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!
Shortly before we packed out from Belgrade, we went on an truly epic road trip down Serbia to Macedonia, Greece, and Albania. This trip has been on my to blog about list ever since we took it. We spent a night at a beautiful vineyard in Macedonia, then stopped at Meteora in Greece — where 13 monasteries are built on top of these bizarre, huge rock outcroppings. This was followed by a few days on the Ionian sea in Greece, checking out places where Odysseus was, eating great seafood meals, and exploring hidden beaches.
Then we went into Albania, where we visited the incredible archeological site of Butrint before spending time driving the Albanian Riviera (yes, there is such a place!). We checked out some other cool spots in Albania (Syri i Kalter or the “Blue Eye” and Gjirokaster, birthplace of former dictator Enver Hoxha) before staying on Lake Ohrid in Macedonia for a few days.
Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world and it is huge! There are a number of interesting monasteries around it but I think the true highlight for us was the incredible company we found at Vila Bisera, where we stayed. Our first night there, the guy who runs it cooked us and some other guests dinner! The overall experience was one of those things that really seems to happen only in books or movies… except that it actually did happen to us. Thinking back, I can hardly believe it — and I hope I’ll get around to writing more about this trip on the blog sometime soon!
We also took TONS of incredible photos, so it was hard to choose just a couple to put here…