Waterloo battle site gets a facelift

Jerome Rivet
People sit on the Lion's Mound, around the lion monument of the Battle of Waterloo during a re-enactment in 2010. Almost 200 years after the French cavalry charge, bulldozers are rolling into action to spruce up the memorial site of the battle that humbled Napoleon

Almost 200 years after the French cavalry charge at Waterloo, bulldozers rolled into action Wednesday to spruce up the memorial site of the battle that humbled Napoleon.

Where cannon balls once thundered across fields, construction workers began breaking down walls in a project that will see the demolition of restaurants, stores and parking lots considered eyesores in the rural area south of Brussels.

The goal is to bring more beauty to what Victor Hugo once described as a "dreary plain," the place where Prussian and English troops handed Napoleon's army a decisive defeat on June 18, 1815.

The centrepiece will remain the Lion Mound, a 40-metre (130-foot) tall cone of earth and grass topped by a lion statue that was erected in honour of victorious Prince William of Orange.

"We want to bring authenticity back to Waterloo, which is one of the most well-preserved battlefields in the world," said Paul Furlan, tourism minister in Belgium's Wallonia region.

"The site is currently very limited. The structures have aged and are not adapted to modern tourism," Furlan said.

Each year, 300,000 tourists climb some 200 steps to the top of the Lion Mound, from where they peer at undulating land where French soldiers fell to volleys fired by Wellington's army perched on ridges above.

Today the vast battlefield -- which every five years plays host to a re-enactment with men dressed in period uniforms wielding 19th century weaponry -- is mostly covered by farmland.

"Farmers were their best protectors," said Yves Van der Cruysen, director of the Waterloo Battlefield Association.

The rehabilitation project, in the pipeline for a decade, will allow visitors to "immerse themselves in the heart of the battle" and relive the charges of French cavalrymen against Prussian and English infantrymen formed into unbreakable squares.

Instead of constructing new buildings, a huge underground memorial will be dug. Inside the 6,000-square-metre structure, visitors will be able to see a four-dimensional film of the battle made by Italian director Franco Dragone.

"This is to respond to visitors' demand for more emotions and the requirements of a public that is more knowledgeable and looking for historic tourism," said Waterloo mayor Serge Kubla.

With a budget totalling 40 million euros ($52 million), the project aims to attract 500,000 visitors each year.

The French, despite the embarrassing defeat the site represents, make up the largest share of visitors, followed by German and Chinese tourists.

"For the Chinese, Waterloo is the biggest battle in Europe. They are fascinated by the Napoleonic saga," said Van der Cruysen.

The project is scheduled to be completed in less than three years -- in time to be ready for the celebration of the battle's bicentennial in June 2015.

Actors will don uniforms of the imperial guard or shakos, the stiff military hat with a high crown and plume, and charge with sabres in hand to revive the battle that left more than 12,000 soldiers dead.