There are some places on earth that are just sheer magic and Cap d’Antibes, the small peninsular jutting out between Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, must surely be one of them. Against the dazzling backdrop of immense sky and sea are tantalizing glimpses of sumptuous hotels and villas, screened by high walls and beautifully decorated forged iron gates. Immaculate gardens, surrounded by tall elegant palms, dense pine trees, and a riot of Mediterranean plants, have made this small stretch of rocky coastline into an idyllic paradise.
It is therefore little wonder that such a privileged location would be used as an important military vantage point during the French Thirty Year’s War and later by Bonaparte and Napoleon III. And thus it is here that you’ll find the Musée Naval et Napoléonien.
As you drive or walk around the beautiful peninsular, it’s hard to imagine that at the end of the 17th century, this coastline was still covered in dunes and marsh-land and Cap d’Antibes was an uninhabited forest. But even then it was an impressive vantage point, as seawards the views stretched to the Esterél mountains and Italian coast.
The present day Tour was once part of an old fort. Although no one is sure of the fort’s exact construction date, mention of it was made in 1602 when it was taken over by a Captain Hugolin Grimaud and his men in February that year. It takes on a powerful military significance however, a few years later, during the French 30 Years’ War (1634-1648). Then, the “Master of Escargnolles” occupied the Graillon Fort in May 1635 as the fort was closest to the Lérins Islands, just one of many war-time targets.
Over 150 years were to elapse before the fort found itself centre-stage again. When commanded to inspect all coastline military batteries, Bonaparte, then Artillery Commander, realized the strategic importance of the small fort and in 1974 set about its restoration as a defence post. Renaming it the “Graillon Battery” he armed it with 16 artillery weapons. Little did he know that upon landing at Golfe-Juan on 1 March 1815, Antibes, loyal to Louis XVIII, would resist him from this very fort. After his escape from Elba, Napoleon rested at a nearby inn while attempts were made by his followers to win over the Antibes garrision but when this proved unsuccessful, he marched on Cannes.
But all must have been forgiven by 1860, when Napoleon III ordered a new project for the fort. He not only installed further artillery equipment but also barracks to house 27 men in the main building and 29 men in the Tour. In 1899 the Graillon Battery was downgraded and modified to transmit light signals, while yet another transformation occurred in 1963 with the creation of the Musée Naval et Napoléonien.
The Tour was baptised “Tour Sella” in honour of André Sella, manager of the Grand Hotel on Cap d’Antibes. Sella had a large collection of documents and objects from the Napoleonic era, from the time of Napoleon’s return from Elba. In 1952, the Navy granted him permission to use this site to house his growing collection of memorabilia of the Emperor’s landing.
Twelve years later, he received a visit from the Captain of the ship, named Vichot, the Director of Maritime museums. The officer was so impressed by what André Sella had achieved that he offered him the post of manager of the Association of Friends of Maritime Museums. Sella then donated his collection to the Maritime Museum. With financial aid from the Antibes council, the museum grew and became the Napoleonic Museum. It was opened on 30 May 1964.
Among a range of items you’ll find a statue of Napoleon on horseback, by Renault, and rare specimens of sabres, swords, guns and pistols from the Napoleonic erea.
There’s also a collection of lead soldiers depicting various uniforms, including one used by Napoléon in the Marengo campaign. Glass doors lead you to the Sella Tour which comprises two large circular rooms.
Here you’ll find many statuettes, objets d’art and souvenirs exhibited. Linking the two rooms together is a small narrow staircase that leads out onto the terrace. Well protected by guardrails, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the sea and surrounding countryside.
From this vantage point you will certainly appreciate why the fort, and of course the Tour, was of such military importance. The view is stunning as your eye travels across the horizon and takes in the fantastic vista across to the Lérins Islands, Juan-les-Pins, Golfe-Juan and the foothills of the Esterél. Truly a remarkable sight.
Before leaving the museum, and weather permitting, do try and make a point of visiting the lovely 10 acres terraced park that surrounds the Tour Sella. All around are essences of the Mediterranean; magnificent clumps of tough spine-toothed grey leaves of Agave americana, bold displays of Aloe arborescens with their bright red tubular flowers carried on dense spikes, shrubby Pittosporum tobira with their sweetly scented flowers and of course the ever present scented leafed rosemary to name only a of the few species growing there.
Sitting on one of the wooden benches that look out over the Mediterranean, with a soft breeze carrying these heady fragrances and the tang of sea air around you, the shrill song of cicadas and soft sound of waves against the blanched rocks – this is now a haven of peace and a far cry from the military embroilments that occurred so many years ago.
There are a number of possibilities:
By car from either Antibes taking the Boulevard du Cap and then Kennedy; from Juan-les-Pins along Boulevard Baudoin (which hugs the coastline and our favourite route) and then into Avenue du Maréchal Juin.
As a byline, the Museum’s gravel car park has space for only 15 cars and tends to fill up very quickly during peak tourist season.
A normal bus route (Bus 2A) runs along Cap d’Antibes and you can easily reach the museum using this means of transportation. There is a bus stop just outside the entrance of the museum’s driveway.
There are also special touring coaches which you may prefer to take and these leave from the Gare Routière, place Guynemer in Antibes.
The Museum is located next to perhaps one of the most prestigious and best known hotels on the Riviera: Eden-Roc. Just visiting its website will leave you breathless, as you browse through the long list of celebrities who have visited this wonderful palace.
Musée Naval et Napoleonien
Boulevard J.F. Kennedy
06160 Antibes/Juan les Pins
Tel: +33 04 93 61 45 32
Closed Sunday, Monday & Public Holidays
Half price for student and Pensioners
Free for children under 18
Open all year round : 16 Sept – 14 June / 10h00 to 16h30 & 15 June – 15 Sept /10h00 to 18h00