Glory of Green
Stories from the Great Outdoors
A foggy hike around the Villers Abbey
What do you do when your family consists of the following constellation?
A) One teenager with a full-blown writing-messages-on-her-phone-because-her-throat-hurts-too-much-to-talk type of cold.
B) Two adults who are definitely feeling a tingling when they swallow.
C) One nine-year-old annoyingly virus free, bouncing around the house with all the energy in the world.
A) You send the little firecracker away to play with a friend and let someone else handle the problem while you snuggle up in the sofa with the sick one – but then the fevery one starts bossing you around to get her hot chocolate and Kleenex and nose spray (she writes really fast even when ill). And then you realise that you should have gone for option B.
B) Set said artefacts plus remote control in front of ill teenager and take the rest of the family for an appropriately short, but interesting hike, not very far from where you live.
As long as you are just a little bit under the weather, I (almost) promise you that you will feel better breathing in some fresh air and focusing your mind on whatever you find out there. We tested the hypothesis and found it a 100 percent true, visiting the peaceful Abbaye Villers La Ville in Belgium.
600 years of silence
The Abbaye Villers La Ville is a ruin of a Cictercian abbey founded in 1146 AD. The Cictercians are a catholic order branched off from the Benedictines, following the rule of St. Benedict (if that means anything to you).
Cictercian architecture is considered by the institute of Wikipedia to be one of the most beautiful styles of mediaeval architecture. The ruin exhibits both Romanesque and Gothic styles and it still makes a gorgeous scenery. You will find both rounded and pointed arches – as exemplifies the architectural transition in the period when it was constructed, as well as the simple elegance that characterises Cictercian architecture. I also discovered that altogether five Cictercian abbeys are on the UNESCO heritage site – and so I’m convinced – the Cicterians really knew how to build beautiful homes for the monks and nuns.
The Cictercians were supposed to return to manual labour, and in particular, agriculture. The gardens of the abbey weren’t much to look at when we were there in late November, but when I stopped by in September, the smells and the colours were still an experience for the senses. In summer they even have some animals that might be fun for the kids.
The monks used to brew ales, and of course we had to buy the Christmas beer from the Museum shop – I can’t vouch for the authenticity, but I’ll tell you if it’s good or not as soon as my husband has tasted it.
It’s fortunate that they had nice things to look at, as their lives sounded pretty devoid of other worldly pleasures (except for the ale). Severe rigidity and austerity characterised monastery life. We found, for example, a plaque stating that in this room the monks were allowed to talk (tiniest room at site). At the rest of the monastery they had to communicate by sign language. That, combined with the plaque with the time line of the abbey, adds up to about 600 years of silence – before the probably very loud French revolution brought upheaval and put an end to monastic life.
The (very tiny) room for speaking...
Oddly, in 1855 the Belgians chose to run a railway line through monastery grounds. It’s a very visible wound in the scenery, but since the railway architecture of 1855 also has a certain rustic character to modern eyes, I can only conclude that it would have been worse if they did it today.
That was history class made short. You can fill in the missing ups and downs when you choose to visit. Today the ruin is again a peaceful place to spend some hours, except for the still passing trains – and you are allowed to talk – everywhere. They even host an annual choir festival, “Nuit des Choueurs”, culminating in fireworks. Someone is turning in their graves…
I present: Creepy Cellars...
Finding a tree for the monkey
Around the abbey there are a myriad of foot- and bike paths. After spending two hours exploring the ruin – outside, inside, on top and under, we went for a short hike in the area.
The museum shop sells maps for both rides and walks, which makes this an excellent region for combining cultural and outdoors excursions not far from Brussels. I made you a very approximate drawing of our little route below, but there are so many other options we could have taken, and at many different lengths.
It became a foggy, muddy and wonderfully magical hike through landscapes of forests and farming. We had to keep it a bit short, but Alma found several nice trees for climbing along the way – at one point there were four or five tree-hut constructions in the forest, all different, perfect for setting the imagination off and use up some of that extra energy.
A personal note on heaven and hell – tree huts versus public playgrounds
Public playgrounds are intentionally good. I see their purpose and I don’t object to them. I just hate them. There was a time when they were a necessary evil in my life, but as my kids are nearly both out of the age-range for playgrounds, I avoid them like the plague. I still get the shivers when I completely without warning stumble upon one of them, trying to be very quiet about the discovery, praying that the nine-year-old will not see the dreadful thing. As you can imagine – we still have a very diametrical relationship with these things.
Personally, spending my time at a playground is almost as awful as destroying a perfectly fine Saturday at the mall. It feels like something starts gnawing on my imagination and creativity the moment I come close to one of them. Dentist style on my nerves until exhaustion. Which happens in about five seconds. Add a million screaming children and I’m dying inside. Slowly and painfully with a cowardly encouraging smile on my face (trying not to let anybody see what a terrible mother I am). It’s going to be my Dante’s inferno if there’s a God somewhere waiting around.
Luckily, they are usually not found in the woods. Give me an abandoned tree hut on the other hand, and I’m in heaven. Thank you so much for building these wonderful and strange constructions in the trees – whoever you are! There’s a good deed if I ever saw one.
Google maps will easily take you there by car. It takes about 20 minutes from Waterloo, and about 45 minutes from Brussels. Parking is quite unproblematic around the abbey – at least off season. From Brussels it’s also possible getting there by train. It will include a 1,6 kilometres hike from the village (called Villers-La-Ville) to the abbey.
It’s possible to navigate in the forest by Mister Google the tour guide - see my very artistic scribbles below. Different routes are marked however, and you can buy maps in the museum shop. Be aware that some of the paths get muddy in wet conditions, and that Belgians are all about putting up signs to protect their private grounds. Follow the paths and you’ll be fine.
Questions? Wanting to share? Duke of Edinburgh or plain Jane? Feel free to contact me.