During a recent long-weekend holiday, I decided to go south from Brussels to visit Waterloo as well as La Louviere. Since I had two extra days, I decided to stop-over at Nivelles & Seneffe which turned out to be a great idea! So, here’s all about my trip.
DAY 1 - WATERLOO
Everyone with a very basic knowledge of European History would know who Napoleon Bonaparte was. When I moved to Brussels, what I didn’t know was that, his last battlefield is very close to Brussels, here in Waterloo. So yeah, I definitely had to visit Waterloo. I took a train from Brussels to Waterloo and I took my bike with me on the train. My first stop was Wellington Museum, a very short ride from Waterloo railway station.
SNCB Top Tip: Buy your Bike Supplement ticket if you want to take your bike on the train.
© WBT - Didier Brancart
On Jun 1815, Napoleon fought his fateful last battle against the Wellington Army after which he was exiled and sent off to St.Helena island in the middle of Altantic Ocean! Wellington Museum, as the name suggests, is dedicated to the life of the Duke of Wellington, the commander of British and Allied forces who defeated Napoleon in this war. Apart from his military history, a major section of the museum also displays the original artefacts of the battle including the Duke’s cape, engravings, weapons & more.
Before heading to the next site under the same pass, I stopped at Mont-Saint-Jean Farm on the way. This farm played an important role in the battle because, the Duke of Wellington had set up the field hospital here. Currently, it functions as a museum, a restaurant and a microbrewery. After visiting the museum dedicated to the English Field Hospital, obviously I took the microbrewery tour too. The history of this beer dates back to 15th C but it gained major importance during the war. In the same way abbey beers were brewed by monks to cleanse the bacteria in the water, here too, the soldiers drank this beer brewed by locals with local ingredients, which was safer to drink than water! The perfect finishing touch of this tour is the tasting of Waterloo Récolte beer. Apart from the brewery, there’s also a Gin & Whisky distillery. Since it was a bit too early for lunch, I didn’t eat here, but if you’re here around noon, Brasserie de Waterloo is the best restaurant to stop for lunch.
After Waterloo beer tasting, my next stop was the Lion’s Mound, which is a 20-minute bike ride away. Lion’s Mound is majestic to look at, even from far away. There are 4 major sites here - Waterloo Memorial Museum, Panorama, Lion’s Mound, and Hougomont Farm. The entrance to these sites (& validation of tickets) is at Waterloo Memorial 1815 Museum, so that was my first stop. This is just underneath the Mound and is a museum dedicated to the life of Napoleon. The museum begins from his birth, his family and continues to explain how he became the leader of French Revolution and how France rose to his heights and golden glory in this time. At the end of the museum is a 3D Movie of the re-enactment of the happenings on the fateful day.
After the Memorial 1815 visit, it was time to visit the Panorama. Honest mistake - I thought this was the Lion’s Mound, since you can see a panoramic view from there! But no, Panorama is actually a panoramic view of the battlefield as how it would have looked, on the day of the battle!!! This is a painted & sculpted art installation made in 1912 by Louis Dumoulin, a French artist. Today it is an immersive experience with a sound-track to go with it! Exiting the Panorama, I was outside, close to the base of Lion’s Mound. It looked all the more majestic from down here, than as I saw it on the way. The Mound is man-made and was built using the soil from Wellington and the lion atop is an iron sculpture. There are 226 steps to reach atop with no elevator or escalator, so it is not pushchair or wheelchair friendly.
After visiting these 3 places, I was pretty hungry and headed to Brasserie Le Wellington just at the base of Lion’s Mound, that serves authentic Belgian cuisine. Being a vegetarian, I began with a comte cheese fondue with fried parsley and continued with garlic tagliatelle. My dessert was the very interesting Belle Helene cup which was pear sorbet & hot chocolate with vanilla ice-cream. Impressively delicious!
