A driving and walking trail called Napoleon’s Route: In the Footsteps of Napoleon now offers a great way to visit Belgium and train your sights on the nation’s history as one of Europe’s pivotal territories.
Visit Wallonia has united 150 different monuments, markers and plaques along a scenic 94km (58 mile) route, tracking perhaps the most notorious European military leader as he led his troops towards their fate at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, across rolling Wallonian countryside that has hardly changed.
1. Why Napoleon?
The diminutive but bellicose Corsican is still studied as a legendary strategist today. Aged just 30, he took charge of the First French Republic after the revolution. He eventually abdicated and was exiled, but extraordinarily he escaped again to retake Paris. His campaigns dominated the early 19th century, bringing down the Holy Roman Empire and making enemies of Austria, Italy, Prussia, Russia and England along the way.
2. What are the sights?
Napoleon’s Route starts at Herstud, the ‘gateway’ where Napoleon first entered Walloon lands on 14 June 1815, for what would become his final tour of duty. It takes in a diverse array of sights, sites and exhibitions such as:
- the Salamander Tower at Beaumont, where Napoleon and his soldiers bivouacked overnight;
- the 14th-century Chateau du Fosteau which became a second army GQ;
- a tiny chapel from where today’s “Marches of the Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse” kick off. Processions of hundreds escort relics dressed in Napoleonic Old Guard uniforms in this tradition that is recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Ligny village, where Napoleon had a poignant final victory. For more than six hours, 157,000 men clashed in battle, and tens of thousands lost lives and were wounded. In the modest 17th-century farmhouse where a field hospital was set up, visitors can now find the Ligny 1815 Museum, dedicated to bringing the Emperor’s last day of victory to life. Families will enjoy an interactive, immersive trail.
When you’ve built up a thirst, the fourth stop on the tour (though of course there’s nothing to stop you doing the tour’s stops in your own order or following this two-day version) is Biercée, near Thuin, where a medieval former farm has turned distillery. What was once Ferme de la Cour, the main fortified farmbouse of Lobbes Abbey, is now the Biercée distillery, renowned for Eau-de-Vie and liquors, gins and aperitifs, namely L’ Eau de Villée, P’tit Péket, Poire Williams N°1 and others. Guided tours include tastings.
An advantage pass from Visit Wallonia is available until 30 November 2023, giving visitors 20% off the individual entrance fee, up to a maximum of 4 per group. To benefit when you reserve, you’ll need your VISITWallonia.be pass. Not valid with other offers.
3. The final battle
The trip of course culminates at the 600-hectare site of Napoleon’s final battle, the Battle of Waterloo. At dawn on 18th of June 1815, French troops faced the combined might of the British and Prussian Armies. Overlooking the battlefield is the Lion’s Mound, a colossal monument headed by a cast iron lion, marking the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded.
A multisensory museum is embedded at the foot of the mound, where virtual tours by a soldier of your choice will plunge you into the battlefield experience and the events leading to the French surrender.
During the summer season, horse drawn carriages go to the Ferme d’Hougoumont, a key battlefield site where visitors can see an interactive show called “The Battle in the Battle”.
4. What about Wellington?
Further on at a former inn at what was the tiny village of Waterloo, Wellington drew up his victory plan for “Waterloo”. Today, this building is home to Wellington Museum, with collections related to both armies. Nearby, the Chapelle Royale de Waterloo, which commemorated Wellington and his allies, whose walls bear witness to the names of those killed in combat.
5. The two-day version
As mentioned above, an excellent two-day version of the itinerary has been put together, picking out highlights and with recommendations for walks and cycling, as well as tips for where to stop for a bite to eat and where to sleep, from an 18th century Brabant farm to a light and contemporary hotel.
Download a helpful guide entitled In the Footsteps of Napoleon