ORVAL ABBEY IS AN IMPRESSIVE CISTERCIAN MONASTERY IN THE GAUME REGION:
Mention Orval, and beer lovers will immediately think of the prized Trappist beer. The Orval Abbey may be famous the world over for its beer, but the Abbey (Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval) site itself is an impressive place as we discovered during our visit.
Orval Abbey is a Cistercian monastery in the Gaume region of Belgium, near the border with France. Prior to arriving at the monastery, we watched an audiovisual presentation of the history of the monastery and the present-day activities of the Orval community. Although we came quite well prepared for our visit, we were nevertheless blown away by the extent of the monastery site and its impressive ruins.
Our visit of the Orval Abbey ruins began in front newer section of the monastery which is off limits to visitors like us. This section is where the monks live and it also has accommodation for anyone wanting to do retreats at the monastery.
As we walked through the grounds of the Abbey ruins, our very informative Orval guide gave a briefing of Orval’s origins and history. The Abbey has a long history with the first monks settling in Orval in 1070. They came from the south of Italy and were made welcomed by the Count of Arnould de Chiny who gave them land to build their church. For reasons unknown, probably due to the death of the Count, these early pioneers left after forty years without completing their building. Count Arnould’s son brought in a small community of Canons who managed to complete the construction work and in 1124 the completed church was consecrated by the Bishop of Verdun.
Life in Orval was tough for the monks as the land around the monastery was not suitable for farming and they could not make ends meet. After appealing to the Order of Cîteaux for assistance and subsequently being given land some 20 kms away, across the French border, which became the hub of their commercial enterprise, the Abbey finally prospered during the 12th century. But in 1252, it was gutted by fire.
The Impact of War on Orval
Orval’s fate went on a roller-coaster ride during the 15th and 16th centuries when various wars caused havoc and devastation to the Luxembourg region. A high point in the development of Orval occurred during the 17th century when two Abbotts from southern France, followed by another from Luxembourg, managed to improve the prosperity of the Abbey and attract new members. But then the French Revolution came along and all the Abbey’s property in France were confiscated. On June 23, 1793, revolutionary troops sacked and burned the monastery.
Resurrection of Orval
The Orval ruins and abbey land were acquired by the Harenne family in 1887. The family offered the Orval ruins and surrounding land to the Cistercian Order in 1926, so that monastic life could be re-established in Orval.Unfortunately, these days the number of monks at the Abbey have dwindled and the thirteen or so monks that currently live here are a mixed community of local and overseas monks. There are no new novice monks these days and our guide jokingly invited the men in our group to join up.
Cheese production began at the Abbey in 1928 and a brewery was established in 1931. The huge task of rebuilding Orval monastery was completed in 1948, under the direction of Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen, a Trappist monk. I was tempted to ask what would happen to Orval’s trappist beer if they don’t manage to get any new monks to join.
Tour of Abbey Grounds
Our tour of the medieval abbey ruins unfortunately did not include the brewery. For hygiene reasons, the brewery is only open to visitors once a year (around September). There is a nice herb garden, which adds refreshing greenery to the site and the Beer Museum was more impressive than we had expected. Under mock beer-brewing cylinders there are video presentations that explain the beer brewing process at Orval and there is also a display of Orval glasses through the ages. If you’re visiting Orval, don’t miss this.
I thought that we could buy Orval beer at the Abbey Shop, but unfortunately that is not the case. However you can buy the cheeses that the Abbey makes, but they only sold them in 500 grams and 1 kilogram blocks.
Fortunately for us, our next stop was a nearby pub that serves Orval beer and cheese.