A Travel & Lifestyle Blog

A Sunny Day in Brussels - Villa Empain & Bois de la Cambre

It is such a treat to be shown around by locals when you visit a new place.
My friend Anna, who lives in Brussels, asked me what I'd rather do - the usual touristy tour or something more particular? 
Well, I naturally went for the "particular" bit and had the most unexpectedly fun day in the sunshine!
First stop. Villa Empain
Villa Empain is on the elegant Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, where all of the embassies are located.
It's an utterly chic, tree lined boulevard, dotted with elegant houses, on the edge of Bois de la Cambre, Brussels' biggest open green space. 
The villa was built in the 1930s by the son of a wealthy businessman, employing Swiss architect's Michel Polak's design. It is not immediately impressive, but it certainly stands out as a prime example of clean Art Deco lines. 
The details reveal themselves slowly throughout the visit...subtle golden painted edges, layers of receding cornices on the ceiling, elegant ironwork on the staircase banister, blue mosaic walls in the bathrooms - signs of a different era.

The pool is the focal point of the whole property, especially from the ground floor, where wrap-around windows bring the towering, green trees inside. 
I couldn't help but think about cornices and windows and the power of simplicity in interiors.

The Villa's entrance
Melancholia - the Greek word for depression, it sounds somehow softer and almost nostalgic in Greek 
 The American Bar on the ground floor - a little dolphin fountain can be seen behind the bar

The Villa's focal point - the perfectly symmetric pool

Second stop. Lunch at Chalet Robinson
Lake? Check.
Ferries? Check.
Lunch on an island? Check!
Bois de la Cambre

Asparagus Carbonarra, at Chalet Robinson - superb!
"Sailing" across the lake in Bois de la Cambre
Right behind Villa Empain's perfectly geometric pool, there is Bois de la Cambre.
We walked up through the trees, only to come to this open expansion of water, surrounded by trees and all shades of green. As we walked around the lake, we spotted to small ferries, transporting people to the little island in the middle. We jumped on one and transported ourselves to the fittingly named "Chalet Robinson", a wooden chalet, open for lunch!
We hadn't booked, so word to the wise, if you wake up and decide to visit for lunch, do call in advance. Luckily we were told to wait for a bit and managed to get a table on the terrace overlooking the amazing scenery. We grabbed some Aperol Spritzers and lounged in the sunshine till our table was ready. What a treat!

Lunch was pure joy, cold white wine sparked fun conversations and giggling and when the time came to go, I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend one of the hottest days of the year, in the heart of Europe. Thank you my friends for taking such good care of me!
One of my favourite sunny day past-times  - families and friends around the table

The Art of Slow Living - Manoir de Surville, Normandy


Stopping at the Manoir was a pleasant surprise for us.
We were on our way to the Loire Valley in search of chateaux, good food, butter, wine and ultimately some breathing space, in the countryside. We wanted to break up the trip, but we never thought that this place would make us feel so much at home.

After two hours driving along the Normandy coast, we turned inlands towards Haute Normandy and in the sleepy village of Surville, amongst green fields and old wobbly barns, we turned into the gates of a picture-perfect, Haute Normandie-style barn; the gorgeous Manoir de Surville.
The cutest welcome - Cami, the owner, coming out to greet us as we drove in, dragging an old wooden cart for the luggage behind her, with her little daughter in it! Such a heart-warming scene.  

Dusk over Surville, the beginning of a slow-paced, pleasurable evening in the French countryside.
Love the colours and the warm light from the candles in the lounge
The owner's original property on the right, through the window - a traditional Haute Normandie family home - what a dream!
The "honesty bar", equipped with all of the good stuff!

Cami and her husband have converted her family property to a cross between a boutique hotel and an AirBnb, respecting the village's traditional architecture and making sure that guests feel at home. Cami even called us a couple of days before our arrival to check if we needed dinner reservations, inquire about what time we'll be arriving and answer any questions we might have had.
A lovely touch, much appreciated later on in our journey...
The living room is straight out of "Country Living" magazine pages; shabby chic greys, terracotta and beige tones all with sweet low lighting and a crackling fire going.
There is an honesty bar, equipped with all of the right stuff, too.
Just pour yourself a tipple and remember to write it down to the little notebook by the library!
Cami encouraged us to try a local gin, “C’est Nous”, produced in Caen, infused in Calvados barbells. It’s one of the smoothest gins I’ve ever tasted, so flavoursome!

We poured ourselves a “quick one” around 7:30ish before going out for dinner at the Hostelliere d’Acquigny. At 9, I had to remind my husband that if we didn’t get going, there’ll be no dinner!
We felt so chilled "at home", sipping away on our smooth Gin & Tonic, chatting by the fire!

Morning view from our window, sunshine at last!
Morning coffee in the sunshine

Dinner at the Hostelliere d'Acquigny, in Acquigny.
There is a very good restaurant in the Manoir de Surville, but unfortunately it was closed on the night we visited. Instead Cami suggested we drive down to the next village to the Hostelliere d'Acquigny, where their own chef came from. As she put it "don't be put off by the purple and orange walls, the food is really good"! She wasn't wrong.

So once you are past the faux leather table tops, you get to experience the chef's amouche bouche: Crème brule foie gras with strawberries! Delicate layers of flavour, first the foie gras, then a slight sweetness from the caramel and finally subtle strawberry. Consider our bouches delicately amused!
My husband was tired from the long drive and his French hadn't kicked in yet so he asked if they had a menu in English, the response was: "no! but we have an English woman".
Yes, we looked at each other with eyes wide open. Yes, we giggled.
The cooked or "warm" foie gras starter was lighter than light, probably one of the best I've had.
My husband on the other hand, still has nightmares because he didn't realise it would be the actual liver, he expected a pate, but I was super-chuffed.
Have you ever heard of that hideous expression "melts in your mouth"? Well, just this once I'm going to alter it a bit and say "it melted before it even touched your mouth", so delicate and airy. My husband who is not too keen on live things liked the accompaniment of onions and lentils, but I thought they were a distraction.
Finally, Hunky Dory with cumin spiced carrot puree for me and medium-done lamb for my husband.

Word of advise on ordering meats in France: they tend to undercook cuts, so if you'd normally ask for a medium-rare in UK, try medium or medium-well done in France - oh, you'll be snubbed, but at  least you'll get what you want!

Warm foie gras 
Amuse Bouche: Crème brule foie gras with strawberries, cheese puffs and marinated monkfish
Top right: Hunky Dory with spiced carrot puree. Bottom right: fresh Asparagus, in season!
Millefeuille with strawberries
Back to  the Manoir.
There will be a pool by next summer, which completes this home-away-from-home and makes this place perfect for a long weekend from London.
It's just two and a half hours drive from Calais and there is lots to visit in the area, especially around the Normandy coast and around the charming Les Andelys.
At breakfast, we asked the owner what time they wanted us out and he said, “whenever you are ready” . Then, as he was walking away he turned around and said “relaaax”!
This sums up the whole attitude in the Manoir. Nothing is rushed and nothing is off limits. You are treated more like a houseguest than a hotel guest.

So I took my lovely cup of coffe and went to sit outside in the sunshine, before our drive down to the Loire Valley. First ten minutes of peace I've had in months! x 

View of the village from the Manoir
© Life Love London

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