If you’re looking for the perfect way to enjoy the spring sunshine, why not heed the call of Walloon Brabant’s great parks? From chateaux nestled in meandering river valleys to arboretum heaven, and from historic estates and abbeys to water gardens, you’ll fall in love with Belgium’s southern beauty.
Villers Abbey is a vast 12-century Cistercian abbey complex, set in rolling Wallonian countryside, around 30 km outside Brussels, and is also reachable by train and a short walk (more on that later). Monks and laymen practised their faith and life of poverty and labour here for centuries. Today, visitors can enjoy the Abbey’s spectacular ruins, the onsite food, vineyard and microbrewery.
The visit starts in the old mill, where golden Corten steel has been put to brilliant use among the old buildings, creating a walkway across the mill’s waterworks. Visitors follow a wide path toward the first part of the ruins, historic rose beds running alongside a steel timeline at their feet. As you stroll, you pass by 900 years of world events, such as the Crusades, the US War of Independence, the beheading of English King Charles I, and of course, the rise and fall of Cistercian abbey life.
Fear not though, you are not going to be overloaded with historical context. The museum uses infographics cleverly and sparingly, giving just the right amount of visitor information and letting the ruins do most of the talking for themselves. QR codes on signboards around the complex take you directly to further information and audio commentary on your device.
The real jawdropper lies beyond medicinal herb beds, the old pharmacy and across the narrow road whose historic archway has been smashed repeatedly by modern lorries. A comprehensive complex of ruins unfolds before you in breathtaking vistas of gothic arches, cloistered squares, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings fountains and terraced gardens.
The whole 36-hectare ensemble is self-contained, so it’s a safe space, with wide open greens and great hide-and-seek potential. Be aware though, these are 12th century ruins, so staircases are worn and uneven in places and ceilings understandably leak here and there.
On the sunny April day I visited, the play of light and shadow among the forms and absences of the abbey was mesmerising. Around every corner is a new fascination or instagrammable moment. One of my favourite discoveries was in the former attic of the Abbey hostelry. The mindful sound of bells tolled out from a sound installation on the ground floor. Meanwhile, I crept to a flight of stairs at the back of the building and climbed to the upper floor. Missing its roof, it has become a secret meadow, carpeted in grass and spring buttercups and bathed in sunshine.
It’s well worth climbing the steep eastern terraces too, to a small chapel at the edge of the campus. The hexagonal folly-like chapel itself is sweet enough, but the real reason for getting out-of-breath is clear when you turn around at the top and see the view of the Abbey, its grounds and the extraordinary sight of a 19th century trainline cutting through it.
There’s a bistro on site, in the vaults of what is now the museum foyer but with views of the working millwheel. The menu offers soup, burgers, croques and various dishes and the place was buzzing on the day I went, so it might be worth checking availability if arriving in numbers.
In the gift shop you’ll find knowledgeable and friendly staff, books and a range of souvenirs and edibles. Excitingly, a group of Abbey friends cleared and replanted the ancient overgrown vineyards in 1990. It’s possible to visit the vineyard every first Saturday of the month at 2.30 pm. What’s more, you can buy Villers Abbey beer, and visit the microbrewery every second Saturday.
Villers Abbey is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm (last entry at 5 pm). No reservation necessary. Exhibitions and events are held throughout the year. Currently, and until June 18, a nature photography expo is hosted in the gardens and included in the price, bringing together local wildlife images taken during the COVID-19 confinement. The show is curated by Tanguy Dumortier, who presents RTBF’s “Le Jardin Extraordinaire.”
Note that the Abbey occasionally hosts private events too, such as an upcoming Thé Dansant on Sunday, May 7 when it will be closed to visitors.