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Published: August 23rd 2018
I can hear you all singing along as I write!! Even further back than the car towing incident, in 2001, we had plans to visit the battle site where the 1815 battle of Waterloo between the Imperial French army of Napoleon took on the might of the British, Dutch and Prussian allies. You think Napoleon would have learnt his lesson. Only having just escaped from Elba, rather than live his life a free man he decided to stick it out for round two. In case you don’t know your history (or Abba songs), the next line of the ditty is, Napoleon was defeated… Before I carry on, it is probably best that I provide a potted history of this tyrant with the nickname, the Little Corporal.
After attending military school, he fought during the French Revolution of 1789 and rapidly rose through the military ranks, leading French troops in a number of successful campaigns throughout Europe in the late 1700s. By 1799, he had established himself at the top of a military dictatorship. In 1804, he became emperor of France (as you do!) and continued to rampage through the continent, so that by 1810
much of Europe came under his rule.
In 1812 Boney launched an invasion against the Russians (bad move!) that eventually ended with his retreating from Moscow due to being unprepared for the Russian harsh winters. In 1814, Napoleon’s forces gave up the fight so he offered to step down in favour of his son, Napoleon Jr. When this offer was rejected, he was forced to abdicate and then sent to the island of Elba, only six miles off the west coast of what is now modern day Italy. In March 1815, he escaped his island exile and returned to Paris, where he regained supporters and reclaimed his emperor title. In June 1815, he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s defeat ultimately signalled the end of France’s domination of Europe. He abdicated for a second time and was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena, in the southern Atlantic Ocean, where he lived out the rest of his days. He died, six years later at age fifty-two possibly from stomach cancer, although some theories contend he was poisoned.
The nearest train station to the battlefield of Waterloo is called Braine l’Alleud and
lies 22km south of Brussels. The train left from Gare du Midi, about a mile and a half from our hotel. It was a pleasant morning so we decided to walk rather than risk the Metro! This walk took us though one of the less salubrious suburbs of Brussels that appeared to have a heavy concentration of migrants. One guy we passed wore a red t-shirt with a large flag of Belgium emblazoned on the front. Underneath the flag was the words: I heart Belgium, no doubt thinking that this pro-Belgium apparel would give him a few extra brownie points when the immigration authorities come calling!!
We found our train on the Departures board, the 11:16 to Charleroi from platform 19 arriving at Braine l’Alleud twenty-three minutes later. On platform 19, I checked the calling at stations as it scrolled across the LED display, just to ensure we had understood the Belgian departure board. There was no sign of Braine l’Alleud. The train stopped at a station called Eigenbrackel. I didn’t have time to panic as within a few moments, when the calling at stations scrolled once more, all stations had reverted back
to their French name. Eigenbrackel, as it turned out, is the Dutch name for Braine l’Alleud.
Waterloo is an adjacent municipality to Braine l’Alleud and as we pulled in to the station, I fumbled for my camera until Roisin pointed out that we also have a station by this name in London so why come all this way to take a photo of a small regional train station when we have much bigger one with the same name back home?! Waterloo, despite being one of the major mainline train stations in London, couldn’t be that significant as it didn’t even make it on to the Monopoly board!!
We were not too sure what to expect when we alighted at Braine l’Alleud. We knew there is a tourist attraction known as Waterloo 1815 though our research. I also knew that the main visitor centre, known as Memorial 1815 was about 4km from the train station. What I failed to find out was if there was a shuttle bus from the station to the visitor centre. I knew there was a shuttle bus that drove between the Lion’s mound and Hougoumont Farm (both attractions within the tour). If no shuttle
was available, would directions to the Battlefield be well sign posted? It doesn’t even have to be well sign posted!! Just sign posted would do!!
It was like stepping out in to any anonymous high street in Belgium. Not even as much as an A5 flyer. As with many Belgian high streets in small towns, the main road was a single carriageway separated by a narrow grass verge. Several shops and pavement cafes were scattered on the opposite side of the road but no directions of how to get to the battle site. In fact, there was no evidence that a battle site even existed. Outside the train station were a few bus stops with one bus parked up and its driver standing on the pavement taking to a passer-by. A portacabin type structure, accessible from the street or platform 1, acted as the ticket office.
‘Right, you take the driver, I’ll take the ticket man, I said to Roisin
‘You know I abhor violence. Can’t we just ask them how to get to Waterloo 1815?’ Roisin replied with a smirk.
Although the ticket seller gave the correct answer, the
bus driver was the answer. He was the driver of bus number (or in this case letter) ‘W’ The cost was €2.20 and took us to within a few hundred metres of the Waterloo visitors centre across the N27 on the other side of the Route du Lion.
Our tour began in the museum otherwise known as Monument 1815. The museum is buried at the foot of the Lion’s mound. We picked up our audio listening devices and headed towards the entrance of the museum. Our first task was to sync the audio device to a soldier of our choice. He would be our guide for the next forty minutes. The museum told the story of the lead up to the French revolution and Napoleon’s part of this most turbulent of times. We learned of the allies Napoleon made as well as the political opponents he crushed in his meteoric rise. Fast forward to the eve of the battle and the final exhibits displayed the uniforms of all the different armies and regiments, foot soldiers and hussars, artillery and senior personnel. All brought to life by our virtual soldier guide. For the finale, we were ushered in
to a 360° 3D cinema, handed the goggles and sat back to be immersed in the strategy of battle and witness the bloody slaughter and aftermath. Definitely there should be an 18 certificate attached to this museum!!