LION’S MOUND TOP TIP: Wear windprrof jackets or coats! Though it is only 40m tall, it is located in the middle of farmlands with no high-rise buildings around. It can get very windy atop there even on a warm, sunny day. If it is a cold day, it can get very chilly up there!
If I had been there on a day-trip my next stop would have been Hougoumont Farm, but since I was there for a long-weekend, my next stop was the Last Headquarters of Napoleon. This is located further away, again a 20-minute bike ride. This is the spot where Napoleon made his battle plan the night before the battle of Waterloo. As you can imagine, for a battle in Waterloo, the Wellington Army had their headquarters 20 mins on one direction and Napoleonic Army had their headquarters 20 mins in the other direction. This was completely burnt after the battle but has been restored in recent years and the museum has since been set up. This museum is more child friendly than the rest here, with many interactive displays, games and even a rifle for a hands-on experience!
After that, I was back in the main area at my last stop of the day - Hougoumont Farm. The very spot where one of the deadliest fights took place. Holding fort at Hougoumont Farm was considered crucial during the battle and it was the epicentre of the Battle of Waterloo. After the war, Wellington mentioned that "the success of the battle depended upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont". It is currently preserved in the original state as it was just after the war, complete with its damaged buildings, burnt chapel and more. Just like the Memorial 1815 museum, here too is an impressive multimedia show that gives an overview of what happened in this farm on 18-Jun-1815.
So, why did I postpone my visit to Hougomont Farm to be the last for the day? Surprise, surprise. That’s where I stayed!!!
- Buy your 1815 Pass here (combined ticket of all sites except Mont-Saint-Jean Farm)
- Buy your Mont-Saint-Jean Farm museum & brewery ticket here
- Book a table at Brasserie de Waterloo for lunch/dinner
- Book a table at Brasserie le Wellington for lunch/dinner
DAY 1 - HOUGOUMONT FARM
© Waterloo Tourisme
The most unusual of the hotels in Wallonia, has to be Hougomont Farm. It is literally the battlefield of one of the historically important battles which has now been very mildly altered so as to not lose the historic authenticity but to include modern amenities. It is in the middle of nowhere with no one around (except a caretaker who stays on the premises). It was exceptional. I mean, how many times have you stayed on a battlefield, opened your window to see the view of a partially burnt chapel & petrified chestnut trees with bullet holes that bear witness to the battle itself? That said, the place has all amenities for a very comfortable stay from equipped kitchen, to comfortable bed, to a nice couch, to small library as well. The best of both worlds!
WATERLOO BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT (WITHOUT BIKE): If you’ve on embarked this journey without a bike, it possible to take a bus from Wellington Museum to Last Headquarters of Napoleon and then to Waterloo Memorial 1815. At the end of the day walk/take the shuttle bus to reach Hougoumont Farm.
DAY 2 - NIVELLES
© WBT - Denis Erroyaux
Hougomont to Nivelles is about a 40-minute bike ride. If you don’t want to ride that long, you can choose to ride to Braine-l’Alleud railway station (a 10-minute ride) and then take the bike on the train to Nivelles, which is what I did.
My first stop of the day was at Domaine du Chapitre, located a bit before Nivelles, about a 15-minutes ride away partly through the Ravel network. This is the home to one of the local wines of Wallonia region. The guided tour explains all about the wines produced here. It includes a walk through the vineyards to see the grape varieties, a visit to the winery and wraps up with a wine tasting session. From here I headed to Nivelles Centre.
Nivelles is a charming town with many historic sites to visit. The first thing I did was to visit the Tourism Office at Nivelles to pick up a map of the Historic Centre of Nivelles. I left my bike at Grand Place and began to explore the town on foot.
My first stop was The Collegiate Church of St Gertrude. The mighty tower of the church has a golden (gilded copper) statue ringing the bell called Jean de Nivelles. He has been standing here and striking the bell since 1620. After hearing the bell from the Grand Place, I went into the church. The entire church is completely Norman in architectural style Though it had a Gothic bell tower built during medieval times, it was destroyed by bombings during WWII. During reconstruction, the original Norman tower was the one chosen to be rebuilt.
