Orval

Belgium

The beer from the end of the world

Arriving from Florenville, we have a beautiful surprise: a complete change of scenery. The straight and modern road looks like the only sign of the century we live in. Apart from that, nothing seems to have changed ever since time immemorial. It's as if we had embarked on a voyage for a parallel space-time, because all around us there's not a single house, building, or living soul to be seen; it's forests, forests, forests. We almost expect the odd faun riding a unicorn to appear from behind a tree… If you forget about the road, you can easily imagine what people must have felt during the Middle Ages when they were travelling through these lands. And we also feel an immense serenity come over us, a sensation that lets us guess why the first monks, coming from Calabria (not really the county next door, after all), decided to built their monastery in the middle of this forest in the 11th century…

At the end of the road Orval Abbey rises before us like an oasis of yellow stones in this frame of greenery. The buildings we see today date back the 1930s, when a group of monks woke up this Sleeping Beauty, which had fallen into ruin after Napoleon's armies had looted it and burned it down at the end of the 18th century. Luckily, the ruins haven't been entirely cleaned up, because our stroll becomes—and this seems to be the leitmotiv, here—a very romantic and picturesque step backwards in time. The whole premises float as if outside the fleeting time, outside human desires and petty worries.

It is true that Orval Abbey exhales positive vibrations, an atmosphere of peace, a yellow stone peace, which must have made the monks' inner peace come more easily, just as it still does for the visitors' inner peace. All mundane things are left outside; one feels comforted, appeased, far away from any bustle, any immediacy. Granted, back when the original monks were dwelling in this abbey, they had roofs where today there are only huge holes that let you contemplate the blue sky above. Maybe everything we imagine is therefore but a pipe dream, a fantasy we fondly create but that didn't exist in reality, back then. Yet we like to think that this might have been a place where you could strive together for a common goal rather than struggle for survival each on his own.

There's a nice legend surrounding the little Fountain of Mathilda in the middle of the ruins. It is said that once upon a time a noble lady (Mathilda of Tuscany, in fact) had come through this region. When she put her hands in a sparkling spring, her wedding ring slipped off her finger. She was very sad, raising her tear-stained eyes towards the sky and complaining. A trout appeared then on the surface of the water and brought her back her ring. The lady, rapt with joy, exclaimed: "Here's the golden ring I was looking for! Happy valley that has given me it back! From now and and for ever and ever I want this place to be called Val d'Or (Golden Valley)". Thus the place's name was born: Val d'Or—Orval. Proof that the "verlan" (a form of French slang where you reverse the order of syllables) hasn't been invented by suburban youngsters in the 1980s…

Orval Abbey doesn't only lead you to spiritual experiences, by the way. Otherwise, this post's title would be completely weird. No, the monks do understand that the word "spirit" has two meanings. That's why they brew their own beer here, in the Abbey. Therefore we do not fail to go have a look in the little shop, where we buy a six-pack of beer that we peacefully enjoy once back at home. It is said that the clear water of the Mathilda-Fountain gives this beer its bitter taste and inimitable aroma…

GOOD TO KNOW

  • Check out the official site of Orval Abbey – FR, DE, EN, NL.

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