On a recent weekend, we were enticed to the Gaume region by the opportunity to taste the famed abbey-brewed Orval beer near its source, but found that this southern corner of Belgium has a lot more to offer than just a Trappist seal. Admittedly, prior to doing any research about the area, I assumed that we were headed back to the Ardennes region and didn’t even realize that the abbey and our bed and breakfast were situated in a different region of the country. With the Ardennes to its North, the border with France to its West and South and the country of Luxembourg not far away, this picturesque stretch of Belgium is a showcase of beautiful farm and forest landscapes with charming villages, a notable and well-documented history, and locals who are passionate about sharing their culture.
Our first stop was the Orval Abbey which we were familiar with on account of its on-site production of the Trappist beer, Orval. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1132 and has withstood the tests of time and humanity, including a destructive and retaliatory fire ignited by the French in 1793 during the French Revolution. The medieval abbey was sacked and burned down while its inhabitants fled the area. These ruins remain, and visitors can now walk amongst them and visit the Monastic Museum to learn about the community’s history and strong brewing tradition.
The new Orval Abbey Church that was built adjacent to the ruins was completed in 1948. On account of this being an Abbey where monks worship, live and work, visitors don’t have access to the entire grounds, but we were very impressed by the open-air ruins, museum, and our view of the interior of the church from the upper gallery. It really is a beautiful place to wander around and we were both very impressed by the thoughtful design for visitors that allowed us to take in the ruins in a peaceful setting. Dan and I both mentioned how the ruins of the medieval Orval Abbey reminded us of the ruins of Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, on a much smaller scale of course, but similarly evoking a sense of awe.
The Mathilde Fountain is found amongst the ruins and is the source of the legend that explains the abbey’s foundation and name. According to the Abbey Orval brochure we obtained during our visit, “It is said that the Countess Mathilde de Toscane (1046-1115) had come to Orval on a hunting party, shortly after the death of her husband Godefroid-le-Bossu. Sitting beside the well, she let her ring fall from her finger. All searches [to find the ring] were in vain. After praying at the chapel nearby, she went back to the fountain where, all of a sudden, a fish came out of the water with the ring in its mouth and gave it to her. The Countess cried out in joy: This is truly a VAL d’OR.”
The rainy weather was a deterrent to further exploration of the Orval nature reserve and its walking trails, but A l’Ange Gardien café provided a comfortable spot to try the exclusive Orval Vert and choose between a bottle of the Orval young or old, served fresh (cold) or at cellar temperature (room temperature). Along with our Orval Vert (for Kaitlan) and Orval old and fresh (for Dan), we ordered an accompaniment of Orval cheese that did not disappoint!
After our Orval sampling, we headed to our Airbnb in Rossignol to check in and meet our host, Jacqueline. I was looking forward to meeting her as I could tell from the recommendations included with her Airbnb listing that she was very knowledgeable and passionate about sharing her corner of Belgium. We were welcomed warmly and before long, the three of us were chatting in the dining area – Jacqueline providing suggestions about not only what to see in the Gaume area, but also in Europe. We exchanged travel stories and before we knew it, Dan and I had to leave for our dinner reservation.
One of Jacqueline’s fantastic recommendations from her Airbnb guidebook was the restaurant Au Coeur de la Gaume. A glance at their website and the excellent reviews convinced me to make dinner reservations so we could taste the authentic and delicious cuisine of the Gaume region. The building housing the restaurant today was formerly a farmhouse, so there was no shortage of eye-catching décor in the unique space. The setting wasn’t the only pleasing aspect of this place though, as the service was excellent, and we even felt comfortable enough to use our limited French when speaking with the waitress (instead of resorting immediately to hand gestures and head nods).
