Imagine for a moment you were a French monk in the late 1800’s. A century has passed since the French Revolution took down the monarchy. At worst, you were thought of as a threat and symbol of the religious stranglehold that the monarchy once held over the people and therefore you should be eradicated. At best, you were a nuisance to society who wished to separate church from state and therefore you should be expelled. You would have lived year after year in fear of the sound of horses and the knock on the door. While you may not relate to having your complete way of life threatened because of your beliefs, you can imagine that you’d want to seek out a new place to live – a place where you could worship freely. This is the environment out of which sprung two abbeys which sit on the Dutch side of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands.
The borderlands between the Netherlands and Belgium, particularly where the Dutch province of North Brabant and the Belgian provinces of Antwerpen and Limburg meet, have several abbeys which today play an important role in the local culture. A few of them are associated with my favorite topic, beer. The most famous beer abbeys are shown on the map.
I have already written two posts about a couple on the Belgian side of the border.
This post is about the two Dutch monasteries which make the Trappist beers, Zundert and La Trappe. Zundert is made at the Abdij Maria Toevlucht near the town of Zundert and La Trappe is made at the Abdij Koninghoeven just outside the city of Tilburg. These are the only two Dutch Trappist beers out of the eleven which exist in the world (Belgium has six).
Abdij Maria Toevlucht
Toevlucht translates to “refuge” and the name is appropriately given. At the end of the 19th century, when the French monasteries feared for their safety, one of the places they fled to was the Netherlands. Abdij Maria Toevlucht was an abbey that was originally planned to support the refugee monks and give them a new home. The land was offered to the monks of Abdij Koningshoeven in 1897. Some monks from this abbey started to construct the new abbey in 1899. However, as the religious environment in France began to become more tolerant, the refuge was never needed and construction languished around for several years as the original monks went back to Abdij Koningshoeven. It wasn’t until 1934 that Adbij Maria Toevlucht was officially designated an abbey.
The modern monks financed their existence by raising livestock but in 2009, it was decided to forgo this line of work in favor of starting a new Trappist brewery. In 2013, the Trappist Zundert beer was released to the world. The official name of the brewery itself is Brouwerij de Kieviet.
There is nowhere to drink the Zundert beer on the property of the monastery. There is a gift shop which is open for a few hours per day except Sunday where it is possible to buy the beer. The chapel can be visited during shop business hours but otherwise it is not possible to walk the grounds. Besides the chapel, a statue of the most famous beer monk, St. Bernardus, is the only thing to see.
To drink the beer in a cafe go across the highway to the Rustpunt de Kieviet.
Koningshoeven literally translates to King’s farmhouses. And that is exactly what was there in 1881 when French Trappist monks escaped from France. The monks of Koningshoeven knew pretty much right away that in order to fund the building of an abbey, they needed to brew beer. Already brewing was taking place in 1884. The brewery that you see today really began construction in 1891 and the abbey was built later on starting in 1894. The La Trappe beer that we know today was first introduced to the market in 1928.
Abdij Koningshoeven differs from other Trappist monastery breweries in that it regularly offers guided tours of the brewery. But the twin-towered church is off limits to the public. The gift shop is well stocked with various goodies such as cheese, chocolates, beer, and liquor, and the restaurant onsite is a great place to hang out for beers and a bite to eat after a bike ride. This may be the most commercial of the Belgian and Dutch Trappist monasteries.
Beer & Biking the Two Abbeys
There are different ways to experience these two abbeys. For intermediate fitness levels, you can do one of them as the focal point of a circuit route thru the beautiful and historic countryside around them. Or since they are only about 60km apart, it is also possible to take a one-way ride to both of them supplemented by easy train service back to the starting point. I have done them both ways and in each case it was a great experience. Below are the routes I have taken.
Zundert Circuit Route
A good circuit for visiting the Adbij Maria Toevlucht begins and ends at the train station in the Belgian town of Kalmthout (point 75). I always like the idea of including border crossings in my routes when I can. To me there is something special about crossing the border between countries on a bicycle. The circuit was made using the Fietsnet route planner. The total distance 54,1km.
La Trappe Circuit Route
I have done two different types of circuit routes to the Abdij Koningshoeven – a self-made one and an official organized route.
Official La Trappe Bike Route
There are several organized La Trappe bike routes which are colored coded and available on a map. The online version is here. The one I did is colored pink on the online map, but here is how the route looks as recorded by Strava.
This route is 53 km and includes two very nice villages of Oisterwijk and Oirschot, both worthy stops for a drink at an outdoor cafe.
Oirschot has the added bonus of having its own brewery where the Vandeoirsprong beers are brewed.
Self-Made La Trappe Circuit Route
My first visit to the Abdij Koningshoeven was with a route I made myself on Fietsnet. The beginning and ending point was the city of Tilburg. The total distance is 44km. This route includes parts of the official green and red La Trappe routes.
One interesting stop on this route is in the village of Haaren where a restored 15th century tower is all that is left of the Sint-Lambertuskerk. This church suffered its fate during the religious wars when it transferred from being Catholic to Protestant in 1648. After that time, it fell into disrepair and the church collapsed in 1780. Rather than try to rebuild it, a new church was built in another part of town. The tower was eventually restored but not until the Nazis had stolen its bells.
Combined Zundert-La Trappe Route
The third alternative is to combine both abbeys into one bike route. Unless you are an experienced cyclist who regularly does 100+ km in a single ride, I’d recommend starting either at Roosendaal or Tilburg and doing a one-way ride of 63km and using the train to bring you back to the starting point. I chose to start from Roosendaal train station.
Whichever route you choose, you will get a good look at the rural life in this region. There are plenty of forests to feel in touch with nature, nice fietscafes to soak in the ambience, and several places to contemplate the monastic life which to us today seems to only exist for the purpose of beer making or marketing. But when you consider the history behind these abbeys, you tap immediately into timelines extending thru several hundred years of European history where names like Napoleon haunt the landscape. If you allow yourself to appreciate that, any one of these beer and bike rides will be an extremely rewarding experience.