By Johanna the 20/12/2023

Imperial Ajaccio: a guided tour in the footsteps of Napoleon

In the streets of Ajaccio, discover some of the emblematic places linked to the Emperor!

The appointment for the guided tour of the town in the footsteps of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is set in front of the Ajaccio Intercommunal Tourist Office, with Pierre André, the Office's official guide... If I had to make a quick inventory of what I know about Napoleon, it would be a very poor one, and I intend to remedy these historical gaps! All the same, I'm going to try and gather my school memories:

Napoleon was born in Ajaccio in 1769 and died on the island of Saint Helena in 1821. His father was Carlo Maria Buonaparte and his mother Letizia Ramolino. He was baptised in Ajaccio Cathedral in 1771 and proclaimed himself Emperor of the French in 1804. He suffered bitter defeats at the English battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, and some of his greatest achievements include the creation of the Bank of France, the Civil Code, the office of prefect and the Légion d'Honneur...


The tour of the various emblematic sites in the footsteps of this enigmatic figure couldn't have been done without Pierre André, who knows the subject (and half the town of Ajaccio) inside out: punctuated by riddles, anecdotes and encounters, it was a wonderful experience.


Place Foch - Ajaccio @ATC Place Foch - Ajaccio @ATC


A sumptuous salon in the heart of the city


The tour begins with a visit to the Salon Napoléonien , on the first floor of Ajaccio Town Hall. The marble staircase leading up to it already promises a sumptuous décor. The walls are lined with paintings of imposing dimensions. Family portraits, busts, gilding, mouldings, silks, a marble fireplace, frescoes and chandeliers make up the lounge. The wooden herringbone parquet floor that creaks under our feet and the breathtaking view of the sea and Place Foch complete the picture. Napoleon 1st's death mask adds to the grandeur of the setting.


Le Salon napoléonien - Ajaccio ©ATC Le Salon napoléonien - Ajaccio ©ATC


Moment of contemplation at the Imperial Chapel


Pierre André then guided us to the Chapelle Impériale in the pedestrianised street named after Napoléon Buonaparte's uncle, Cardinal Fesch. The chapel was built to house the tombs of members of the Bonaparte family and Cardinal Fesch. Once again, the décor is sumptuous and steeped in history, with trompe l'oeil, stucco, stained glass and paintings. The crypt beneath our feet, containing the famous tombs, made our visit almost impudent, but Pierre André's historical account, anecdotes and enigmas quickly dispelled this feeling.

 Our next stop was the Palais Fesch (the name is beginning to sound familiar!) Musée des Beaux-Arts... In addition to the most illustrious Italian painters such as Titian, Botticelli and Poussin, here we found busts, each more realistic than the last, of the Emperor and his family, and canvases of impressive dimensions showing the battles and grandeur of Napoleon


Tableau Chapelle Impériale @ATC Tableau Chapelle Impériale @ATC


Chapelle Impériale @ATC Chapelle Impériale @ATC
La Chapelle Impériale ©ATC La Chapelle Impériale ©ATC


Palais Fesch - Ajaccio ©ATC Palais Fesch - Ajaccio ©ATC


A fun visit to the Maison Bonaparte


The next stop, and not the least, is a museum like no other. What's it all about? Firstly, it's the most visited museum in Corsica in terms of admissions! The second clue is that Napoleon lived here until he was nine years old... The third clue is that Gustave Flaubert and Edward VII, to name but a few, would later flock here... The answer is... La Maison Bonaparte, of course!

Like a time traveller, Pierre André and I discovered period furniture, family photos and the different rooms in the house where the future Emperor was born and grew up.

 When we left the Maison Bonaparte, we hurried through the narrow streets of Ajaccio's old town. Occasionally we were stopped by acquaintances of Pierre André, who is almost as famous as Napoleon... it has to be said that the streets and history of Ajaccio hold no secrets for him.


La Maison Bonaparte - Ajaccio @ATC La Maison Bonaparte - Ajaccio @ATC


La Maison Bonaparte - Ajaccio @ATC La Maison Bonaparte - Ajaccio @ATC


Ajaccio Cathedral... a place of memory and prayer


Next stop, facing the sea, Pierre André takes us to Ajaccio Cathedral. As soon as we entered, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place, the meditation of the people present, the smell of incense that followed the mass, the candles lit like so many prayers of the faithful. My guide explains that it was in this church in 1771 that the future Emperor was baptised. It was also here that members of the Bonaparte family were buried long before the Imperial Chapel was built. My guide's riddle: to the left of the choir you will notice a heraldic ornament... Can you guess its meaning? I won't tell you any more! 


La Cathédrale d'Ajaccio Notre Dame de l'Assomption ©ATC La Cathédrale d'Ajaccio Notre Dame de l'Assomption ©ATC


La Cathédrale d'Ajaccio @ATC La Cathédrale d'Ajaccio @ATC


La Cathédrale d'Ajaccio ©ATC La Cathédrale d'Ajaccio ©ATC


The great achievements of the Emperor


The last stop on our tour of the city in the footsteps of Napoleon is the Place d'Austerlitz (or Place du Casone as the locals call it) and the Napoleon grotto... To get there, it's a very pleasant walk in the shade of the plane trees along the so-called "foreigners' quarter". Splendid mansions line this pretty street, and Pierre André takes the opportunity to tell me about Miss Campbell, the most famous Scottish tourist of the 19th century, who took up residence in a superb mansion on the street, which she had built... When we arrive at the top of the street, the contrast is striking: the very large Place d'Austerlitz houses an immense inclined plane listing the Emperor's various achievements. Pierre André pointed out to me that at the foot of this plan, on the ground, was the Legion of Honour. A monumental statue of Napoleon stands at the very top. According to legend, the grotto below this monument is where Napoleon played as a child, already dreaming of a historic destiny.


La Place du Casone - Ajaccio @ATC La Place du Casone - Ajaccio @ATC


La Place du Casone - Ajaccio @ATC La Place du Casone - Ajaccio @ATC


The tour ended on the Place d'Austerlitz, the symbol of Napoleon's greatest victory. Thanks to Pierre André, more than just a guide, he is one of the guardians of the Napoleonic memory in Ajaccio, passing on his knowledge every day to the lucky tourists who cross his path.


The guided tour in images is here!


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