As an art history enthusiast, there are quite a few sculptures in this church that I found impressive, including Thonon’s Alterpiece, Blessed Virgin sculpture and historic frescoes! Thonon’s Altarpiece was sculpted in 1623 by Jean Thonon of Dinant and is made of Marble & alabaster. The Blessed Virgin statue, on the other hand, was made by an unknown sculptor of the 15th century. There are a few places where the 14th century frescoes still exist. There are some impressive wooden sculptures created by Laurent Delvaux including the pulpit, made in 18thcentury. It looks just gorgeous with the beautiful combination of the contrasting white marble and dark brown varnished wood.
The shrine of St.Gertrude that contains her relics, is a modern one. The historic gothic shrine was damaged severely during the bombardment of WWII and only small bits & pieces of it still survive, which have now, been preserved and kept in display in the tower. A complete replica of the original is in the Imperial room. In fact, this shrine shows how the historic Norman Façade was, and it was with this reference, the rebuilding of the tower was successfully constructed after WWII. Since I went on a guided tour, I also managed to visit the Imperial Room (Treasury), Crypt, Cloister, St.Getrude’s Chapel etc, which cannot be visited unless you’re with a guide.
I then started on a short self-guided walking tour of Nivelles with the help of the map from the tourism office. There are quite a few spots to stop by, in the Gold Walk including Church of Recollets, the 2nd largest church in town; Rue de Charleroi which has some charming historic residential houses built in 17th C CE, incl. Maison du Bailli; some more very old houses in Rue des Conceptionnistes etc.
NIVELLES TOP TIP: If you have a bit more time, visit the Municipal Museum of Nivelles.
I was back at the Grand Place of Nivelles and headed to Simone Tower (aka Devil’s Tower) which is the only surviving part of the medieval fortification wall around Nivelles.
After a lot of history and heritage it was time for some nature (and also, I was pretty tired & hungry). The best thing to eat in Nivelles is the local delicacy of Tarte al Djote (a tart made of fermented cheese and spinach) and the best thing to drink here is the Djan d’Nivele beer. I ordered a takeaway and headed to Dodaine Park for a picnic lunch which is the green lungs of Nivelles. It is filled with beautiful sculptures and fountains making the place an ideal spot for some relaxation after walking around the historic centre of Nivelles.
After that quick rest, it was time to bid adieu to Nivelles and head to Seneffe for the night, which is about a 30-minutes ride away.
DAY 2 - LA BELLE ESCAPADE, SENEFFE
It was late evening by the time I reached my hotel La Belle Escapade in Seneffe. After the day full of walking in Nivelles and cycling as well, I hit my pillow for some much-needed rest. La Belle Escapade isn’t a hotel, but a B&B housed in a post office building! It can accommodate just 2 families at a time. The ground floor has a small studio and the 2nd floor has a large duplex apartment. The rooms have an absolute old-world charm with high ceilings, vintage white cupboards, Victorian mirrors & headboards, Baroque wallpapers and more. A very classy place to spend the night. Another awesome plus point is that it is located just 1 km from the glorious Chateau de Seneffe.
DAY 3 - SENEFFE
© F. Vauban
The most important of the places to visit in Seneffe is the Chateau de Seneffe. It is located just steps away from La Belle Escapade hotel.
Chateau de Seneffe is a neoclassical castle built in the midst of a huge 18th C domaine. We began our visit with the visit of the castle itself. Its architecture is a fascinating blend of all styles including ancient Rome, Italian Renaissance, English Victorian as well as a bit of Baroque. Inside the castle is also a Silverware Museum. A passage from the castle leads to the Chapel, but the passage itself needs a special mention for all the sculptures along the way. Behind it is the orangery, which I assumed would have been converted to a restaurant now, but no, it is a hall that can be hired for cultural activities. On the other side is the gorgeous Three Terraces Garden which is a perfectly manicured French styled garden that goes down in 3 tiers and also has some waterbodies. Beside it is the Theatre and then is the very charming, very picturesque spot - Brogniart. This is an English styled garden featuring a waterbody with an island in its centre with a bridge connecting to it! Around here is a little farm and I spotted some Llamas!
