Beans mean kings
For the Fête des Rois (Festival of the Kings) on Epiphany (6 January) pâtisseries across the land produce an almond-flavoured cake called a galette des rois, with a ‘fève’ (literally a bean, but now a plastic bean or a little porcelain figurine) baked into it. Whoever finds the fève in his or her slice wins the accompanying crown made of gilded card.
Belgium is famous for its pre-Lenten carnivals, the most famous of which takes place around Shrove Tuesday (February or March) at Binche, 50km southwest of Waterloo. But Nivelles, just 15km south of Waterloo also stages a magnificent carnival the following weekend, from the Saturday to Tuesday after Shrove Tuesday. The largest carnival in Walloon Brabant, it culminates in the parade (from 14.00) on Sunday, with 600 Gilles (dressed like the Gilles of Binche), plus Harlequins and Pierrots, giants and various floats. More parades follow on Monday (Carnaval Aclot) and Tuesday (Carnaval Raclot).
The little town of Genappe (12km south of Waterloo) celebrates its carnival over the weekend before Easter, with a fancy-dress parade on Sunday featuring Gilles and giants and floats. It’s small-scale and local – with all the charm that goes with that.
Easter (March or April) is a time for Belgium’s first-class chocolate makers to produce wonderful chocolate eggs, plus chicks and bunnies and everything traditionally associated with this spring festival. On Easter Sunday children hunt in the garden for chocolate eggs hidden, supposedly, by the ‘Bells of Rome’.
Horses on parade
Dating back to medieval times, the Tour de Sainte-Renelde is a horseback procession held each year by the town of Saintes, to the west of Waterloo, on Trinity Sunday (late May/June). Some 150–200 riders and mounted musicians, many dressed in uniforms (some Napoleonic), lead relics of the patron saint in a 30-km circuit around the parish.
Battle of Waterloo – live
Every year, around the anniversary on 18 June, hundreds of re-enactors gather at the battlefield of Waterloo to play out the events of 1815, with battle reconstructions in full costume, and bivouacs, weaponry displays, markets and guided tours. The bicentenary year of 2015 promises an extra-big event, held over three days (18–20 June).
The forgotten battle
While the Battle of Waterloo was being fought, French troops under Marshal de Gouchy were engaging the Prussians at Wavre, 15km to the east, and eventually triumphed – but with Napoleon’s defeat, it proved to be an empty victory. These events are commemorated over the first weekend of July in the festival called ‘Wavre 1815’, with parades, markets and re-enactments.
Folk echoes of Napoleon
The Marches de l’Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse are religious processions (marches) that take place each year between May and August in the region called Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse, to the south of Charleroi. Holy relics or sacred images are carried along traditional routes led by columns of participants dressed in historic-style military uniforms, often Napoleonic, bearing rifles and accompanied by drums, pipes and bands. In 2012, UNESCO listed 15 of these marches as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. They include the marches of Thuin (third weekend in May), Walcourt (Trinity Sunday) and Ham-sur-Heure (the Sunday after 15 August).
A saint’s rural ride
In the Tour Sainte-Gertrude at Nivelles, on the Sunday after Michaelmas (29 September), the precious reliquary of St Gertrude is taken on its horse-drawn carriage on a 15-km tour through fields around the town, and then (in the afternoon) back into the town centre, accompanied by a procession in medieval costume
Horses and hounds – and horns
The Fête de Saint-Hubert, patron saint of hunters, is celebrated among the ruins of the Abbaye de Villers on the third Sunday in October with a gathering and parade of mounted hunters, hunting horns and dogs of all kinds. A sung mass and a blessing of the animals takes place in the abbey, alongside a programme of various other events, plus food and drink.
Day of the Dead
Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) on 1 November is a national holiday, and the following day is the Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead). On these days the Belgians remember their dead and visit the family graves. Florists sell pots of chrysanthemums for this purpose, and cemeteries glow with their soft autumnal colours.
Two marchés de Noël (Christmas markets) take place in the region, starting on the first Friday in December – thus embracing the all-important Fête de Saint-Nicolas on 6 December, when Father Christmas, dressed in his original garb as St Nicholas of Myra, pays a visit to children. The Christmas Market at Nivelles lasts for a week, and the one at Louvain-la-Neuve for a fortnight.