exploring the Ardennes
The Ardennes Forrest covers a sizable portion of southeastern Belgium, spills over into neighboring Luxembourg, and extends into parts of Germany and France. Castles and other medieval ruins dot the landscape, extensive networks of subterranean caverns lie hidden in the Ardennes mountains, and Trappist monks continue to follow centuries-old recipes to brew perfect beer and make sumptuous cheese in abbeys scattered throughout this rugged corner of Europe. In other words, we expected to find a little slice of heaven and, despite our unpleasant reception in Dinant, the Ardennes did not disappoint.
Even though the previous night’s rainstorm had largely petered out, the weather remained unpleasant when we awoke our first morning in Dinant. As a result, we enjoyed a low-key day with our friend, lazing around the house while the kids played; Junebug even got a morning nap in. We left the house around lunchtime and drove to Crupet, a cute little town renowned for its trout – and with good reason!
Whereas Crupet lived up to expectations, our first visit to a Trappist abbey proved underwhelming, to say the least. From Crupet we had driven to Maredsous, a Benedictine monastery that lends its name to one of Belgium’s six Trappist breweries. We passed some scenic ruins and arrived at a sprawling and well-manicured estate only to find that the monks had succumbed to the worst instincts of corporatization.
The grounds were prepared to accommodate a bevy of visitors, but there was nothing to visit. The tours are only offered on the weekends. The cheese factory is off limits. And the imposing church was bereft of any interesting artifacts. The only place that was open was an overpriced mall-style café & souvenir gift shop. We let Munchkin run around the nearby playground, but it was cold, wet, and windy so we did not linger.
We had considerably better luck the next day. The sun finally peaked out from behind the clouds, and we spent the day taking in the southern Ardennes’ top highlights. First we drove to the scenic hamlet of Rouchehaut, which is nestled in a bend of the Semois River. Then we visited the castle at Bouillon, which was every bit as interesting as the medieval castles we had seen in Luxembourg.
We ended the day in Orval, sampling the eponymous beer at a crowded eatery before touring the stunning Notre Dame d’Orval abbey, another of Belgium’s Trappist monasteries. Orval, with its old church ruins, modern monastery, and beer-making museum proved as pleasant and scenic as Maredsous had been insipid and unwelcoming.
Unlike Maredsous, which was founded in the 19th century, the Orval monks can trace their origins for nearly a thousand years. Historians have uncovered remains of a chapel dating back to the 10th century, though the first record of Benedictine monks in Orval is from 1070. After some fits and starts, the original abbey was finally completed in the 12th century, only to be destroyed a century later. The rebuilt abbey suffered a similar fate several more times, falling victim to nearby France’s rapacious wars with its neighbors in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Modern buildings now provide the monks’ quarters and cheese- and beer-making facilities, while the ivy-covered remains of a half-destroyed 17th-century church testify to the abbey’s turbulent history.
Our last day in the Ardennes, we took a roundabout route back to the Netherlands, going out of our way to visit the Remouchamps caves. There are literally a dozen different cave systems within driving distance of Dinant. We chose Remouchamps because its distinguishing feature is Europe’s longest navigable underwater river.
The tour itself left a lot to be desired, particularly as our guide was utterly obnoxious. “Does anyone here not speak Dutch?” he asked in Dutch at the start of the tour; he then continued to speak almost exclusively in Dutch even after a couple of Finnish tourists piped up to say that they didn’t understand the language. The caves are not the most visually stunning we have visited (they pale in comparison to Postojna, for instance), but floating downriver through claustrophobia-inducing tunnels made the visit worthwhile.