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Tim
Tim

Day 5: Waterloo

Brussels is surprisingly close to Waterloo, this year marks the bicentenary of the battle, and I'm a bit of a buff on the Napeoleonic Wars, so a trip here was always going to be part of our holiday. Although the Penisular War finished in 1814 with defeat for the French, Napoleon decided to return from exile in 1815, and this was the battle which beat him for good. The result was always in doubt, and it was only the late arrival of the Prussians which swung it in favour of the Anglo-Dutch forces ... we're never taught that in schools though.

In preparation for the adventure we watched Sharpe's Waterloo the evening before. I'd tried to track down a copy of the book to read whilst I was here but the French publisher which releases translations is only doing so at a rate of one a year, so there's another decade still to wait.

Fun fact: The Battle of Waterloo didn't actually take place within the town of that name. It makes sense, really - nearly 200,000 men, thousands of troops and tonnes of ordnance needed flat ground on which to tangle, and so it was the surrounding fields in which the sides faced each other. And since we wanted specifically to visit the site (and its visitor centre), it actually made sense for us not to travel to the train station in Waterloo, but to the one in the nearer town of Braine-l'Alleud, which is where we headed.

What we found is a train station which lacks not only a map but also any form of signs for pedestrians! The best we could think to do is head in what appeared to be the direction of the town centre, in the hope that we'd chance upon a map or helpful sign. It became clear to us that this was something of a forlorn hope once we navigated ourselves unaided to the town hall - en route to it we hadn't seen a single sign. It's a perfectly nice building though:

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And it was in a pretty square:

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And there was a church nearby that was pretty too:

 

But since the local authorities hadn't seen fit to signpost these things nor even the only thing for which visitors would be in this area anyway, we decided to head back to the train station and adopt a different approach. After all, motorists would need directions, so we wanted to gamble that if we walked towards a junction that we could see in the distance, there would be a sign. Sure enough, not only did we soon see a turn-off to a place called Waterloo, but there also appeared one on a brown background indicating La Butte du Lion. That might not mean much to most people but to us it was exactly what we wanted to find; it's a hillock built to commemorate the site where the Prince of Orange fought, on top of which is a lion. And when we walked a little further, Clare's sharp eyes spotted it in the distance. It probably took us under half an hour to walk to it, helped by the signs that now appeared. Yes; if you happened to have worked out yourself how to get there, signs were in place; it was the poor devils who were starting out with no clue and the possibility of going in all directions who had to make do without.

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At the foot of the hillock stands a building that looks a bit like a pork pie.

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This contains a panorama of the battle scene but the first thing to do was go into the visitor centre to buy our tickets. The one thing that particularly stood out to me was what a commodoity Napoleon seems to be. There were busts for sale, cushions featuring his monogram, a framed portrait of him on display in in all his glory. There was one miniature bust of a fellow with a prominent probiscus, which I take to be the token Wellington, but there's no doubt who the hero is supposed to be, an unusual event when considering that he was the aggressor of the entire war and the loser.

We sat through a couple of films, both of which were fabulous. One was a quick historical run-down of the events. The second featured excerpts of the Sergei Bondarchuk's 1970 film Waterloo, which really served to highlight the scope of it. I love Sharpe but it's true to say that the battle scenes are often small events; in this one there were thousands of soldiers visible and they were walking feet away from the muskets that mowed them down. I really recommend sitting in if you're in the area.

That completed, we began the job of climbing the steps to see the lion. It wasn't the most fun tasks we've ever undertaken, although it was a fair bit easier than some of our past climbs, and we made it to the summit without too much fuss:

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We had a perfect view of the battlefield. What you can see in the distance is where Napoleon's forces were gathered:

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And I know this because of the very helpful map that is at the top. We're standing at the circle marked lion, just in front of the series of red blocks.

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We then visited the building called the Panorama, the feature of which is a portrayal on all sides of fight scenes, complete with audio. This was fabulous, extending to the addition of waxwork corpses of soldiers and horses in the foreground:

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The whole display really was a treat:

We'd spent longer than intended at Waterloo but without regret, even though it meant cancelling our plan to squeeze in a visit to Antwerp. So we grabbed a meal a restaurant called - what else? - Restaurant Napoleon, and then headed back home.




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