Situated in French speaking Belgium (Wallonia) the Abbey sits in a narrow valley just inside the Belgian border near the village of Villers devant Orval. It is reasonably well sign posted but, as is befitting for an abbey, well out into the countryside.
If you have been visiting the 1914/1940 battlefields in the Belgian Ardennes it is just off the main N 88 road between Virton (BE) and Florenville (BE).
Coming from Verdun via Stenay on the D 964 take the D 13 (later the D 44) at Stenay towards Margut and Villers devant Orval. From Montmédy take the D 643 in the direction of Sedan and Charleville-Mézières — this will also bring you to Margut.
On arrival in the village of Margut (FR) you will see the signs for Villers devant Orval (BE) following the D 44 (Route d’Orval). As you cross the frontier this will become the N 840. Follow the road passed the church at Villers devant Orval and continue until the junction with the N 88 (Virton — Florenville).
There is a very picturesque lake and château at the junction.
From all directions follow the sign for Orval. The abbey is at the bottom of the road. There is a lot of parking space but it can still become crowded.
The emblem of Orval is a fish holding a golden ring in it’s mouth. The legend goes that the widow of the Count of Chiny, Mathilde de Toscane (1046—1115) was sitting beside the local spring when she accidentally dropped her wedding ring into the waters. Praying that it would be recovered she was filled with awe when a trout appeared with it in its mouth. She was so grateful to have the ring returned that she donated the funds for the building of an abbey.
Supposedly she said :
This truly is a golden valley (Or-val)
The spring is still there today and provides the Abbey with its water. Caught in the afternoon with the sun glinting off the yellow stone buildings it is difficult to imagine a place where the suggestion of a golden valley is not more apt.
The oldest of the Trappist monasteries that brew beer, Orval was founded in 1070 by Italian monks who were given land by Count Arnould de Chiny (a town on the far side of Florenville) the local lord. There was a lot of coming and going amongst this small community and the church was only finished and consecrated by Henri de Winton, Bishop of Verdun in 1124.
The religious community continued to disperse and reform until 1132 when it formally became Cistercian. For centuries the monks would continue their lives without being too bothered by the outside world. The area around the Abbey is clearly not conducive to agriculture but numerous gifts of land in other areas provided them with all that was needed. In particular they were given the right to set up a forge on the premises by Charles Quint and so became important to regional industry.
History is complicated along the Franco-Belgian frontier. Perhaps the most important person in this knotted affair is Charles Quint (1500-1558). Born in Flanders he was the grandson of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. His mother was the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. His father, Duke Philip of Burgundy owned lands covering much of what we now consider France — including the town of Arras.
Whilst the Burgundy wine region is in the south of France it also produced a very powerful house with vast territories in Artois and Flanders. They spent a lot of time in conflict with the King of France. The Burgundians were allied with England against Joan of Arc and it was they that captured and handed her to the English.
Charles would slowly inherit all of Burgundy, then Spain and finally the Holy Roman Empire. He is known as Charles I of Spain (and was the first to unite both Castille and Aragon) and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire — this gives him the title of Charles Quint from an old word meaning fifth.
In a nutshell this area would form part of the Spanish Netherlands until 1714 when it was ceded by treaty to Austria and the Hapsburg Empire.
In June 1791 Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor) fled revolutionary Paris bound for the Royalist stronghold of Montmédy as their initial destination. It is believed that they were then to continue to Orval where they would meet Austrian troops. As things turned out they were caught en route at Varennes and forced to return to Paris.
A new legend grew up suggesting that the two accompanying carriages, carrying a fortune in treasure, were never stopped and continued on their way. The question being — to where ? Montmédy or Orval ?
As Austrian troops had been billeted on the monks, and had received a warm welcome, the marauding French revolutionaries burnt the abbey down on 23 June 1793. The destruction lasted ten days and the French officer in charge of the operation, General Loison, was later promoted. They never did find any treasure though !
In 1926 the land was offered to the Cistercian Order in order to rebuild their monastery. Under Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen the work progressed and in 1935 the monastery regained its title of Abbey. The church was finally finished and consecrated in 1948.
In order to help finance the construction of the new abbey the monks began brewing their own beer in 1931. Nowadays the profits, for the most part, go to charity.
The monks also make a pressed uncooked cheese from the full cream milk available in the Gaume region (This part of Wallonia). A rather pleasant if mild and inoffensive cheese it goes very well with fresh bread and a glass of Orval beer.
