This week’s journey takes us back to Orval Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in the beautiful Gaume region of southern Belgium. Famed for its production of Trappist beer and cheese, Orval’s hauntingly beautiful medieval ruins were one of our favorite destinations of 2016.
The first monks to settle in Orval arrived from the Calabrian region of Italy at the invitation of Arnould, Count of Chiny, in 1070. Construction of a church and monastery began immediately following their arrival, yet – for reasons unknown – these pioneers abandoned the project and departed Gaume after only forty years. Othon, son of Arnould, replaced the monks with a small community of Canons who were able to complete the construction work of their predecessors. The completed church was consecrated by Henri de Winton, Bishop of Verdun, in 1124. Eight years later, a group of Cistercian monks traveled to Orval from the Abbey of Trois-Fontaines in Champagne, joining the Canons to form a single monastic community within the Cistercian Order. Work began immediately to convert the buildings to Cistercian usage; the new church was completed before the year 1200.
From the middle of the 13th century, a series of crises and catastrophes brought great suffering to Orval. In 1252, the abbey was gutted by fire. A number of buildings required complete reconstruction; so serious was the state of misery that, for a time, the authorities of the Order envisaged suppression of the monastery. During the 15th and 16th centuries, wars waged between France and Burgundy, and later between France and Spain, brought havoc and devastation throughout the Luxembourg region, and Orval was not spared. In 1637, at the height of the Thirty Years War, the troops of the Maréchal de ChâtiIlon pillaged and gutted the monastery and its dependencies. Reconstruction took place in a climate of insecurity through to the end of the century.
The abbey experienced a period of resurgence from the late 17th to mid 18th centuries. Farming and forestry projects overseen by the community were successful, and iron forges established at Orval a century earlier spearheaded the western steel industry. From 1760 onward, revenues from these activities were mainly given over to the building of a new monastery, and a new church was consecrated in 1782. Prosperity was short-lived, however, and misery soon returned. In 1789, the French Revolution erupted, and all of the Order’s possessions across the border were immediately confiscated. Four years later, revolutionary troops led by General Louis Henri Loison sacked and burned the monastery in retaliation for the hospitality it offered Austrian troops. The community withdrew to its refuge in Luxembourg and then to the Priory of Conques in Occitanie. In November 1795, it was officially suppressed and dispersed. For more than a century, the charred walls of Orval stood abandoned, at the mercy of inclement weather and of stone- and treasure-seekers.
The land and ruins of Orval were acquired by the de Harenne family in the late 19th century. In 1926, the family offered both to the Cistercian Order so that monastic life could be reestablished there. Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, Abbot of Sept-Fons (in the Allier region of France), accepted responsibility for the foundation of the abbey, and sent to Orval a group of monks to form the nucleus of the new community. The enormous task of reconstruction was undertaken by Dom Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen, from Ghent, a monk of the abbey of La Trappe. Very quickly, a new monastery rose on the same foundations as those of the 18th century monastery. In 1936, Orval regained the rank of abbey and Dom Marie-Albert was elected Abbot. The new church was consecrated in September 1948.
Today, Orval is well known for its production of Trappist beer. Located within the abbey’s confines, the Orval Brewery was created in 1931 to finance the enormous reconstruction works of the monastery. It hired lay workers from the outset, including the master brewer, Pappenheimer, who created the recipe. The brewer’s commercial policy is adapted to the values of the monastic community, and all income generated from sales goes to social welfare works and maintenance of the buildings. Orval cheese has also been produced on the premises since 1928. Both beer and cheese are sold in the abbey’s gift shop (and are delicious!).
We visited Orval – somewhat serendipitously – during a road trip through southern Belgium and Luxembourg in April 2016. After payment of a small admission fee, we were granted access to the Order’s medicinal herb-garden, a pharmaceutical museum and small museum of relics housed in the vaulted cellars of the 18th century church. The real highlight of our self-guided tour, however, was the ruins of the medieval abbey, its yellow ochre foundations glowing brightly even beneath overcast skies. We greatly enjoyed our peaceful and mostly solitary walk through the hauntingly beautiful remains of what must once have been a truly magnificent place of worship. This lovely abbey and its humble occupants are well worth several hours of time on any visit to the region. In the meantime, we invite you to explore Orval through our eyes (or more precisely, our lens!) in the photographs below.
Thank you for joining us on this adventure in Belgium! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Vintgar Gorge – Slovenia