Rural Belgium is an unsung travel destination.
When you hop into the car for a bit of spontaneous exploration in Belgium, chances are you're not expecting to uncover lakes and rivers, hills and valleys. Belgium is a beautiful country, with arguably some of the most picturesque towns and cities in Europe, but it's not well known for wide open spaces, rolling hills, and rambling rivers. Our visit to the village of Landelies and to the nearby Aulne Abbey defied all our expectations and transformed the way we think about Belgium.
Landelies and Aulne Abbey are not that far off the beaten path, just a short drive from Charleroi, and the area is served by secondary train lines. But to take full advantage of the area and to really explore, you'll need to rent a car. Experienced cyclists will also enjoy the region and we passed a lot of hikers as well.
In addition to the breathtaking natural beauty, the area's other main attraction is Aulne Abbey. Founded around 637 A.D., it functioned first as a Benedictine monastery and then as a Cistercian monastery until the late 1700s, when it was burned by the French. The burning was a double tragedy as both the Abbey itself was harmed after just having completed a large renovation and expansion, and its precious books and manuscripts (40,000 and 5,000 respectively) were lost in the fire.
The approach to the Abbey is just as interesting as the Abbey itself. I really loved the old building above, which looked as it had been around for at least a few hundred years. While today it's being used (barely) as a barn, I think it had once been a house or some kind in its early years, judging from the windows and building shape.
If you visit in the off season, like we did, the Abbey ruins are closed to visitors but you can still get a pretty good look by walking around the property. Unfortunately, their on-site brasserie,Val de Sambre, was also closed, denying us a chance to sample the famous Abbey beer they brew on site (and serve in earthenware mugs, so I'm told).
Today, the Abbey ruins are a blend of beautifully landscaped grounds and wild, untamed nature. The inner courtyard is impeccably maintained, while unruly tufts of grass are content to take root in the cracks and crevices of these once mighty structures. I can only imagine how intimidating and awe-inspiring these buildings must have been in their prime, when pilgrims would first glimpse the soaring structures after a long and weary day of travel. Today they are still beautiful and it's well worth the trek to see them.
The small village around the Abbey ruins was filled with cyclists on the day of our visit and I can see why. This is a beautiful area to enjoy the changing seasons and there's plenty to see and do around the banks of the River Sambra and the river locks. And Ryan and I being just who we are, of course our thoughts turned to food!
There seemed to be a high number of restaurants, pubs,and brasseries per residential home (a situation I entirely approve of) and we settled onLa Guinguette by the simple formula of choosing a spot with a good view that was packed with non-touristy looking folks. And we chose right! We were in the perfect spot to watch the world go by and had an ever rotating cast of local families, couples, and friends at the surrounding tables. Plus we got the chance to sample some delicious local fare!
We opted for the cheese fondue and what I anticipated was a Swiss style pot of melted cheese with chunks of bread. Instead, we each received an individual wheel of molten cheese, which had been slowly heated for nearly an hour in it's own rind and wooden case until it was completely liquid beneath its crust. New boiled potatoes were provided for dipping and we also asked for a refill of our bread basket to help sop up the cheesy goodness. Fresh salad rounded out the meal nicely.
When Ryan and I returned from our epic round the world trip in 2013, everyone wanted to know what was our favourite stop, our favourite city. And inevitably, I would answer "Bruges". It wasn't that Bruges was the most exotic or unusual place we visited. Heck, it wasn't even that exciting a day - just a lot of walking and eating and watching. And I loved it! I was so relaxed, I felt so at home. It was just a HAPPY day. And that's exactly how I feel about our day visiting Aulne Abbey and the surrounding village. We were in Europe for nearly a month, and yet again it was Belgium that had me utterly relaxed and utterly happy.
Maybe there's something in the water. Or maybe their cheese is more intoxicating than any of the famous Belgian beer. Whatever the secret, we've never had anything other than a fantastic experience no matter where we are in Belgium. But the Landelies region might just win out over all others and it's not because of the cheese, the beer, the Abbey, or the nature. It's because of this photo below! It's a bread machine - a bread VENDING machine in the heart of a small village on our way "home" to Mons. This may just be the most awesome thing I've ever seen!
So many European itineraries set aside just a day or two for all of Belgium. A day in Brussels, an afternoon in Bruges, maybe a drive by visit to Ypres. But there are so many incredible places to explore and people to meet in this tiny country and every time I've taken a step or two off the proverbial path I've always been richly rewarded and I'm sure you will be too.
We were pleasantly surprised to discover the Belgian countryside. Have you ever fallen in love with a rural setting? Where was it and what made it special?
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