(Medium) old history

Up at 7! If you’ve read some of my earlier travel posts, you’ll notice that 7 is simply my natural hour to wake up. Apparently, this is a trend that persists even when holidaying at home. Anyway, despite the Belgian tradition of closing anything official on Monday (this includes monuments and museums), we managed yesterday to come up with a plan for the day: we’ll visit the Villers abbey and the Waterloo memorial. We take it easy after getting up, we’ll need to drive past Brussels and want to avoid the worst of the morning traffic jams.

The weather predictions have not changed, so we grab everything that is watertight, plus an extra pair of pants and shoes in case we get really wet and throw it in the trunk of the car. We make the usual travel picnic and ham/cheese sandwiches, though it’s a bit fancier because we’re at home: I walk to the bakery for fresh pistolets (go ahead and check it, this really is a word in the English dictionary) and we use some leftover hamburger accessories. The end result looks delicious: ham and cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise and some watercress to top it off. We pack a box with some of the deliciously unhealthy millionaire shortbread we made yesterday.

The drive to Villers is uneventful, we do encounter a bit of traffic but are relaxed about it: we have time aplenty and arrive at our destination around 10:30. It is raining, but the online radar says it will slack off just in time for lunch. I put on Gore-Tex pants and a rain poncho to keep my camera and camera bag dry. I’m testing if this is a practical solution for hiking. A normal rain jacket only protects your person – unless your camera is small enough to fit into a pocket, which mine isn’t – whereas a poncho goes over everything that you have packed on your back or hanging from the custom made camera harness. Additionally, it must be less sweaty, right?

We buy two tickets and set off to explore the ruins. There’s helpful panels explaining the purpose of each building and some of the long history of the abbey. You can have a look at their website here, the history of the site is quite interesting and varied. There’s not many people around and we wander aimlessly through the roofless walls, I’ve noticed you see a lot more of a site if you just take random rights and lefts, ignoring the obvious path in favour of the mysterious ones. According to Wikipedia, 100 monks and 400 lay brothers lived here in its medieval heyday, it’s hard to imagine. A railroad cuts the compound at the edge, the contrast between the 1000 year old ruins and the modern train zooming by is striking.

We time our picnic for the one dry half hour of the morning and enjoy our sandwiches on a bench in the middle of the ruins, by the time we’re back at the car we’re ready for a bit of sugar and we have our bit our millionaire shortbread right there standing by the trunk of the car. The cookie is crumbly, the caramel salty and sticky and the chocolate extra crunchy. Excuse me for going on and on about it, I’m just really fond of it.

We circle around Brussels to go the to Waterloo memorial site, it’s supposed to be open and though reservations are necessary, yesterday all slots were still available so we’re just risking arriving without reservation. In a way, this monument is not super important to Belgium, because the battle was between the French, English and Prussians (the Germans before there was a Germany) and Belgium was simply the disposable meadow they could trample over and fight on. The history of that era is really complex and though the museum and memorial don’t really explain it, it’s still interesting to see the huge panorama with the who’s who of the battle and the monument itself, on its huge mound of battlefield earth. Wikipedia again comes to the rescue, though we only absorb the highlights of the battle, its prologue and consequences. The wind is incredible strong up on the Lion’s Mound and the view great, but it’s difficult to picture the battle crashing around these green hills.

After coming down the incredibly steep and long stairs on the mound, I’ve completely run out of energy. We decide to do one more stop on the way home, just a quick look at the Beersel castle. We park nearby and do a short walk along the fence to get a nice view. It’s closed on Mondays (we knew this up front) but we have a quick look and a little Wikipedia tour anyway. Its main claim to fame – at least from our point of view – is that it was used as a location for a Suske en Wiske comic book. These children’s comics books were incredibly popular in Belgium and whole generations grew up with them.

The castle does look impressive and it’s quite exceptional: it’s made of bricks – which is unusual – and it’s well preserved. We’ll come back later to visit the interiors, perhaps with a guide. Homewards now, along the western side of the peripheral road this time, with a minimum of traffic jams. We arrive home around 4, have a long bath, chips and G&T (the advantage of a staycation is that the drinks are cheaper) and chicken/hummus/carrots for dinner. Tomorrow we leave for our short stay in Genk, the predictions say rain rain rain but we’re made of stern stuff and are determined to see the fun side of it.

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