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The best drives through France: the Route Napoléon to the Riviera

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Best drives in France: Route Napoleon

Autumn may be on its way, but the sun's still shining on the Côte d'Azur with pleasant temperatures and fewer crowds

Enjoy a drive through the craggy western Alps that backdrop the road south of Grenoble. Cliff-hugging hairpins punctuate the miles of gently winding road along the Route Napoléon, with glorious scenery from Grenoble to Grasse.

The Route Napoléon, one of the world’s best roads to drive, runs for 200 miles between the Côte d’Azur and Grenoble, threading through Provence and rising into the western reaches of the Alps. Grenoble is the gateway to the south of France, and worth a quick stop to ride the cable cars strung across the river like baubles. Just outside the city is the commune of Laffrey, famed for the day Napoléon Bonaparte passed through en route to reclaim power from Louis XVIII.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon cable cars in Grenoble

We decided to follow a wiggly line on the Sat Nav, which twisted round sweeping bends and steep hairpins through woodland before delivering us some way up the mountain. And there, draped loosely on the hillside, was a dreamy little road that seemed to climb to the heavens – which it kind of did, for in the distance was the Notre Dame-de-la-Salette, an imposing basilica and shrine built after two local children saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary here 170 years ago.

The next day we continued south, following the N85 as it swept through valleys alongside rivers and meadows before the hills bubbled up again. It’s a busy road, full of bikers and motorhomes, and the locals in old Peugeot hatchbacks, who seem to have mastered the art of cornering on two wheels.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon the western Alps

Around lunchtime (always an excellent time to reach a Provençal town) we arrived in Sisteron. The citadel, built in the 11th century and remodelled in the 13th, 16th and 19th centuries, stands atop a huge rock above the town; its walls and ramparts resemble a giant sandcastle. Far below, a tangle of alleyways is filled with the smell of incense from tie-dye hippie shops.

About half an hour south, after Digne-les-Bains, is where the Route Napoleon really earned its reputation. The road leaps up and clings to the cliffs, twisting and turning through rocky archways. In places it’s little more than a two-lane ledge, with nothing between you and the drop except for low stone barriers that line the roadside like turrets. Here and there are bouquets of flowers; poignant reminders that when things go wrong, you’ll need more than a good set of airbags.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon great driving roads

Secrets, spices and snails

We stopped that night in Castellane, another medieval town on the Verdon River, which flows through a spectacular canyon just 20 miles to the west. Like Sisteron it’s watched over by a giant rock with a chapel on top, though you’d have to be a rather committed parishioner to scale this 180m monolith on a Sunday morning. In its shadow are a maze of streets and secret squares, where we found a bistro and ordered snails and salad and lamb shank with a cold bottle of rosé. In the morning, a market had sprung up: sacks of spices, rotisserie chickens, charcuterie stalls, blocks of nougat, mounds of apricots, cheese wheels, tubs of olives and jar upon jar of honey.

Back on the road, a few miles after leaving Castellane we entered the Alpes-Maritimes department. Over the hills and through the heat haze we had our first glimpse of the shimmering Mediterranean. The ground was dusty and, as we stood by the car to admire the view, the dry grass was rustled by a snake and the temperature rose to 36°C.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon the Verdon Gorge

Scent of success

The N85 plunged through the mountains, and at times it felt like we were driving downhill for hours, rushing towards the coast, as if the road drained right into the sea. Surrounded by colourful fields of roses, jasmine and violets, we entered Grasse, the perfume capital of the world. Despite the thick traffic, the place smelled wonderful, as if the whole town has been crop-dusted with Chanel No 5.

The aroma wafts from the many perfumeries around the town, as well as the shops and kiosks selling bottles of Dior and Galimard and little bags of potpourri. Pretty much half of France’s perfume is actually produced around Grasse, and over 60 fragrance companies call it home. There’s even a perfume museum – €4-€6 for an adult entry ticket – where we spent an enlightening hour.

The final stretch of our drive was also the slowest. Grasse and its switchback streets were gridlocked, and the roads to the Riviera weren’t much better. The Route Napoléon becomes harder to follow until, on a nondescript side street, it reaches Golfe-Juan, a beach resort between Cannes and Antibes. It was here, on 1 March 1815, that Napoleon and his men disembarked the wooden brig Inconstant, before setting off for Grenoble and eventually marching on to Paris.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon hairpin bends

Local tips

Provence is the place to enjoy rosé, so sampling some of the pink drink on your trip is a must. Quaff a glass of Whispering Angel from Château d’Esclans, west of Cannes – reputedly Provence’s, some say even the world’s, finest rosé.

The lavenders of Provence bloom from June through to August. Go earlier to see the land in full colour, or later in the summer to take part in harvesting celebrations.

Route highlights

1. GRENOBLE

Sits at the foot of the Alps and the head of the Isère River. The Route Napoléon (N85) begins just south of here.

2. CORPS

A pretty little town with about 500 residents. Napoleon stayed here the night before his encounter with the king’s troops.

3. SISTERON

Inhabited for 4000 years, known as the ‘gateway to Provence’ and dominated by two rocks either side of the River Durance.

4. CASTELLANE

A perfect overnight stop on the crossroads between the Route Napoléon and the Verdon Gorge to the west.

5. GRASSE

Attractions include tours of perfumeries and the perfume museum. From here it’s only 30 minutes’ drive to Cannes and the pleasures of the Med.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon lavender in Provence

Planning a trip

WHEN TO GO

Average summer temperatures are 27°C, dropping to 20-25°C in September and October. The traffic will ease from late summer too.

HOW TO GET THERE

We took the Eurotunnel to Calais and used the fastest autoroutes. The round trip (from Bristol) was about 2000 miles, costing around £350 in fuel and road tolls, plus the tunnel crossing. You could fly to Nice, hire a car and drive the Route north.

OTHER THINGS TO SEE

The north end of the Route is flanked by two national parks, while the Provence section passes the Verdon Gorge and hillside town of Moustiers. At the Riviera end it’s a short drive to Nice or Monaco.

Where to stay

CORPS

The Hotel de la Poste is reassuringly French. But watch out for birds in the garage rafters who’ll redecorate your car for free. Rooms from €70.

CASTELLANE

We stayed at the Ma Petite Auberge on the town square, which has seen better days. The Nouvel Hôtel du Commerce is nicer. A few miles out of town, you could try the yurts at Les Steppes du Khaan.

GRASSE

Les Cedres in Grasse is set in 2.5 hectares of terraced gardens, a short walk from the local perfumeries. Rooms from £80 per night.

Where to eat

SISTERON

There are numerous cafés and bistros: try the Hôtel Restaurant de La Citadelle – its outdoor terrace has views up to the citadel and down to the river below.

For dinner, La Main à la Pâte is just what you’d hope for in Provence and our meal was faultless. On a Wednesday morning there’s a farmers’ market with all you’ll need for a hearty picnic.

GRASSE

After wandering the streets for a while, we returned to the International Perfume Museum (covering the history of scent) for lunch in the café. Cured ham and melon salad was the most popular choice, followed by rose-flavoured macarons.

Best drives in France: Route Napoleon

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