Nestled in Belgium’s picturesque Berwinne valley is an abbey which claims to be the only abbey of the Cistercian order in Belgium which survived after the French Revolution. The name of the abbey, Abbaye du Val-Dieu, means Abbey of the Valley of God. The area around the abbey feels lost in time and it’s seclusion would certainly have given the monks a sense of closeness to God. But the location of the abbey also sits at the geographical center of a triangle of major cities from three different countries. Liege (Belgium), Maastricht (The Netherlands), and Aachen (Germany). Perhaps this caught-in-a-crossroad effect had something to do with why the church of the abbey has been destroyed four times since being founded in 1216.

Abbaye du Val-Dieu

In fact, about 20km away from Val-Dieu is Les Trois Bornes or the point where Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany meet. Another interesting socio-geographic characteristic of this area is that the abbey, which sits in the French-speaking part of Belgium, called Wallonia, borders a small isolated patch of Flanders, which is part of the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. This patch is bordered by the Netherlands on one side but then surrounded on the Belgian side by Wallonia. This was something I wasn’t aware of when I set out on a Beer & Hike adventure from the abbey recently. During the hike, I was completely tripped up by the friendly Goedendag coming from a young brother and sister pair who were out for a walk. Until that moment, I had been exchanging Bonjour with the other hikers. So much of eastern Belgium is riddled with these complex borders and boundaries. It is a topic in which I will continue to immerse myself in future blog posts.

Interior of the church

Today the Abbaye du Val-Dieu is no longer the home to any Cistercian monks. The last ones left in 2001. While the church is still functioning today, the main purpose of the abbey since 1997 has been the brewing of the Val-Dieu abbey beers. Another of the abbey’s bold claims is that Val-Dieu is the only official Belgian abbey beer actually brewed within an abbey. All of the other ones that I can think of, e.g. Maredsous, Leffe, Affligem, Grimbergen, etc. are all brewed in big commercial breweries. The brewery claims to use the traditional recipes from the abbey’s brewing past. The Val-Dieu beers are high quality. The blond, tripel, and Grand Cru are easily on par with or even a little better than their bigger commercial counterparts. The Val-Dieu brune, however, has a bit too much smokiness for my taste and is probably my least favorite of the six varieties in regular production. In order of alcohol content, they are:

  • Cuvee 800 (5.5%): Pale ale
  • Blonde (6%): Belgian blond
  • Biere de Noel (7%): Christmas beer
  • Brune (8%): Belgian dubbel
  • Triple (9%): Belgian tripel
  • Grand Cru (10.5%): Belgian Quadrupel
Abbey Brewery

The abbey has a giftshop where it is possible to buy all six in one convenient six-pack. So buy your six-pack, stash it in your trunk, and head out on the trail to experience more of this interesting corner of Belgium.

Gift shop

Hike Details

Starting PointAbbaye du Val-Dieu parking
Ending PointRoundtrip
Distance18.8 km
My Total/Moving Time4h29m / 3h48m
Eating PlaceDuring COVID – bring your own food
Post-COVID – The abbey restaurant
Gasterij de Commanderie – Sint-Pieters-Voeren

It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey

Hiking in Belgium in December means one thing…

Mud.

Hikes in Belgium typically include some traverse thru Belgium’s plentiful farmland. Farmland in Belgium (as with much of Europe and the UK) are not homesteads ruthlessly guarded by a shotgun-wielding, tobacco-chewing geezer yelling Git off mah laaaand. Many trails pass right thru the heart of these fields and pastures, with at worst a little barbed wire lining the path to deter any abuse of the farmer’s generosity. To the hiker in Belgium, where natural scenery lacks a lot of variety, the strolls thru and around Belgian farmland provide some of the most memorable and beautiful images. But the price for such beauty, at least in December, is trudging thru slippery, wet, gooey mud… plodding, squishing paths from Hell which can go on for over a kilometer. A good pair of sturdy, warm, and waterproof hiking shoes are worth their weight in gold.

In December, prepare for the brown stuff (yeah, watch out for well disguised cow manure too)

The hike from the Abbaye du Val-Dieu contained many such paths, but the rewards also included several cozy forests, a lot of rolling vistas, a World War II bunker, a historical viaduct, and an impressive castle.

Photographic Journey

Photos are in chronological order.

The initial ascent brings the only view over the abbey
The first village along the hike is Saint-Jean-Sart
A WWII-era bunker which was an observation post that was part of the defenses around the city of Liege.
A small forest called Alserbos
View after the Alserbos
Very muddy trek to Sint-Martens-Voeren
A railway viaduct built by the Germans in WWI to facilitate transport of goods between Germany and Antwerp
Vrouwenbos-Stroevenbos Forest above Sint-Pieters-Voeren
Kasteel Commanderie, a 17th century residence for the local commander of the Teutonic Order of Knights. Today used for events.
Farm scene
Beautiful view showing the rolling hills of the region
Enjoying a Val-Dieu blond and the view before the final leg
The final leg of the hike
In non-COVID times, one can enjoy a beer at the cafe (photo April 2018)

Final Words

It had been a while since I had been out on a proper Beer & Hike. The lack of inspiration led to a writing lull that I have been struggling to recover from. Writing for me is like fitness. When I am not doing it regularly, I have a difficult time enjoying the moments when I am not doing anything, such as indulging in a TV series. Needless to say, despite the mud, I felt light on my toes. My new Merrill hiking shoes once were red. Now I am not so sure. Even in December, the various shades of green, dull orange, brown, and lots of grey felt as lush as the palette of a Spring day. My imagination was also filling in the gaps, especially amongst the rows and rows of barren apple trees which would have been bursting with color just a couple months earlier. I tried to make a mental note to come back in a different season, but that list is so long that it is best to just absorb the moment itself as if it were all seasons. This was just the type of inspiration I was needing. The flutter was faint, but it was there. As I sat on a wall and changed out of my mud-caked shoes, I watched a group of contractors doing renovations to the brewery cafe, getting it ready for the post-COVID explosion of lockdown-weary visitors. It gave me a feeling of hope. That things not only will return to normal but in some small ways, such as the visitor experience to Val-Dieu, will be even better. With one Beer & Hike under my belt for the Christmas holiday season, the rejuvenation was only getting started.

M.G.G.P.

3 thoughts on “Beer & Hike: Abbaye du Val-Dieu

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