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Villers Abbey: Travel through 850 years of history thanks to new visitor experience
While the romantic ruins of Villers-la-Ville abbey in Walloon Brabant are familiar to many as a dramatic backdrop to outdoor theatre and music, audiences rarely appreciate the full grandeur of this outstanding example of monastic architecture.
Now, a new entrance and interpretation centre provide historical context and an overview of the site, the most complete Cistercian abbey in Europe and Belgium’s most visited ruins. In addition to the annual summer theatrical programme, they are the setting for activities for all ages, including tours, workshops, exhibitions and festivals on themes as varied as cars, medieval life, horticulture and beer.
Nestling at the bottom of a verdant valley, Villers-la-Ville was once a major spiritual hub with an estate of 10,000 hectares in its heyday of 1267, when around 400 monks and lay brothers lived and worked within its walls. Abandoned in 1796 during the French Revolution, the abbey was ransacked and neglected before it was bought by the Belgian government in 1893.
Today, its former grain mill, a fine building dating from the 13th century but largely rebuilt at the end of the 19th, houses a brasserie and the abbey’s management offices. The latest refurbishments, have renovated the southern wing, which now serves as the single entrance point. Visitors pass through a reception and shop before walking through a room presenting the Cistercian order. Interactive panels provide information on the abbey’s importance accompanied by the sound of Gregorian chants. A second room on the upper floor contains a large-scale model of the abbey as it was in 1300, constructed out of shale, one of its original building materials. It has facilities for children to learn about the abbey and the role of monastic life in medieval times.
Leaving behind the modern scenography and tasteful stone and wood interior, visitors head outdoors across a walkway above a running stream and new electricity-generating mill wheel. From here, and the gravel path with a timeline of the abbey and wider history, you can glimpse the walled abbey below. Above lies a grassy hill, part of the new extension and the best vantage point. A flock of rustic sheep and two heritage ponies from the Greek island of Skyros graze on the hill, an additional tourist attraction and a reminder of former farming life at the abbey.
“It’s a revolution in providing for the tourists who for 200 years have entered the site by the road,” says historian Michel Dubuisson, assistant director of the non-profit Villers-la-Ville. “The importance of this new circuit is threefold. This medieval enclosure returns the site to how it was in the Middle Ages; the route obliges you to go through the visitor centre, walk along the hill and enter the abbey near the archaeological remains of the old gateway through which pilgrims once passed; and as in English sites such as Fountains Abbey, visitors have a view of the whole valley.”
Another bridge links the hill to the abbey grounds. There may be something haunting about this abandoned scene with trails of ivy and fallen stones, yet strolling among the ruins is a restful experience that lends itself to contemplation. Under a miraculously intact roof, the towering nave of the church is imposing, with beautiful vaults, arches and rose windows that echo Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Other impressive buildings such as the former refectory and cloisters are open to the skies. It’s worth spending some time walking around the grounds and gardens. Climb the steps to the chapel of Notre-Dame de Montaigu and peer over the ancient walls to view the abbey vineyards that produces Villers-La-Vigne wine.
Green living remains a key philosophy at Villers, and two new gardens have been added. “This has always been important for the Cistercian order, as they were monks who preferred to settle away from the world, which is why there are such beautiful Cistercian sites all over Europe,” says Dubuisson. “There was also a European dimension to the Cistercian order, which developed a democracy at the heart of their movement. Villers is one of the most complete sites because there are traces of not only the monastic buildings, the church, the cloister, the monk’s refectory, but also secondary buildings such as the mill, hostelry and brewery. It was also one of the most important abbeys in the order, possessing barns and land all the way to Antwerp.”
After the French revolution, the abbey was sold off in three lots with anything of value sold for scrap. Over the ensuing years, tourists were drawn to the crumbling and increasingly romantic ruins. The construction of a railway line through the eastern edge of the site was both a blight and a blessing as it became more accessible to Brussels’ high society who enjoyed weekend trips to the countryside. The mill building became a hotel and visitors included French writer Victor Hugo who immortalised the abbey prison in his literary masterpiece Les Misérables.
Today, increasing the number of tourists is at the heart of the abbey’s development strategy in addition to reinforcing the Villers Abbey brand, explains director Patrick Fautré. “We work with other sites that share the same centre of interest, such as the Folon Foundation in La Hulpe. The long-term objective is to have enough activities at Villers for people to spend the whole day here.”
It currently attracts 35,000-40,000 visitors a year, rising to more than 100,000 with partnership events. Three-quarters of visitors are Belgian, the remainder principally from France, the Netherlands, Germany and the US.
“We are positioned according to three platforms: social, economic and sustainable,” says Fautré. “As part of a social European project that provides training to people in difficulty, we provide six months of restoration experience. The hill was also renovated by a disabled group. For the economic aspect, we promote regional products in our boutique, particularly hop-based. These include cosmetics, artisan beer and an aromatic teddy bear that helps calm small children. There are tisanes made from plants from our medieval-inspired garden and Cistercian abbey wine.”
The abbey’s microbrewery operates from a former laundry house. In partnership with a local brewery, they produce four traditional beers. Two are brewed on site, inspired by recipes from the abbey’s archives, the blonde Abbaye de Villers V and triple Abbaye de Villers IX. The other two are new brews, Lumineuse and Ténébreuse. Reservations are needed for visits to the brewery.
Until 2 April: Exhibition Né quelque part, hier et aujourd'hui, marking the 25th anniversary of the children’s human rights convention (guided tour 11 December)
22, 26- 30 December: Family equestrian show L'Incroyable cabaret de Monsieur Peppernote, by the Tempo d'Eole company
This article was first published in the autumn issue of the Wab magazine