Oh no, I turned 40 in June. For years I escaped Belgium for my birthday. I even managed to do so last year, in between COVID-19 related leisure travel lockdowns, visiting my sister Florence in Switzerland. This year leaving the Realm proved to be very impractical. But Danny, his boyfriend Sam, Oriol and myself booked a getaway weekend to Florenville and visited Orval Abbey and Bouillon with its medieval castle.
First up, Orval. The Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval is a Cistercian monastery founded in 1132 in the Gaume region of Belgium and is located in Villers-devant-Orval, part of Florenville in the province of Luxembourg. The abbey is well known for its history and spiritual life but also for its local production of the Trappist beer Orval and a specific cheese with the same name.
So before we headed to the abbey we had lunch and an Orval Vert at À l’ange gardien. Aparantly that’s a thing to do. We didn’t know beforehand.
Orval Abbey was founded twice.
The site has been occupied since the Merovingian period, and there is evidence that there was already a chapel here in the 10th century. In 1070, a group of Benedictine monks from Calabria settled here, at the invitation of Arnould, Count of Chiny, and Conrad I, Count of Luxembourg, and began construction of a church and a monastery, but after some forty years, possibly because of the death of Count Arnould, they moved away again. They were replaced by a community of Canons Regular, who completed the construction work: the abbey church was consecrated on 30 September 1124.
In 1132, a group of Cistercian monks from Trois-Fontaines Abbey in Champagne arrived, and the two groups formed a single community within the Cistercian Order, under the first abbot, Constantin.
Around 1252, the monastery was destroyed by a fire; the rebuilding took around 100 years. Wenceslaus I, first Duke of Luxembourg was buried here in 1383.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the various wars between France and various neighbouring regions such as Burgundy and Spain had an important impact on Orval. At one stage a foundry was established on the site. In 1637, during the Thirty Years’ War, the abbey was pillaged and burnt by French mercenaries.
In the 17th century, the abbey converted to the trappist branch of the Cistercian order, but reverted to the rule of the main order in around 1785.
In 1793, during the French Revolution, the abbey was completely burnt down by French forces, in retaliation for the hospitality it had provided to Austrian troops, and the community dispersed.
In 1887, the land and ruins were acquired by the Harenne family. They donated the lands to the Cistercian order in 1926 so that monastic life could resume on the site.
Between 1926 and 1948, under the direction of the Trappist monk Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen, the new monastery was constructed, and in 1935 Orval regained the rank of abbey. On 8 September 1948, the new church was consecrated. The abbey has many artifacts designed and produced by Camille Colruyt.
The ruins of the medieval buildings remain on the site and are available to view.
Legend of the Orval name
There is a legend of the abbey’s foundation, purporting to explain the name Orval and the coat of arms.
According to this, the widowed Mathilda of Tuscany was visiting the site, when she lost her wedding ring in a spring, to her great distress.
When she prayed for the return of the ring, a trout appeared on the surface of the water with the ring in its mouth. She exclaimed “Truly this place is a Val d’Or (Golden Valley)”, from which the name Orval is derived, and in gratitude made available the funds for the foundation of the monastery here.
The abbey arms show the trout and ring. The spring still supplies water to the monastery and its brewery.
Visit of the ruins
You can visit the ruins. The entry fee is 7 euros for an adult. A predictable but informative tour shows you the history of the abby, of the brewery and of cheese-making. There’s also monasterial art on display.
The place and the tour is not that spectacular, but interesting enough. The ruins are photogenic. It feels like medieval urbex. I dod learn a few things. I remember Orval cheese uses the Port Salut recipe.
As we visited in June 2021, coronavirus countermeasures were still effective. That meant the route was not always logical. It could have been laid out better.
So should you visit. Yes, sure. And buy some cheese and beer on your way out. Trappist beers are really rare these days.