An incredible journey back in time at villa 1900 in Waulsort
Memories of a forgotten world
5 mins OF ESCAPE
I urge you to take this incredible journey through time, back to the Waulsort of the early 20th century, when luxury hotels and mosan villas glorified the Belle Epoque.
Waulsort, in the year 1900: the smart set of the aristocracy stay in luxury hotels along the River Meuse and extravagant villas with bell towers and colonial-style terraces. People are out to be seen, enjoying the pleasures of the Meuse Baths. 120 years later, I check in for two days at Villa 1900, ready to immerse myself in this now forgotten universe. Diane and Olivier recreate this ambience, and I'm to experience the time when elegant people donned exuberant outfits, and men in top hats sipped whisky while attending piano concerts in a vast hall... At the beginning of the last century, Waulsort was a world apart, an exquisite haven for the idle rich, where festivities never ceased for the bourgeoisie: games, Meuse Baths, regattas, gala evenings and, sometimes, difficult mornings... The Belle Epoque was definitely a reality at Waulsort, a remote little village on the River Meuse, in the heart of the countryside.
Villa 1900, exquisitely retro
When I enter the Villa, I'm greeted by Diane, dressed 1900-style. She and her cooperators are inspirational. They launched this rather mad project of reviving this era in a villa that they have restored with great enthusiasm. The cast iron bas-relief radiators, the tiling, the woodwork and the entire deco are all reminders of those early 20th-century features. The project's ultimate aim is the Waulsortium which, besides a tour of the villa, proposes exhibitions in the museum, evening conferences and guided walkabouts.
Diane explains that the "a mosan villa is recognisable by its stone foundation and its brick lattice work, which was a status symbol. These villas were all built to the same design. The cellars were raised to ground level to protect them from flooding. They housed kitchens and utility areas for the staff." At Villa 1900, Diane also tells me about the old dumbwaiter that carried dishes from the kitchen directly to the dining room. She shows me around the upstairs rooms. The owner's rooms are on the first floor and the servants' quarters are on the second, but these are restricted in the summer...". The style of the house is a blend of art nouveau and art déco, inspired by Horta. "The large patio doors open onto a sculpted wooden terrace..." The colonial influence of the English Indian empire adds enchantment to the villa. In the evening, out come the earthenware and the silver cutlery. In the neighbouring room, the huge grand piano beckons to the hands of its pianist, the virtuoso, Adelin Deltenre. I succumb to the charm, this house appeals to me. Diane tastefully prepares a healthy menu based on local, fair-trade produce. Treated like a prince, I'm on cloud nine.
A forgotten world
The association would be nothing without these passionate people. The next day, after a delicious breakfast, one of them, Olivier Gebka, is to be my guide. I follow him and eat his every word throughout this Waulsort walkabout. He tells me the fascinating story of this small village that became the centre of the world. "The rich English of the 19th century were great travellers. They came here to the mosan valley to relive the tranquillity of their native England. Their pioneering ideas gave rise to the concept of a second home, which was unheard of to the Belgians... Try to imagine the image people had of the River Meuse back then. An unchannelled river similar to the untamed Loire, flowing freely through a magnificent landscape with no noise and no roads. The scenery really is idyllic and highly appealing." These wealthy visitors soon built the first villas, followed by rich industrialists from Brussels, and the reputation of Waulsort quickly emerged. Hotels appear along the Meuse, but not just ordinary hotels. Olivier says "We're talking about top class establishments: Hôtel Regnier, Hôtel Belle-Vue, Hôtel Belle-Rive, Grand Hôtel de la Meuse and Hôtel Moderne, all vying with one another to offer luxury and exquisite pleasure.
I search through my books and archives: it seems the "Belle Epoque" (literally "beautiful era") is just an obvious term which emerged during the post-war period to refer to those pre-1914 times, a way of remembering a happiness lost. But while it was indeed a beautiful era for a small sector of the population, we must not forget what it was like for the people, the men, women and children who worked their fingers to the bone for the world's second biggest economic power... In Waulsort, while the privileged few lazed around on the terraces of their luxury hotels and villas, others slaved away for them. Launderers, cleaners, craftspeople and hunters, donning caps decorated with gilt motifs and the name of the hotel they worked for, went to greet clients at the station. Thanks to the railway, the upper bourgeoisie of Brussels and Antwerp were able to come to Waulsort, where village life catered for the hotels and villas. Besides the eleven holiday hotels, many cafés and about a dozen shops occupied the streets and alleys. Like Monsieur Roba's shop that Olivier points out, opposite the church. "He used to sell all kinds of objects and kitsch souvenirs and at the back of the shop he had a darkroom where he developed photos for the tourists. Actually, he was an agent for Kodak."
Some of the inhabitants also benefited from this influx. My guide laughs as he tells me this anecdote: "Georges was a grocer and rented out cushions for the Meuse Baths. 20 Francs each or 50 Francs for two: he had a head for business! And he had no scruples about selling two varieties of apple, one of which was of superior quality. It was in fact the lower quality apple that he polished and sold at a higher price..." On one street, Olivier stops outside an old warehouse. "Here, the Van Loo printers used to print all kinds of items for the hotels." He was also from the Belle Epoque, having made a long car journey from the Congo to Europe, via the Middle East. The Chevrolet Voyage was a worldly event that made the headlines.
Farewell to the Belle Epoque
This elegant crowd lived in comfortable frivolity and nobody in Waulsort saw the troubled times coming. In the hotels, the last dance to accordion music of the hot summer of 1914 was to become a danse macabre just a few days later. From 23 August, after furious combat, the village fell to German occupation amid acts of violence by the German army. Tourism disappeared overnight. "The veil of darkness remained for four years. After the war, the pre-1914 world would never be the same again. Waulsort would take decades to recover. The Roaring Twenties would be all but an illusion and the Second World War, together with the development of tourism across the planet, would mark the end of these hotels of another era. Nowadays, the luxury hotels are like abandoned liners drifting and sinking along the Meuse. Fortunately, some of the villas are still standing, despite the vicissitudes of history. One of them, Villa 1900, perpetuates the Belle Epoque: it wasn't the real world, but it was fascinating and desperately short-lived.
Try this experience
La Villa 1900 - Project NOW
Rue des Jardins
5540 Waulsort - BELGIQUE
Tel: +32 (0) 470 46 26 99
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