Orval is a valley of gold (“val d’or” in French), a name derived from a delightful legend linked to Countess Matilda. Above all, Orval is a Trappist (Strict Observance Cistercian) Abbey that has offered hospitality to travellers for 900 years. The Trappist monks who live there brew beers that are famous around the world. Visitors can explore this unique place, plus its historical museum and pharmaceutical museum and various temporary exhibitions. Or they can visit the “Guardian Angel Inn” to enjoy dishes made using Orval beer and cheese, and, exclusively, to drink draft Orval Green beer, a lighter version drunk by the monks themselves and their guests on retreats to enjoy the silence and contemplate the beauty of the place.
A prestigious abbey
The history of this prestigious abbey began in 1020, when several Italian Benedictine monks chose the valley to build a monsatery, which quickly became a centre of Christianity. Several times in its history the abbey was burned down, only to rise from the ashes each time. The last of these restorations was in 1926, when a group of Trappist monks from Sept-Fons Abbey in the Allier département of France came to Orval and built a cheese factory and a brewery to finance the rebuilding of the abbey that had been destroyed during the French Revolution. This Herculean task was overseen by a Belgian monk from the Trappist abbey at Soligny, Dom Marie-Albert van der Cruyssen, who had been a businessman in Ghent before taking holy orders: he went on to become the new monastery’s first abbot. The buildings were designed by his friend, the engineer and architect Henry Vaes, who worked at Orval for 20 years. The new buildings stand on the remains of the eighteenth-century buildings. The abbey church was raised to the status of a basilica church and was consecrated in 1948.
Orval, a veritable golden valley
A delightful legend is linked to the abbey’s history and explains its name and its coat of arms. The legend states that Countess Matilda of Tuscany, Duchess of Lower Lorraine, while visiting her lands at Orval, lost her wedding ring in a fountain fed by a spring, which is still there today. She prayed to Our Lady to help her find it, whereupon a trout appeared with the ring in its mouth. The countess declared that this really was a golden valley. Orval Abbey therefore owes its foundation to Matilda’s gratitude. The Trappist monks survived by planting crops and grazing animals on the land they had been given. By the thirteenth century, Orval Abbey owned a dozen farms where the monks worked. They created an economically successful enterprise, including a huge agricultural estate and a managed forest, of which only a tiny portion remains accessible today as the Orval Fields nature reserve, where bats, rare insects and plants (including orchids) and highland cattle give the impression of an earthly paradise.
Orval beers and cheeses
The last remaining part of the old abbey that had been burned down, known as “Abraham’s Commons” was a lodging-house for novices and workshops. In the nineteenth century, part of the building was converted into an orangery. Today it houses the brewery museum where you can discover the secrets of how the famous Trappist beer is brewed. The brewery produced its first beer in 1932. Orval is one of the six beers brewed under the control of Trappist monks in Belgium. Its recipe dates back to the 1930s, as do the designs of its tasting glass, bottle and label, all designed by the abbey’s architect Henri Vaes. Orval cheese is inspired by the cheese produced by Trappist monks at the Port du Salut Abbey in the Mayenne département of France. Orval cheese and beer is on sale in the monastery shop, alongside theology and spiritual life books and religious objects.
In search of spirituality
In the spirit of St Benedict’s rule, the monastic community does not live isolated from the world. It remains open and in contact with the population around it and with the local parish church. The community welcomes anyone, man or woman, individuals or groups, to stay in the abbey’s guest house while they find their way and recharge their batteries. Going on a retreat or even just spending a weekend in the monastery allows visitors to share with the monks the benefits of contemplation in silence surrounded by the beauty of this place.