It is only possible to visit the ruins of the old abbey, but after entering the gardens via the shop it is possible to gain a fine view of the new monastery.
|November to February
|Novembre à Février
|10:30 to 17:30 hours
|10h30 à 17h30
|March, April, May and October
|Mars, Avril, Mai et Octobre
|09:30 to 18:00 hours
|9h30 à 18h
|June to September
|Juin à Septembre
|09:30 to 18:30 hours
|9h30 à 18h30
3€ Child/enfant (7-11)
Last tickets are sold 45 minutes before closing time.
It is possible to simply visit the shop without visiting the ruins.
It is also possible to attend one of the services — enquire at the entrance.
There is a video presentation (French/Flemish) in the old guest house which gives an insight into the life of the modern day monk.
The film lasts 15 minutes, and even if you cannot understand much of the dialogue it is still possible to follow the general flow of the descriptions.
The old ruins are quite interesting and you are provided with a short guide, setting out in words and pictures the locations and a little of the history attached to them. There are also panels to guide you around the buildings with explanatory information about their function and the monastic way of life.
There is a fairly good museum underneath part of the modern monastery which can be visited, and this was only let down by the lack (for me) of some better explanation in English for some of the exhibits.
At certain times it is also possible to climb up to a gallery looking down into the new church.
Alongside the herb garden you will see the spring where Mathilde de Toscane (1046 – 1115) managed to drop her gold ring.
On the way out again through the shop pick up some of the monastery beer and cheese, or biscuits from other orders in the locality. Apart from selling the beer by the case it is also possible to buy the chalice styled glass. There is also a fine range of giftware and religious articles to suit most pockets.
The beer itself is available to try in either the Ange Gardien which is along the parking area, or at the hostelry up at the junction (which provides a wider selection of beers). Both locations provide local dishes.
Each year during European Heritage Weekend (September) it is possible for us, the great unwashed, to visit the Abbey Brewery.
It is necessary to book tickets as places are limited and booking opens about May — check the Abbey website (below).
The visit is self guided with the location panels in French and Flemish.
There is little olde worlde about the brewery which has seen a number of refurbishments over the past twenty years. Now it is pristine stainless steel and computerised bottling systems.
Starting upstairs next to the copper brewing vats visitors are offered the chance to smell the malted barley, caramel malt and hops that go into the beer.
The brewing hall was transformed in 2007 using up to date German technology and Belgian brewing know-how. The water is taken from the Mathilde spring and injected into the malt crusher at 65°C. This process releases the starch (which, in the form of simple sugars, is going to combine with the yeast to make alcohol) whilst retaining the husks of the malt.
The ground malt is then moved directly to filtration tanks where it will be mixed with hot water and constantly stirred for a few hours. The next stage is to transfer the drained fairly sweet wort to the boiling vats where it will be sterilised and the German and Slovenian hops added.
Having been rapidly cooled the wort has liquid sugar candy added and is then placed into the fermentation tanks. At this stage the all important yeast is added. The fermentation vat will hold two brews and over the next four days (at a temperature of between 14°C and 22°C), the sugars and yeast will react to create a top-fermented beer.
The next stage is the garde during which the beer will be stored for three weeks in vats — the Abbey has twenty-eight 10,000 litre tanks in place.
During this stage sacks of hops are added in the English tradition of allowing their oils to infuse the beer. A further dose of yeast is also added, allowing a secondary fermentation. It is this important stage that gives the beer its particular flavour.
The bottling machinery is impressive. About 27,000 bottles an hour pass through the system; everything controlled by machine under the watchful eyes of the staff (who for the most part are lay-workers).
The beer is packaged in just one form: 33cl bottles in the form of a skittle. Just before being bottled a light dose of candy sugar and fresh yeast is added to the beer so that a third fermentation will occur in the bottle.
The cased bottles are now allowed to mature at 15°C for a further four weeks.
The beer will continue to develop and change slightly in flavour as it matures. In theory it will keep for years. Some people prefer it young, some like it six months or even a year old. The brewing date on the bottle helps the discerning drinker chose their moment.
No visit to a brewery is worthwhile without sampling the product and having finished the tour visitors are invited to sample the brew together with the Abbey’s cheese.
Brasserie d’Orval s.a.