle is empty’, says one. ‘The leader of the Great Army, the man who acknowledged my bravery on the battlefields of Egypt? I owe him my medal; I owe him my honour. I cannot kill the Emperor’, another. It is well presented, a great way to learn, as one is naturally drawn to each and every flag pole. Then, strolling towards my car whilst dodging the really rather impressive mole hills, ends my own ‘Meeting in the Prairie‘; it’s time to head home. I can’t help wonder whether in today’s Covid, ever-more remote world, the modern equivalent might have been ‘The Zoom Meeting in The Prairie’? It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. What would have happened, had just one soldier of the 5th opened fire that day is perhaps something to ponder. I guess at the very least no Route Napoleon to potentially follow. Hmm… I feel a long walk coming on.

Things should have been different. I should now have a ‘country count’ of in excess of one hundred. But that didn’t work out. There has not been a great deal of such travel recently. However, in these D.C times, I am happy do have managed a little on-my-doorstep-travel and imagined the Eagle fly today. There is just time to turn around for one last glimpse of L’Empereur now looking down on me from the distance. Then I remember my earlier purchase of a steak for that evening’s special dinner, now in the boot of my car. Dead cows can’t wait, even for an Emperor, and I turn on the ignition…

~ by 2ndcupoftea on March 21, 2021.

13 Responses to “The Flight of The Eagle – Meeting Napoleon”

  1. A wonderful story. Merci, Thomas! Have you ever seen the statue of Vercingtorix in Burgundy. A stunning discovery, though in a much less bucolic location.

    • Thank you Laverne… Noooo, I would love to see that. One that is really missing from my travels. When were you there? Thanks for reading. It means a lot. Hugs from France.

      • Ah, this was probably 20 years ago, following an organized trip through parts of Burgundy. I then went off on my own, heading toward Vezelay. Alize-Sainte-Reine is a tiny village but I’d heard of Vercingetorix so pulled up the little road there. I know your active mind and imagination would go to town if you came upon him unexpectedly there too! Had to look up the name, so apologies for the delay in replying!

      • Ahhh Vezelay I know very well. I used to give tours there. Fascinating place, and beautiful too. I always knew Vercingetorix was not far, out there lurking in the woods, but never did make it. ‘Active’ mind; made me laugh. Thanks again for reading and commenting. Hugs Thomas

  2. I can easily see this trip being televised. You’d make a wonderful travel host. BTW, is that Napoleon smoking the pipe?
    Karleen Erhardt

    • Thanks for your wonderful comment, Karleen. It is my dream job you mention there. I have made a few attempts, but organisations employing travel hosts cry out for celebrity these days. It doesn’t matter what one knows, much more who one is, and I – just like the pipe smoker – am no one famous 😉 Hugs…

  3. Wow. Jim and I were just talking about our Normandy trip with friends.

    Your name came up as we remembered our favorite tour guide.
    And your email appeared hours later.

    You absolutely should have your own show..Travels with Thomas.

    We look forward to traveling again. Let us
    know where and when your next guided tour is.

    Best regards,
    Cookie Rosenblum

    • Hello Cookie
      So lovely to hear from you – and such kind words. I have not been to Normandy in a couple of years now. I miss it (that and guiding in general). I do have a tour of my own to Bhutan at the end of the year. That’s all I have really planned for this season. Many hugs and thanks for reading.

  4. Hi, Thomas! Loved this latest travel inspiration! And, yes, you should definitely have your own travel show. 99 countries and counting? If not you, then who? Btw, you will always be a travel celeb in our eyes. Hope to travel with you again sometime in the future. Sure do hate that Covid cancelled our Greek Isles adventure… Be well, and travel safely. – Sue

    • Hi Sue

      Last year was awful. You have no idea how much I was looking forward to that cruise… Oh well. Let’s see whether my ONE trip this can happen. Tough times for everyone. Those like who you love travel, it tends to pass under the radar, but we are all missing it. Love the ‘celeb’ comment. Thanks so much as always for reading and let’s hope somehow, somewhere soon to travel together again. Hugs Thomas

  5. Thomas, have you ever read “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” by David Downie. It’s not your version of trekking but it’s very fun to read as well as informative about the nitty-grittiness of “la France profonde.”

  6. Hi Thomas– When will you post trips you will be leading in 2022? I’m eager to travel with you again.

    • Hi Marjorie… Thanks so much for your question and very kind comment. I don’t yet have a proper reply. I still have tours in theory this year (though let’s see). I normally don’t find out until the very end of the year, for the following. If MY Bhutan trip can’t run this year, then I will move that to 2022. I’ll keep you posted… Hugs from France

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