Dan ordered the Pate Gaumis, a pork meat pie, which the waitress kindly suggested he eat with his hands, and for dessert he had the Crème brûlée, somehow made with Orval beer. I ordered the smoked duck confit served with potatoes and sauerkraut, followed by la dame blanche for dessert and couldn’t have been more content with my selection. Dan and I both agreed irrefutably that this was one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Up for discussion though was the reason that the guests at the tables next to us kept taking the fireplace poker stick directly from the fire and jabbing it into their glass of beer, holding it there while the beer foamed and bubbled. With some research I learned that this is not a practice unique to the restaurant, but rather is a common cure for cold weather blues. Apparently, the hot fireplace poker adds a smoky flavor while caramelizing the malt and giving the drinker plenty of foam to work through.
We awoke the next morning to partake in the impressive breakfast spread prepared by Jacqueline that we enjoyed in her comfortable dining area despite the wind and rain outside. Jacqueline explained the origin of the food before us and we eagerly dug in! At her recommendation, we topped our Belgian waffles with Sirop de Liege and beetroot sugar, and then loaded our fresh baguettes with Orval cheese, fresh butter, and Ardennes ham. Her homemade yogurt along with her grapefruit and orange jams were wholesomely delicious and all was washed down with hot coffee and locally made apple juice. Upon the conclusion of our very satisfying meal, the three of us sat around her table conversing further about travel – this time about her visit to Sicily, Belgian and American cultural norms, and writing/ blogging. It was difficult to depart from the comfortable quarters of her bed and breakfast, but her proposals for our further exploration of the Gaume were the motivation we needed. We said our good-byes and both Dan and I agreed that it was our best experience yet with an Airbnb host – we would highly recommend a visit to Jacqueline’s guesthouse, A Quiet Place, on account of its comfortable accommodations, her passion for sharing the Gaume region, and the hospitality extended to her guests.
Feeling energized and excited to tour more of the Gaume before heading back to Brussels, we drove to the Castle of Bouillon. Bouillon is a small town situated on one of the many bends in the Semois River, with its name being first mentioned in texts dating from 988 AD, and whose existence is known to have been tied to the Gallo-Roman period. The castle is remarkably well-preserved and standing on the ramparts and towers affords an excellent view of the town and river below, nestled between the surrounding hills.
With the very strong winds incessantly propelling rain into the faces of those braving the weather, we nearly had the place to ourselves – not necessarily ideal, but if you’re going to tour a medieval castle, dreary weather does provide a fitting backdrop. Our self-guided tour was laid out by the castle’s pocket-size guidebook and facilitated our understanding of the medieval fortress defenses and its ties to well-known figures throughout the years. Areas of the castle were fortified and equipped with heavy artillery by the French King Louis XIV’s military architect, Marshal Vauban, in the late 17th century. Even before that, another notable person with ties to Bouillon was Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade in the 11th century and the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Of course, Napoleon’s name also found its way into the guidebook; he never inhabited the fort, but his defeat led to the town being ceded to the Netherlands before Belgium gained its independence in 1830.
The self-guided tour took us from the entrance draw bridge to the tallest point at the Tower of Austria, and then down to the basements and underground galleries of the fortress. For its excellent views and notable history, we were glad to have made a stop at the castle and braved the elements.
Down in the town of Bouillon, we lunched at La Vieille Ardenne, another very local establishment where Dan ordered the meatballs and a local beer called Septimus, while I dug into the pasta carbonara topped with Camembert cheese that melted into the pot of noodles. Feeling full, but not ones to turn down dessert, we peaked inside the popular Legrand/Philippe bakery and walked out with a chocolate brioche bun and macaron creampuff goodies (still trying to track down the name of those) to occupy us on our drive home.
A stretch of rainy winter weather in Belgium can certainly be depressing, but our spirits were lifted whilst on this visit to a new-to-us area of Belgium – we found our new favorite abbey and met Jacqueline, a passionate local and welcoming guesthouse host. Having planned some international travel for the coming months, our visit to the Gaume was a good reminder that we don’t have to go far to have a memorable weekend. We only touched the surface of all that the Gaume has to offer and look forward to a return visit for more food, local insight, nature, and maybe even a fireplace poker beer.
For Jacqueline’s perspective of the Gaume, check out my Get to Know a Local post highlighting her recommendations.