The perfect place to sit down for some rest is beside the huge ornamental lake with a fountain. After Chateau de Seneffe, it was time for lunch and so I headed out.
SENEFFE TOP TIP: If you have a child with you, an excellent idea would be to include Balad’ane in the itinerary. It is a small donkey farm where you can go on walk with the donkey and the child can ride the donkey as well. If you’re pressed for time, you could skip La Barchetta and opt for Balad’ane.
What’s the best restaurant in Seneffe? How about a floating restaurant, on a boat, while cruising on Canal du Centre! This experience is called La Barchetta by Nautical Lodge. I had booked my lunch for the 3:00PM slot. The boat was a small one meant for 2-6 people apart from the staff. Since I had already informed them that I’m a vegetarian, I was served with some yummy sandwiches and pasta for my lunch on a boat! It was quite an amazing feeling to be in the calming setting on a boat, floating away on the canal, surrounded by the greenery - it was so serene and pleasant.
NIVELLES & SENEFFE BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT: From Hougoumont Farm take a bus to Braine-l’Alleud Gare and then a train to Nivelles. You may have to skip visiting Domaine du Chapitre which isn’t well connected by bus. After seeing Nivelles, take a bus from Nivelles to Seneffe. Next day, you can hire a bike at Chateau de Seneffe to explore this town.
After the relaxing lunch, I wrapped up my day with a bike ride to La Louviere which is about 30-minutes away from Seneffe to retire early for the day.
DAY 3 - ORANGE HOTEL, LA LOUVIERE
Orange Hotel is a simple but quirky city hotel in the outskirts of La Louviere. The rooms were chic, contemporary with an accent of orange color and lots of art installations inspired by the Binche Carnaval. I stayed in the Orange Heart Suite which is the ultimate of luxury. With all my cycling over the last 3 days, I really wanted to be pampered and Orange Heart Suite has it all, in-room. The first was the backlit bubblebath. The reason I retired early for the day was partly because of this! Then, there’s the circular bed with 2 inbuilt speakers near the headboard that made watching TV, a home-theatre experience. The final thing - the lighting in the room - LED RGB. I could really play with all hues, tints & tones of light to suit my mood!. The perfect indulgence after a lot of cycling!
© FM HOTEL SPRL - François Mainil
DAY 4 - LA LOUVIERE CYCLING
The next day was entirely dedicated to the 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region - Historic Boat Lifts & Bois du Luc Coal Mine, and a lot of cycling along with impressive views.
LA LOUVIERE BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Take the bus from Seneffe to La Louviere and hire a bike at Canal du Centre to bike through the entire town.
Hire a bike at Canal du Centre here for half a day, a day or an entire weekend.
© WBT - Bruno D'Alimonte
I began my day with the beautiful Sart Canal Bridge located just beside Orange Hotel. The best way to introduce it is that it is an engineering marvel. It is amazing how, a canal, has been redirected to flow on an aqueduct while the highway is running underneath! It was quite fascinating to be riding a bike on a bridge, with a canal flowing beside and to actually be at a height from where you can see far & wide, incl. Strepy Thieu!
