We arrived in Bouillon late on Friday afternoon and the beautiful medieval town was warm with golden sunlight. This was to be our base for a weekend break touring the Ardennes region of southern Belgium.
This part of Belgium has long been the heartland of Europe and rich with history; a strategic gateway between medieval Germany and France. Long before Belgium was ever thought of the French kings gave the duchy of Bouillon independent sovereignty because they thought it so important to preserve the route to Germany.
Godfrey’s Castle is like the thin edge of the wedge, high on a rocky outcrop that pushes the Semois River into a deep hairpin curve. 17th century town houses line the river promenade and the hills rising steeply on all sides are richly wooded.
So who was Godfrey? Well he has gone down in history as one of the leaders of the First Crusade and in 1099 he was the first to enter Jerusalem after a 40-day siege and a three-year campaign. His military and political success is reflected in his chateau, with its impressive fortifications and feudal aspect.
On the hour the little Carillion of Bouillon’s church chimes the Ode to Joy. We enjoy ice creams and mess about with a pedalo on the river. The sun goes down over the Crusader castle. It’s a perfect evening in Belgium’s Ardennes region.
After the warmth of the day a few fat drops of rain fell but the summer clouds are already clearing as the wine arrives. At the terrace restaurant of Hotel Cosy the brouet de boeuf la cardamone is a rich example of the medieval cuisine for which the kitchen here is well known.
I have long since accepted that when on holiday in Belgium there can be no thought of gastronomic restraint. A visit to the Walloon region of Belgium is a time to indulge the palate with the produits du terroir.
The air is warm and the beer is cloudy. We’re not just here for the food and scenery. An hour-and-a-half’s drive south from Brussels’ Gare du Midi, on the way to Bouillon, Chimay is home to one of the six Trappiste monasteries for which Belgium is famous.
These legendary monk brewers belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, following the rule of St Benedict that goes back to the 6th century. The origin of the name Trappiste is from the Abbey of La Grande Trappe in Normandy, the base of one of the tow great orders of Cistercians.
Only seven beers in the world are brewed within the walls of a Trappiste abbey (six here in Belgium, the other is in Holland) and under the supervision of the monks. Profits pay for the running of the abbey and supporting charitable works.
In the 19th century they sold beer at the Abbey gate but now the brewery tap is at the nearby Auberge du Pouteaupre is where you will find a triple degustion presented on a highly convenient ‘beer tree’ and some perfectly judged traditionelle lapin – not too moist, nor dry, nor sweet but just delicious – and we had the makings of a fine feast.
Sitting under spreading umbrellas at the edge of fields and forests, the Auberge is family friendly with a children’s playground. Like many monasteries, Scourmont is also famous for the cheese it produces.
The turn off to the Abbaye du Scourmont and the Auberge du Pouteaupre is just before the town of Chimay itself, so look out for the signs on your left. After an extensive lunch a wander around the gardens of the church was most welcome.
Next day we found the graceful golden ruins of the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval, tucked away in a valley northeast of Bouillon, near the village of Villers-devant-Orval.
The video presentation of the monastery’s history, and images of the monks ironing their handkerchiefs, packaging up Orval beer, and looking generally euphoric. As you would have every right to do living in such a beautiful place.
The public can wander through a part of the grounds that includes the 11th century ruins and you can dip a finger in Mathilda’s fountain, the source water of the divine beverages brewed on site. There’s a link to Bouillon here, the well holds the key to the origin of the fish and ring symbol found on the beer bottles.
The original abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution and Orval remained a waste-land throughout the 19th century. In 1926 the monks returned and constructed the present day monastery – which cannot be visited but can be viewed through various gateways in the grounds. You can have lunch (and beer on tap) at the L’Auberge Guardian just down the road.
On the picturesque road back to Brussels we came at last to Rochefort, with its ruined walls, grand town buildings and pleasant cafes. Our final objective was the exquisite Abbaye St Remy, just a few minutes drive northeast of town. Here they brew what some claim are the best beers in Belgium. There’s no public eating and drinking here but the smooth and pale church was holding a warm and welcoming mass when we arrived.
Back in the town of Rochefort we thought we’d go for a lighter option of salads for lunch but found them loaded with the specialities of the region, including jambon d’Ardennes and the famous Ardennes pate. Oh well, the food went perfectly with a glass of Rochefort 10.
Driving through sleepy villages with weekend markets, impressive churches and flourishing geraniums: Bertrix and St Hubert. This is a land of tree-lined country roads, charmingly-kept cottages and rolling pastureland but above all of dense forests that stretch out to the horizon.
The region is named for a vast forest that covered the land in Roman times – the Arduenna Silva. These are forests that look like they must be full of deer and wild boar and outlaws? All I can see are herds of white cows twitching their ears in the sunshine.
Usually I’d be up for making the most of all the walking and cycling activities such a country offers. And for visiting fascinating sites of military history, as in the town of Bastogne where there is a museum about intense fighting the region saw during both World Wars, including the Battle of the Bulge.
But for this weekend break in the Ardennes I was just too full of food and all the good things in life. Three Trappiste monasteries down, three to go. Maybe next time I visit Belgium I’ll bestir myself to some activity not related to eating and drinking. Although there are three more Trappiste monasteries in Belgium to visit…
By Natasha von Geldern