Life in the Foreign Service invariably means a life of traveling. Going back to the States to see friends and family, getting to know a host country, exploring new regions of the world. We are so lucky to have these opportunities, even if it means we’re (geographically) far from many of the important people in our lives — and to be honest, that’s not always the easiest.
As most of you know, so far, we’ve made our home together in four countries on three continents: Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Belgrade, Serbia; Brussels, Belgium; and of course the United States. Each of these places is different from the others — the culture, language, religion, food, and even weather! More than living in each of those cities, we have enjoyed being able to see more of the world by exploring each place and its environs. One of the greatest things about travel is that no two trips are alike.
In Uzbekistan, traveling around the country and region wasn’t the easiest: bad roads, gas shortages, and great distances all worked against all but the most determined traveler. Despite these difficulties, we did our best to see the country, visiting the silk road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. in addition to lesser-known destinations like Shakhrisabz (the birthplace of Tamerlane), Nukus (literally in the middle of nowhere, but there’s a great art museum!), and Margilan (found in the Ferghana Valley, locals produce beautiful silk).
We even managed a long weekend in Kyrgyzstan, staying on the shore of the beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul — but that is a story in and of itself. Central Asia is a fascinating place unlike any other, and we’ve found we now have a strong bond with anyone we’ve met who has lived there, purely based on the common experience of a place hard to describe to those who haven’t.
Our move to Serbia opened us up to a completely different experience. We were fortunate enough to have gotten a number of months in language training prior to our relocation, which not only gave us the tools to get around the region linguistically but also gave us time to learn more about the history and culture of our new home.
After our time in Tashkent, we realized we really had to hit the ground running in terms of travel: two years can go by surprisingly quickly, and we didn’t want to suddenly only have a few months left in which to explore ten must-sees. Within weeks of our arrival, we joined a group going on a day trip to Timisora, Romania. And as soon as our car got there, we planned a number of big trips on our own.
Even so, 18 months into our assignment, we realized we were running out of time. Yes, we hoped that we would end up back in the Balkans at some point, but since that isn’t a guarantee, we needed to make the most of our last months. Ultimately, we planned a vast trip that took us from Serbia, down to Macedonia and Greece, then back up through Albania, Macedonia again, and back to Serbia. Fifteen hundred miles and 10 days later, we were back in Belgrade and getting ready to packout.
Like living in Belgrade, Brussels is a central location that makes travel incredibly easy. Unlike Belgrade, where train travel was horrible and our roadtrips tended to be 5+ hours of driving each day, the trains here are fast, well-connected, and easy, and driving, we can be in four other countries in less than two hours. Needless to say, we’ve tried to take advantage of this!
As convenient as air travel is, we’ve found the car to be our favorite form of travel. It is so easy to just throw everything in (including Scarlett!) and take off, and our plans can stay flexible because we aren’t tied to specific flights or train timetables and can easily get around and with our own set of wheels. We also really like to explore things that are off the beaten path, and although that was a lot easier when our starting point was in Serbia — where pretty much everything is off the beaten path — having a car makes a big difference wherever you are.
We have a number of exciting travels planned for the coming months, but are always looking for new places to go: where are your favorite places to travel? Where do you most want to go that you haven’t been?
I’d like to think that hidden gems are a specialty of mine: after years of living off the beaten path, we particularly enjoy seeing things that the average tourist won’t. We are helped by the fact that we currently live in western Europe and can easily drive places that otherwise would be difficult to get to. One such places is the enchanting Abbaye de Villers in Villers-la-Ville, partway between Brussels and Charleroi (but not really near anything).
Someone had once mentioned the abbey to me as a place they liked to take visitors, and although I wrote down the advice, it took nearly a year before I acted on it. Over the summer, when we had a houseful of guests and Grant was out of town, we collectively came up with a number of different mini day trip options, ultimately deciding on a half-day adventure checking out the abbey. We packed cameras, a cooler full of food and drink, and set off not really knowing what to expect.
After what ended up being an hour’s drive due to detours and closed roads, we arrived in the tiny, tiny town of Villers-la-Ville, which primarily houses the abbey and its associated visitor’s center/museum. Founded in 1146, the abbey was abandoned in 1796, which makes for a unique site perfect for photography. The museum is nice and we enjoyed following the map around the ruins, trying to picture what life was like for the monks hundreds of years ago. Despite having seen pictures online, we were absolutely awed. It is one of those places where no photo does it justice (though Grant’s from last week comes very, very close).
During that first visit, we made a couple of mistakes: we didn’t bring Scarlett and we left our food in the car, not knowing if outside food would be allowed — whereas there are actually picnic tables and benches inside the grounds for that very purpose. The abbey was incredible and we enjoyed the view from a few different places around the edge of the complex as well as checking out the different gardens that are hidden off to the side. We had a wonderful time and I had been looking for a good excuse to bring Grant back: last weekend was it! The weather forecast was the best it has been in weeks, so we decided to enjoy a beautiful fall Sunday walking around the abbey with Scarlett. The plan was to arrive shortly after it opened in the morning, when there would likely not be many people around (Belgians tend to sleep in), and enjoy the photo op and peaceful setting.
We were totally unprepared for a local festival. When we arrived, the parking lots were already overflowing, police had signs warning drivers about horses, I spotted a number of carriages, and people with dogs crowded the small village street:”Good thing we brought Scarlett, we’ll fit right in!” I joked. We decided to check out what was going on before going to the abbey, and ended up joining a procession led by a horse-drawn cart (full of people in old-fashioned clothing who were throwing candy to everyone else), followed by a group of red-clad horn players, and then the rest of us with our dogs — although I exaggerate in saying everyone had a dog, I’m not exaggerating by much. I had never been in quite a procession before and I must admit, we had a lot of fun.
As it turns out, it was a festival of St. Hubert and there was a priest who blessed all the animals there: a few goats and geese who appeared to be making the abbey their home, all our dogs, and many horses people had ridden there for the occasion. Although it was not the calm setting I had imagined, it was quite the experience! As a bonus, we were able to walk right in as part of the festival, so although it meant Grant missed the museum aspect (and the super cool timeline), it also means we didn’t pay the entry fee. Most importantly, it means we are both looking forward to going back again!
Note that if you are taking visitors who are only in town for a short time, it is possible to combine a couple of hours here with a stop at Waterloo Battlefield, which can be on the way (or at least not too far out of the way), depending on which roads you take to/from Brussels. But if you do decide to stop at Waterloo, the museum takes at least two hours (if you go quickly) and although it is fabulous, the tickets are on the pricier side and there’s no option to just climb the Lion’s Mount, as we learned the hard way. That being said, you can always do a drive-by to see it!