Exiting via an elevator we found ourselves at the foot of the Butt du Lion. The 40 metre tallmound was erected by William I of the Netherlands, five years after the battle, to honour his son the Prince who got hit during the battle and fell from his horse. It took three years to build this huge cone of earth. There are 226 steps to the top of the mound from where you can see the whole of the battle field. The next question I asked was rhetorical but I thought I’d ask it anyway: ‘Are you coming to the summit with me!?’
Half way up the steps I turned and looked down to check that Roisin was still sitting comfortably!! A few more gulps of oxygen then I pushed on to the top of the mound.
The lion perched on the stone pedestal at the summit is a symbol of the monarchs’ victories. The Lion has its
paw resting on a globe, which I understand signifies that peace in Europe has been won on the plains of Waterloo. The Lion is roaring toward France as if on guard. The French, realising that it wasn’t a real lion, (although it took them fifteen years to do so!!) marched through Waterloo again on their way to Antwerp, only this time it wasn’t as the enemy but as allies to Belgium who had started a revolution calling for independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. With the support of the French, the Dutch attempt to supress the revolution failed and Belgium gained their independence in 1831.
After taking a few photos of fields – very flat fields (!), I returned to earth and a well-earned lunch.
I mentioned in the last blog about the Belgian obsession with beer and weaving their favourite past time in to the souvenir industry (i.e. the Mannekin Pils). Waterloo 1815 was no exception. I secured a bottle of Beer dedicated to the battle. (they even sold a dark beer version!) This beer was served in an earthenware goblet in keeping with the scenario that every Belgian beer has its own specially designed
The final location that our tickets allowed us entry into was the Hougoumont Farm, This farm played a very significant part in the story as it was from where the first shots of the Battle started. Wellington was heard to say, ‘Defend Hougoumont to the last extremity’ stressing that Hougoumont was a vital strategic part of the battle. It was a 1200m walk to the Farm from the Lions mound. Earlier that day we noticed a shuttle with a notice in the front window: ‘Scottish Day’. Many people boarding the bus were wearing tartan; some in kilts, some wearing the complete regalia including sash and sporran.
The path was fairly wide. We passed a stone that marked the last position of G Troop from where they made a noticeable contribution in the defeat of the Frenchies!! As we drew ever nearer to the farm, the path became even wider. With the tartan clad small groups and families we passed, there seemed to be a theme that was starting to catch on!! It felt like we had suddenly walked into a Bay City Rollers fan club reunion. We knew it had
something to do with the Scottish day. As we stopped outside the arched gate to the farm all became clear.
We showed our tickets to a young lad in what looked like a scouts uniform who addressed us in French. We guessed it wasn’t a good kind of French due to him holding his arm out in front of us taking up the universal stop stance. In response, Roisin said, ‘English?’
Now as this is probably not the first word I would have uttered when approaching a festival dedicated to all things Scottish, I added: ‘…and she used to live in Glasgow!!’ What was I expecting? The young scout to suddenly lose all trace of Frenchness and stepping to one side with a beckoning arm say: ‘Och Aye, in y’go then!!’
Two of Dib, Dib, Dob’s colleagues appeared on the scene and something was said involving the words Anglais. It was then explained to us in very broken English by a girl scout that this was a special function and that our tickets – no good. Scottish Day tickets cost €15.
Trying to peer
through the arch and in to the farm I asked, ‘and what do I get for €15’.
‘Scottish food. Scottish entertainment!’
‘…So for €15 I get some haggis, a deep fried mars bar, the Crankies and one half of the Proclaimers??! Where do I sign up?!’
Note to self: Before attempting sarcasm ensure the other person has English as their first language!!
Needless to say, we didn’t fall for their €15 ruse. I’m still searching for answers as to why, when we had paid for entry to Hougoumont Farm, were we refused entry and if there was a special event why wasn’t the ticket adjusted to reflect this? On the plus side, we managed to bunk on the shuttle bus for free that took us back to the main visitor’s centre.
We headed back to the bus stop. If Waterloo want this tourist attraction in the top five they will have to sort out the transport links. Since noon, the buses were now only running every hour. Luckily, we only had to wait about twenty-five minutes before a bus arrived.
Tonight was our last night in the capital
so although we have kitchenette in our room we decided to venture out for our tea. St Catherine’s square has many restaurants on all sides. All restaurants and cafes were fairly busy so we decided to wander further in to the city centre. We started to walk down Rue Sainte Catherine towards the old town. In the distance we heard the steady beat of drums. Nothing else. Just the drums. The din was getting louder by the time we had crossed over and were heading down Rue Paul Devaux. The time was now 8:15pm and the streets were still very busy. In front of the Brussels stock exchange, the crowds were gathered around the source of what, if I was 30 years younger, would call a mesmeric rhythm, but now I refer to as an awful racket. Racket or no racket, I had to see who was responsible so I managed to push myself through the hoards until I had a decent vantage point. The troop comprised of both male and female members. All were dressed in black with red trim. The drums were being beaten whilst moving in a tribal like manner. Some drums would then be held aloft
while the rest of the troop would continue to beat the shit out of the skins!! Either way, it was making my ears bleed so it was time to move on.
The crowd became denser as we ventured toward Groote Markt. We literally had to push ourselves through the bustling throng as we beat the crowd making our way in to the main square. Wow! We never expected this. It was the finale of the flower carpet which was there somewhere. It was Saturday evening 9:30pm. The population of Belgium is only 11 million - and most of them seemed to be congregated in Groote Markt!! This year’s flower carpet theme had been Mexico. That explained the street entertainment. It’s well documented that Mexicans like beating drums (or is that Brazilians?). The facades of all the buildings surrounding Groote Markt had become the stars of a spectacular light show. Powerful lighting reflected off the buildings colouring them red, white or green, the colours of the Mexican flag. This was quite an unexpected treat….something that seems to be in short supply when we come to town!! Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way…!!!
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