hidden gem

visiting the abbaye de villers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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the 14 of 2014: piran and our third istrian adventure

I tried to narrow this one down — really, I did — but had way too much trouble trying to pick just one thing from this trip, which we took in the fall. Although this highlight focuses on Piran, I can’t not mention some of the other, incredible things we did on this trip. In a departure from our other trips to Istria, this time, we spent the first night in Slovenian Istria. In Slovenia, we saw Predjama Castle, Postojna Caves, and the Sečovlje salt flats.

We stayed in the gorgeous seaside town of Piran, which is now one of our favorite towns in the world. It is incredibly beautiful and picturesque, with old Venetian buildings and lots of fishing boats in the harbor. The town center is huge and circular, surrounded by lovely buildings. Unsurprisingly, the dinner we had here was great and involved both truffles and seafood. Yum!

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In Croatia, other highlights from the trip include: the small hilltop town of Grožnjan, finding the elusive Riedel Malvazija glasses at Coronica Winery, the beautiful Kabola Winery, finding the infamous Clai Winery and getting a private tasting from the owner’s wife on a Sunday morning, revisiting one of our favorite Istrian lunch spots. So, in writing this post, I’ve realized I’ve been remiss in not better recording our travels here — especially the Istrian ones I love so much!

I’ve mentioned in the past that I want to do a series on Istria, and now I think I must do one. We’ve been to so many great places I want to share with others (even though a part of me wants to keep them to myself, because the fact that they are still somewhat “hidden” is part of their appeal).