Riding along the canal for about 6km, I reached my next destination - the first of the 4 Boat Lifts on Canal du Centre. In the historic times, especially during the Industrial Revolution, Coal Mining was huge in Belgium. To facilitate the transport of coal, the 2 major rivers of Belgium - Meuse & Scheldt were used. To make things efficient, a canal was built to connect the 2 rivers but since the 2 were in different altitudes, a technique was needed to get the boats go upstream. Since locks needed more water & energy, 4 boatlifts were built along the stretch of the canal. However now, these have been retired and Strepy Thieu has been built. Today the 4 historic boatlifts have been listed together as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Wallonia and I was there at the 1st one. From there I continued to ride along the canal to the Historic Canal du Centre. Here’s a very interesting activity - the possibility to rent a self-driven electric boat! I tried piloting the boat in the canal with an impressive view of Ascenseur No:1 for about an hour before mooring it back at the centre. It was an excellent experience to be able to steer a boat without much of an experience!!! It was easy to do and since you’re there without a captain, it feels so serene, peaceful and independent to be floating on the Canal!
It was time to get back to my bike and I headed to the Ascenseur No:2 & then Ascenseur No: 3 where I stopped to visit the Machine room which explained the physics behind the boat lifting operation. Back on the bike, I headed to Ascenseur No:1 and then I headed to Strepy Thieu. The entire distance from the 1st canal to the 4th is 7km and then to Strepy Thieu is another 2km.
BOAT LIFTS TOP TIP: Instead of cycling, another unique way of exploring the canal is by cruise! It starts at the Strepy Thieu and goes through Ascenseur No:4 and then Ascenseur No: 3 where you disembark to visit the Machine room. You can return back to Strepy Thieu by the tourist train.
© WBT - S. Wittenbol
Strepy Thieu is Europe’s largest boat lifts and the world’s 2nd largest boat lift. Like Sart Canal Bridge this too is an engineering marvel that’s capable of lifting vessels to more than 73m high! A permanent exhibition here explains about the network of rivers & canals in this region, the history of boatlifts from the historic ascenseurs to the modern Strepy Thieu. A visit to La Louviere cannot be complete without a visit to Strepy Thieu and seeing the panoramic view of the area from atop here!
My final stop for the day (and for this entire trip) was the Bois du Luc Coal mining site. This is one of the 4 Coal Mines listed together on UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Major Mining Sites of Wallonia. When compared to the other 3 Coal Mining sites, I felt this was the most extensive one. Each of the mining sites showcase an aspect, and this one was for Industrial Paternalism. It had been functional since 1685-1935. Today the historic moments have been re-created with life-sized life-like mannequins. Every detail here was amusing, intriguing & shocking - including a periscope-styled fixture in the director’s room which functioned like a CCTV, fake marble wall made of plaster with painted detailing, fake watchtowers with nothing inside!!! The tour goes through the director’s office, his residence, Saint Immanuel Coalpit, safety lamp area, washing & sorting shed, slag heap and more. It is so vast that it takes so much time to see the entire premises properly.
The entire distance I rode my bike that day was 23km, mostly along the canal with picturesque views. It is one of the best cycling routes in Wallonia and on a beautiful, warm, sunny day, it was such a lovely experience. Even if you’re depending on public transport otherwise, it is definitely worth hiring bikes here and exploring this beautiful town filled with various waterways, by bike (or on foot if you can walk 25km/day)!
IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA DAY
Either - Head southwards to Binche, the home to Binche Carnaval! Of course, there’s a museum here dedicated to the event called the International Museum of Carnaval and Masks. Apart from that, there’s the Binche Belfry and also the ramparts of the medieval fortification wall.
Or - Another alternative idea, if you’re into adventure activities, it would be great to head eastwards to the Clarfontaine Domaine in Gordarville. Xtreme Adventure has various water-based and tree-top adventure activities for children & adults alike.
That was the end of my long-weekend and I was at the La Louviere Sud railway station to take the train back to Brussels. Have you done this car-free itinerary from Waterloo to Binche? Have you been to any of these towns car-free? Let us know on Facebook or Instagram.
About the Author: Bhushavali is an Indian travel blogger, currently living in Belgium. Her background in art-history gives her the interest and insight to explore the historic & heritage sites in Belgium. Her primary interest is UNESCO Sites and she has visited 14 of the 15 Belgian UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as the UNESCO Global Geopark. Visit her blog here: My Travelogue by Bhushavali.