ARKIB : 14/05/2004
French firm wins battle for Waterloo makeover
WATERLOO (Belgium) May 13 - Nearly two centuries after the Battle of Waterloo, French forces will soon be on the move again on the plain south of Brussels - but in the form of tractors and diggers rather than Napoleon's doomed army.
A French-based firm has just unveiled a multi-million euro facelift for the site of the 1815 battle, when the Duke of Wellington famously ended the French emperor's reign. But it stressed it will not extend to a historical makeover.
In a drive to boost tourism, the local Wallonia government has signed a deal with Paris-headquartered firm Culture Espaces to transform the battlefield from its current, it must be said, shabby state into a world-class heritage site.
``It is one of the most famous battlefields in the world,'' Walloon economy minister Serge Kubla told AFP, while lamenting that when tourists arrive now ``they are sometimes disappointed with what they find.''
With the new site, Waterloo will become a ``model for international tourism and also a window for Wallonia,'' said the minister for the relatively poor southern part of Belgium, which has pledged 20 million euros ($24 million) to the project.
Currently the battlefield, a 30 minutes' drive south of Brussels, draws some 300,000 visitors a year to a site dominated by a pyramid-like hillock topped by a huge lion overseeing the surrounding farmland.
A hotchpotch of taverns, fast food eateries and a blockhouse-style visitor centre lie at the foot of the hill, while coachloads of Japanese and other tourists frequently brave cars roaring through the centre of it all.
The new site, planned for completion by 2008, includes a vast underground multi-media visitor centre at the heart of a tree-lined pedestrianized layout to present a ``history experience'' to tourists from around the globe.
``We want to go to 500,000'' visitors per year, said Kubla, saying authorities are particularly targetting tourists from Asia and North America.
But the project has re-ignited debate about the historical representation of the battle, which turned the tide of European history.
Napoleon, having spent 100 days rebuilding his army after escaping from British custody on the island of Elba, finally met his match in June 1815 on the Waterloo battlefield when he was defeated by the combined Anglo-Prussian forces of Wellington and Field Marshal Bluecher.
Bruno Monnier of Culture Espaces denied suggestions that the site's presentation could be tainted by French historical revisionism.
A journalist at the presentation of the plans - held in the Bivouac de l'Empereur tavern - opined that, after a quick visit to the souvenir shop next door, ``one might have thought Napoleon won the battle.''
``Even if we are French, we are concerned to have historical rigour,'' Monnier retorted, noting that a multi-national committee of historians would monitor every aspect of the project as it develops.
A key seal of approval has come from the original Duke of Wellington's latest descendant, the 88-year-old eighth duke, who lives near Basingstoke in southern England.
Although he did not attend the presentation of the facelift, the administrator of the duke's assets in Belgium, Count Serge de Meeus d'Argenteuil, told AFP he welcomed it.
``The battlefield deserves more than its current situation ... it should be presented to future generations in a better way that it is presented at the moment,'' he said.
In fact the selection of the French firm to develop the Waterloo site was not so much a battle as a one-horse race.
Kubla listed Britain's Madame Tussaud's and another Belgian operator as among those initially tipped, while his government would also have considered US offers - but did not want a ``Disneyland-style theme park.''
This left ``only one genuine candidate'' for the project, he said, lauding Culture Espaces as a ``very international'' company which also had interests in Asia.
Monnier said a key inspiration for the revamped Waterloo site was the American Civil War battlegrounds at Gettysburg and Williamsburg, in particular because of the access to walking and cycling around the battlefield itself.
Kees Schulten, head of the team of historians monitoring the project, said he was sure the renovated site will present a balanced view - but acknowledged the sheer force of Napoleon's reputation can lead to him dominating accounts.
``The problem is that the historical personality of Napoleon made much more of an impression than Wellington. He is the one who draws the attention, but the final victory was without doubt for Wellington,'' the Dutch historian said. - AFP
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