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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Finding Napoleon in Ajaccio

I used to say airily that Ajaccio was just another capital and would head off either to the north or south of the island every time I visited Corsica. This visit  however, I had a plan - to find Napoleon in Ajaccio. He was after all one of the first emperors of France, a military general who revolutionized military history and this was his place of birth.

Corsicans are proud of their famous son; dedicating historic monuments, the names of streets, his birth house opened up as a museum. Even the main airport in Corsica called Aéroport d'Ajaccio Napoléon Bonaparte evokes memories of the idealist whose coming to power ended an old regime in France.

The great man was born August 15 1769 in Maison Bonaparte not far from Ajaccio’s cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary; it is said that his mother started labour pains while attending mass. Letizia named her second child after an uncle who had died only a few months before fighting for independence against the French.

Napoleon spent the first years of his life in this large house in one of the city’s narrow street before setting off to mainland France when he was nine for schooling.      

Not much remains today in this residence classed as a historic monument  as unfortunately  the house was pillaged when the Bonaparte family had to leave in a hurry because of the political situation -  only a couple of saloons, some marble busts and a few paintings are left.

To Napoleon 1 and his brothers, Corsica remembers you with gratitude; translated, this is what the commemorative plaque inscription on a fine grandiose monument in the Place de Gaulle says. It shows Napoleon on horseback dressed in Roman costume surrounded by standing statues of his brothers. The view of the gulf of Ajaccio from this square on a fine day is truly stunning,

In the old town, near the market square, Place Foch is a magnificent statue of the Napoleon surrounded by four lions. This impressive statue shows Napoleon draped in a Roman toga.

Then there is the monumental assembly at the Place d’ Austerlitz inaugurated in August 1938.

Here is an inclined stone plane leading to a pedestal on which stands a statue of Napoleon watching over the city. At the base of the pyramid are two eagles bearing the dates of the birth and death of the emperor.

What many visitors don't  know though is that to the left of the statue are a few large rocks forming a cave. Surrounded by olive trees, legend has it that as a boy Napoleon would escape here and hide in what the Ajaccians now call the Grotte de Napoleon. Although this might be a legend you can well imagine young Napoleon escaping here - to his  dreaming place - far from the other seven siblings – a young boy planning his future.

He might have been small in stature but the little man certainly changed the face of Europe.

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