September 27

Napoleon’s Last Stand: the tiny Ile d’Aix near La Rochelle

Western Europe


Napoleon is remembered for a great many things. Conquering most of Europe, for example. Overthrowing the king and proclaiming himself Emperor of France. Losing in spectacular historical fashion at the Battle of Waterloo and centuries later providing ample material for a hit song from a band of four from Sweden.

He’s also the owner of some cracking quotes, such as:

–        Never interrupt your enemy when he’s in the process of making a mistake


–        You must not fight too often with one enemy for you shall teach him all your art of war.

And although at times it seems he had no respect for anyone other than himself (“a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon;” “in politics, stupidity is not a handicap” and “women are nothing but machines for producing children”) declaring “if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself” he did at least try to enamour himself to the masses with the following:

–        A true man hates no-one

Plus, he gave us the unforgettable “a picture paints a thousand words” which has saved us all hours of brain effort to come up with a suitable alternative.

I also particularly enjoy the following, which I need to remember more often:

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

And I laugh as I watch today’s politicians, remembering that “the best way to keep your word is not to give it” and “religion is what stops the poor from murdering the rich.”

All of which is very entertaining – provocative even – in the brainwave, thinking department.

But why am I suddenly delving into the soundbites of French history?

Napoleon’s Last Stand on French Soil

Because I’m strolling along the poppy-studded fields of the tiny Ile d’Aix near La Rochelle: the “no cars” island off the southwest coast of France where Napoleon spent his last few days on French soil before the British exiled him to the island of Elba, from which he was never to return.

It’s deliciously peaceful once the day-trippers head home (and to be honest, pretty low key even before that.) You can hire a bicycle and encircle the in less than an hour and then leave it unchained and unlocked against a stone-dappled wall.

A couple of small museums provide a passionate sense of purpose (the purple-blue shell swirls and eclectic collection of animals from Africa clearly reflect the drive and enthusiasm of the few inhabitants who have passed through this Isle.)

But for me, the most moving by far was watching the sun dip its blazed rays into the muted purple surf as the shadows of former battlements – both natural and manmade – rose like ghosts onto the horizon. And to try to imagine, in an impossible way, what a man like Napoleon must have been thinking after a life and career as boundless and brutal as his was, when he stood on this same spot, surrounded by captors.

Did he believe he’d be back to fight another day? Did he find himself wondering just quite how he’d been caught? And whether or not it was all worth it?

Did he, I wonder, dream that the glittery pop sensation of Abba would one day revive his place in history through the guise of dance floors across the world.

It’s impossible to know.

But since “impossible was not a word” in his dictionary, who knows just what he thought.

I walk back “home” to the boutique Napoleon Hotel, aware of the sound my feet crunch into the ground and the way the wind whips hair around my face.

Other than that, this near-uninhabited island delivers silence all around. Which brings me to one final quote.

“Music is the voice that tells us that the human race is greater than it knows.” Napoleon Bonaparte.

Disclosure: I travelled to France as a guest of Poitou-Charentes.

Voyages Sncf UK provided my comfy first class ticket and asked me to share with you the following information. It seemed useful and accurate so I agreed! (I’d have put “you’re welcome to head to the Rail Europe Travel Centre” instead of Personal Callers but that’s as fussy as I’d get ;-) ) All other writing my own, as always, as usual, as rambling, as…oh, well, you get the idea!

Fares from London to La Rochelle start at £109 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.

That reminds me, I was once in a car that broke down on Piccadilly Circus. But perhaps that’s a story for another day…



  • John Williams says:

    He returned from Elba. Saint Helena is the island you are looking for, even if he wasn’t.


    • Pff – of course he did. And very elegantly pointed out – thank you. No good excuse, just a simple slip of the keyboard. Not quite sure what Napoleon would say about that…


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