The ruined Cistercian Abbaye de Villers, at rue de l’Abbaye 55 (wwww.villers.be), nestles in a lovely wooded dell on the edge of VILLERS-LA-VILLE, just off the N93 some 16km east of Nivelles, and is altogether one of the most haunting and evocative sights in the whole of Belgium. The first monastic community settled here in 1146, consisting of just one abbot and twelve monks. Subsequently the abbey became a wealthy local landowner, managing a domain of several thousand acres, with numbers that rose to about a hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers. A healthy annual income funded the construction of an extensive monastic complex, most of which was erected in the thirteenth century, though the less austere structures, such as the Abbot’s Palace, went up in a second spurt of activity some four hundred years later. In 1794 French revolutionaries ransacked the monastery, and later a railway was ploughed through the grounds, but more than enough survives – albeit in various states of decay – to pick out Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance features and to make some kind of mental reconstruction of abbey life possible.
From the entrance, a path crosses the courtyard in front of the Abbot’s Palace to reach the warming room (chauffoir), the only place in the monastery where a fire would have been kept going all winter, and which still has its original chimney. The fire provided a little heat to the adjacent rooms: on one side the monks’ workroom (salle des moines), used for reading and studying; on the other the large Romanesque-Gothic refectory (réfectoire), lit by ribbed twin windows topped with chunky rose windows. Next door is the kitchen (cuisine), which contains a few remnants of the drainage system which once piped waste to the river, and of a central hearth, whose chimney helped air the room. Just behind this lies the pantry (salle des convers), where a segment of the original vaulting has survived, supported by a single column, and beyond, on the northwestern edge of the complex, is the guest house (brasserie), one of the abbey’s biggest and oldest buildings. The most spectacular building, however, is the church (église), which fills out the north corner of the complex. With pure lines and elegant proportions, it displays the change from Romanesque to Gothic – the transept and choir are the first known examples of Brabantine Gothic. The building has the dimensions of a cathedral, 90m long and 40m wide, with a majestic nave whose roof was supported on strong cylindrical columns. An unusual feature is the series of bull’s-eye windows which light the transepts. Of the original twelfth-century cloister (cloître) adjoining the church, a pair of twin windows is pretty much all that remains, flanked by a two-storey section of the old monks’ quarters.