Sunday, January 31, 2010

On a mission...from God

So, ha ha! Funny story... Last week we decided to re-visit Brugge for the weekend, since it was possibly our number one favorite place we traveled to when we were living in London. (If you've been there, you know. It's heaven.) On Friday, I booked our hotel online.

Well, for whatever reason, I was compelled to open our confirmation email on Friday evening and was all "Huh. Why does this say January 30? That's weird. Because tomorrow is the 23rd. Right? Oh shit."

Honey, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Well, the good news is that I've already got our excursion for next weekend booked! Yes yes, I'm quite the planner, I know! The bad news is that we currently have absolutely nothing planned for tomorrow and Sunday. Yes yes, I'm an idiot, I know.

But, not being one to concede defeat so easily, I scramble to throw something together. And I think I did pretty well considering I planned this entire thing in about an hour and a half. (With no small amount of help from these guys.) Because I am The Greatest Wife in the World, I planned a tour of Trappist ale producing monasteries.

A little background... I think it's been well established on here that the Belgians take their beer very seriously. But none, I believe, more seriously than the Trappist monks. There are only five remaining Trappist breweries in Belgium and three of them are concentrated in the south of the country - Chimay, Rochefort and Orval.

The last of which is where our journey begins. About two hours south of Brussels, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the French border, is Orval. The countryside around here is breathtaking.

As is the situation with some of the other monasteries, Orval doesn't permit visitors into the area where the monks live and worship or into the brewery area. But you can walk around the medieval ruins (dated 1100's-ish) that sit next to the newer facilities.

There's a great little legend about this spring well. The Countess Mathilde de Toscane visited Orval on a hunting party after her husband died. As she was sitting next to the well, her ring fell off her finger and into the water. She went to pray at the nearby chapel and then returned to the well. All the sudden a fish jumped out of the water with the ring in its mouth and the Countess said "This truly is a val d'or (golden valley)!"

It's one of the most peaceful places you can imagine. It's almost completely silent, except for the occasional bells calling the monks to prayer.

It's hard to imagine it was once a massive cathedral...

Since you aren't able to taste the beers at the monasteries, most all have affiliated cafes which they recommend for sampling. So sample, we did. Orval also makes a delicious cheese which we had as well.

The fish logo obviously comes from the legend of the well.

Next on our list was Rochefort. We got incredibly lucky here. Just as we were walking up into the courtyard (in the photo below), one of the monks came out and asked if he could help. We told him we hoped to just have a look around if possible and he told us that he had a group tour arriving in just a few minutes and it was in French but we were welcome to join. Typically, we're not ones for group tours. But when it gains you access to otherwise off limit areas, well sign us up.

And little did we know, but we were in for a very special treat indeed. After the tour of the abbey, he walked the group back outdoors and led us into a cluster of buildings to the side. Then he comes over and says to us, "Now, we visit the brewery if you like?" After Jason regained use of speech, he assured the monk that yes, we like very much.

I don't know why, but there's just something charming about a cross hanging in the room with all the copper brewing tanks. Maybe it's because I was raised in a southern baptist church where BEER = DEVIL JUICE HISS HISS! (We didn't even use wine for communion. Welch's grape juice. Dead serious.)

I felt like Laverne and Shirley in the bottling area. Jason asked me if I was dying to put one of my gloves on one of the bottlenecks. He knows me so well.

After leaving the abbey, we went into the town to find a pub where we could sample the product. In this photo, I captured pretty much everything there is to see in the actual town of Rochefort. Its essence, if you will. The town hall, a WWI monument (the Belgian countryside is, after all, essentially the Western Front) and a Belgian flag. I think the flag gives it that little something extra, don't you think?

The Rochefort brewery, unfortunately, does not have a designated cafe in which to try their beers. So we were on our own for this one. We, um, how do you say...chose poorly. Very very poorly. It was not a nice place. There were drunk, belligerent locals yelling at one another and I was a little bit afraid. I had to pee so bad but wouldn't walk to the restroom by myself. I insisted on sitting by the front door and refused to remove my coat and scarf in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat. This is my "This wasn't our best idea, was it?" face:

Fortunately, we made it out alive and headed to Dinant where we had booked ourselves into a bed and breakfast. It was dark and beginning to rain by the time we got there so we just hunkered down for the evening.

On Sunday morning, we set out to explore Dinant a bit before heading to our final stop on this portion of La Tour de Trappiste: Just Like La Tour de France, Except With Beer and Monks. I think it's safe to say Dinant has a pretty dramatic setting, no?

We took a cable car up to the citadel which overlooks the town and surrounding countryside.

Dinant kind of sits in a valley with massive walls of rock on either side. This bizzare formation is called the Bayard Rock. There's some crazy legend about it being split by the hoof of the giant Bayard horse as it jumped over the Meuse river and landed here. But the more widely-accepted version of events says it was separated with an explosion to provide passage for the troops of Louis XIV after they had taken Dinant. So, not so much a giant horse as it was a bunch of invading Frenchmen playing with firecrackers.

And now we get the pleasure of driving through it! (I'm very easy to entertain.)

And finally, the last stop on this leg of the 2010 Drinkin' for Jesus Tour...Chimay. At the risk of sounding cliche and a bit over the top, the monastery was magical. Right as we pulled up it began to snow. Outside in the courtyard, it was so still you could hear a pin drop.

It was like a Robert Frost poem come to life...

And then of course we headed to the restaurant recommended to us by the monk at the abbey.

And brought ourselves home some beer and cheese. Nomnomnom.

Jason likes to pretend that the black leather gloves I bought him are driving gloves. Go Speed Racer, go!

And for our last trick, we popped by Mons to see a house that Vincent Van Gogh lived in for a while. His time here was not terribly happy. Maybe because the house sits in a swamp and was basically sinking into the ground? Seriously, you can't tell so much from this angle but this thing is leaning like the Tower of Pisa. It would probably be a pile of rubble by now had it not been for the efforts of some very enthusiastic restoration experts.

Two more Trappist breweries to check of the list in the coming weeks... Stick around for the exciting conclusion of the Lord, I Give My Liver to Thee show!


Aisling said...

I LOVE Brussels and I just have to say that I love your blog. I should have been working the last hour and a half but instead I've been reading your posts and now have a few new places to visit when we next visit Brussels. I'm impressed at all the travelling!

Alice said...

How fun!

Beth said...

"I love Jesus, but I drink a little."

Heather said...