Sunday, May 31, 2009


On Monday 21 October 1991 Jan and I arrived at Heathrow airport to join a Holts Battlefield Tour of Portugal and Spain. It was more than 20 years since we had visited Waterloo, and I think some explanation might be in order.

From 1970 to 1976 we lived in Western Germany, well placed you would think for visiting battlefields. In 1971 we had a very enjoyable visit to Waterloo, and came back determined to visit more.

Over the next five years we did visit a number of battlefields, but all of the WWI or WWII. In particular we spent a very interesting weekend at Verdun. On another occasion we spend a couple of days at Arnhem. But no Napoleonic battlefields.

Soon after Waterloo we did try our hand at Minden, which was quite close to where we were living at the time. I spent a few weeks researching and gathering such maps as I could find. It was not my period, so I had to start from scratch. One weekend we set off, and it was a complete failure. The maps we had made no sense on the ground, and we could find nothing to orientate ourselves. It reminded me a lot of Ligny, where we had similar problems. Anyway the experience put me off trying to explore battlefields, unless they were well marked and easy to explore.

In 1991 I heard about Holts Battlefield Tours. I understood that they specialised in coach tours to WWI and WWII battlefields, however I had little interest in that period. I now discovered that they also offered a tour of Napoleonic battlefields in Portugal and Spain. I immediately sent off for their brochure.

When it arrived I was a little disappointed. First they were very expensive for a coach trip, one week in Portugal or Spain would cost £500 plus each!

Second they seemed to be very military oriented. For example the description of the tour guide for the Napoleonic tour read "Captain P................. served in Germany and East Africia with the Gordon Highlanders before transferring to the Small Arms School Corps. As a weapons specialist he has filled training and advisory posts in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Oman and in many other military theatres worldwide". All very worthwhile and good, but why would that make him particularly suitable to explain Napoleonic battlefields to me? And what is that "Captain" business about?

On the other hand the tour offered to take us to Lisbon, Badajoz, Albuera, Cuidad Rodrigo, Almeida, The Coa, Salamanca, Talavera and Madrid, all in seven days. A quick look at the map will show you just how much this covers:

I had long wanted to visit these battlefields which I had read so much about. However I had no Portuguese or Spanish, and I knew I would not have the confidence to go on my own. So it looked like I would have to either pay the money or lose the opportunity. £1000 was a lot of money to us then, but Jan agreed it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I booked and paid.

And left Salisbury at 0515 in heavy fog, and arrived in Heathrow two hours later. And here we were in the half empty arrivals area looking for someone with a Holts badge. We found the courier and were given an envelope with the weeks programme, and a list of our fellow passengers. I had expected that there would be a large number of retired army officers in dark blazers, grey flannels and regimental ties, but I had not expected a "Sir Donald and Lady Barbara". Jan was relieved however to see that she would not be the only female on the tour.

We made ourselves known to our fellow travellers, and sure enough there were a lot of regimental ties, but they proved to be very friendly and just as excited as us about the coming tour. I was greatly relieved that most of their knowledge of the Napoleonic period came from reading "Sharpe" books!

When we arrived in Lisbon we were taken to our hotel for the night, the four star Mundial, which is right in the centre of the Lisbon old town. We had read in the brochure that we would be staying at three or four star hotels, and that men should wear jacket and tie for meals, so we were not surprised. But we were surprised by the view below, which was from the balcony.

From our bedroom window we had a view of the roofs of the old town, which looked very similar to those below.

We had four hours before dinner, and we wanted to visit the Lisbon military museum. Captain P told us it was on the sea front, and gave us directions. We walked from the hotel, and found it without difficulty. Unfortunately he did not tell us that most museums in Portugal and Spain close on Mondays. However we did have an interesting walk, has a strong cup of coffee in a cosy little cafe, and got to know Lisbon a little.

After dinner we met our "special guest speaker", a lady called Julia Page. Apparently Julia had written a book or perhaps compiled some letters, about the period. I regret that I had not heard of the book then or since. I have recently tried to Google it, but could find no reference. Anyway she gave us a very interesting introduction, and explained that tomorrow we would leave Lisbon and make our way to Badajoz - as so many British soldiers had between 1808 and 1814