It is the site of a major historic event and has been immortalised in song. But have you ever thought of visiting the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium?
There’s are many good reasons to visit Waterloo and being about eight miles from Brussels (less than half an hour on the train from the Gare du Midi), it is easy to see why Waterloo has long been in a strategic location on the Chaussee de Bruxelles.
In 1815 the Anglo-Allied coalition were trying to stop the French general Napoleon from reaching the city and Waterloo was the last place to block him before he entered the Sonian forest and Brussels.
My first visit to Waterloo was in high summer, when I trundled around the battlefield in a little open-sided touring vehicle. The fields moved in a faint breeze; the tall green corn and yellow wheat was speckled with wildflowers.
La Haye Sainte farm has changed little since it was fortified by the Duke of Wellington’s forces and was the focus of heavy fighting over the entire course of June 18th, changing hands several times.
It is strange to think of an ordinary family living here where such violent conflict took place. A combine harvester grumbled away a few fields’ distant, spewing up a cloud of chaff. The Duke of Wellington lost around 15,000 dead or wounded on these fields and Blücher some 7,000. Napoleon’s losses were 24,000 to 26,000 killed or wounded.
The Butte du Lion
It was a hot July day when I first climbed the 226 steps to view the surrounding farmland from the top of the Butte du Lion. A helpful map of the Battle of Waterloo explains the geography and telescopes are provided. The massive lion rests one front paw delicately on a sphere, signifying global victory.
The 43-metre-high (141ft) mound actually marks the spot where the Prince of Orange (William II of the Netherlands) was knocked from his horse by a musket ball in the shoulder.
It was completed in 1826 by the King of the Netherlands and, according to Victor Hugo, the Duke of Wellington was not impressed by the alteration to ‘his’ battlefield by the building of the mound when he visited a few years later. I’m not sure what he would make of the Waterloo Panorama, housed near the visitor’s centre, a vast canvas painted by Louis Dumoulin 100 years after the battle. But it all aids in understanding of this famous conflict.
I visited Waterloo again in mid-winter. A light dusting of snow presented a very different scene, still beautiful and poignant.
The Waterloo Museums
For the 200th anniversary of the battle in June 2015 a major re-enactment event took place. Things have changed at the Butte du Lion since I was first visited in 2006. There is a large new visitor’s centre, with a few artefacts and showing two excellent films about the historic battle.
On the main thoroughfare of Waterloo is another, very small museum set in a former coaching inn that was commandeered as the Duke of Wellington’s headquarters during the battle. It was a very old-fashioned museum but interesting in its way.
Visiting Waterloo, Belgium
Napoleon may have finally met his defeat here but these days Waterloo is a very prosperous, multi-cultural place, with many ex-pats drawn here by the international schools. It has also become a bit of a shopping drawcard, with free parking, attractive arcades and more shops every year.
There is an excellent Waterloo hotel – Martin’s Grand Hotel – which is particularly well-known for its restaurant La Sucrerie (and that’s saying something in Belgium, where food is taken very seriously), with Lyonnaise chef Christophe Cornuez ruling the kitchen. The flickering candlelight under the brick arches in the restaurant is very atmospheric at night. There are a variety of rooms in the old and new wings and all very smart.
by Natasha von Geldern