Orval

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Home Page > Travelogues > Belgium > Orval

Belgium

Abbaye d'Orval -- Hidden, But Hardly Forgotten 

Belgium

Many of us have had the term 'Trappist' added to our vocabulary at some point in our lives, primarily through references to food and the visions of it being prepared by or attributed to medieval monks.  It is with this vision that I elected Tourist Entrance to Abbey to visit a couple still-active Trappist abbeys while on my recent driving tour of Belgium.  Of those, the Abbaye d'Orval, situated just north of the Franco-Belgian border near the towns of Florenville and Villers-devant-Orval, is the place I recommend the most.  I found it beautiful, well-preserved, and unique.

The actual order to which these abbeys were associated was Cistercian, normally known for austerity of lifestyle.  The brothers (and sisters in some) lived quietly in humble surroundings, such as seen in the Abbey of Notre Dame de Scourmont near Chimay.  However, while Chimay's abbey has been rebuilt or renovated to a modern appearance, Orval has been left largely untouched for many, many years.  As the first photograph attests, the abbey still maintains its original fortifications, such as the short wall and defensive towers shown that once guarded one of the abbey's gardens.  This photograph was taken from the parThe New Abbey Groundsking lot located along the road leading to the abbey from Florenville.  You can see the road as it cuts between this garden and the buildings at left.  The entrance to the abbey was located off the photograph to the left.  The entrance fee was minimal.

I soon discovered that there were actually two abbeys on the site.  The first was built in the tenth through twelfth centuries and survived more than its fair share of invasions and insurrections as the region was under dispute in one form or another throughout European history.  But after the abbey was burned sometime in the 17th century, plans were devised to build a new one using, in part, bricks from the old one.  The remains of the old abbey were left alone and eventually converted into a museum.  Visitors are permitted to tour around the old abbey while the new and current abbey is completely off limits.

That said, the first thing visitors get is a glimpse of the new abbey, shown in the second photograph.  I entered a tower similar to the small one Old Abbey Ruinsin the first photograph that had just a small window opening to this scene.  Brick walls and dense hedges otherwise protected this abbey from the unwanted intrusion of visitors (although you can get a closer view of the Madonna from the old abbey).  The most striking item in this photograph was the massive Madonna built over the entrance to one of the churches.  Such a massive display was considered highly unusual for the very austere and modest Cistercian order.

The third photograph shows a part of the old abbey which resembles the covered walkway in the center right section of the new abbey in the second photograph.  Clearly, the filling in of the archways on the left side is a recent development, probably to ensure safety of visitors.  This was only a small part of the old abbey grounds.  The entire complex covered a half city block and was very impressive.  Some parts of the abbey ruins were restored for safety and tourism purposes, such as an arched doorway leading to one of the original churches whose inner arch was reconstructed underneath the crumbling gray bricks.  It is likely that some of the arches at right in the third photograph were similarly restored.  The museum also has some exhibits such as the apothecary exhibit in the old greenhouse, shown in the fourth photograph.

The abbey museum has a wonderful map of the grounds with full explanations in multiple languages.  Many of the exhibits in the museum and the signs within the abbey are written in French and Dutch, not English.  There is a filmhouse that shows a history of the abbey, but that too is only available in French and Dutch.  However, there are exhibits of early Cistercian vestements, construction tools, and relics that have English translations, along with a couple rooms dedicated to the history of the Cistercian Order and its founder, St. Bernard.

It was from that map that I learned of the abbey's great legend, or miracle depending on one's point of view.  Once upon a time there was a royal wedding celebrated on the Orval grounds.  However, the bride tragically dropped her new wedding ring in one of Orval's fountains.  Seeing the young women pining profusely, a trout swimming in the fountain retrieved the ring and emerged from the water to returned it to the bride.  Hence, the symbol of the abbey is a trout with a gold ring in its mouth.

In modern times, Orval is best known for its world-famous Trappist beer.  The fifth photograph shows a standard 330ml bottle of Orval alongside a traditional Orval beer goblet.  This brew is unique because it is traditioanlly fermented in open vats using yeasts that grew on the ceiling rafters and dropped into the brew.  Like many other old abbeys in the region, Orval served as inns for travelers seeking refuge, safety, and a square meal.  The monks brewed their own beer and made their own cheeses and meats using ingredients unique to their land.  Now, Orval Trappist Ale is sold worldwide, but as one of six true "Trappist" beers still made it is fully controlled by the modern-day brotherhood.  Orval also produces an excellent cheese that is only available locally.  It tasted to me like a nice, mild gouda.  (I discuss Trappist products more thoroughly in the Chimay page.)  The abbey museum has a very nice store where I even had a chance to shake hands with a couple of the monks.  Also, Orval is available at a restaurant just outside the abbey in Villers-devant-Orval just down the road.

The Orval abbey was a treasure, one of the most unique and memorable experiences I had in Belgium.  I would recommend it to anyone willing to get off the beaten path and find it.

Trip Taken 3 August 2001 -- Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin  

   
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