Belgian Abbeys: Monastic Marvels Unveiled

belgian abbeys

One of the most interesting and enjoyable ways to learn about Belgium’s history is with a visit to one of the many abbeys. Built long ago, they can tell us stories about the past. Nuns or monks live at some of the abbeys and focus on work, prayer, and meditation. Members of some convents crafting goods for sale to help with living expenses. Some have become cultural centers, while others are even tourist attractions.

Travelers can find peaceful and serene lodging for the night or maybe longer for a unique getaway at several old abbeys. Many of them operate craft beer breweries, creating some of Belgium’s best beers, and also cheese plants and share samplings with their guests.

Tap into culture and history with a stay at one of these Belgian abbeys.

Rochefort Abbey

Rocheport Abbey
Rocheport Abbey © Wikipedia

Rochefort Abbey (also known as Notre-Dame-de-Saint-Rémy) is situated in Namur, the capital city of the Wallonia region. Today, it’s known for its brewery and is one of the country’s few remaining Trappist monasteries. The beer production is deliberately limited, and brewery tours aren’t allowed, but you can explore the surrounding grounds. The beer is brewed using pure water drawn from a spring near the abbey and a specific yeast.

The abbey is also known for its long, fascinating history. Founded in 1230, the Trappist abbey was established as a Cistercian monastery for nuns and replaced by Trappist monks during the 15th century. The abbey was invaded in the late 18th century during the French Revolution and then sold and demolished to make room for a farm. In 1887, it was returned to the Achel Abbey monastery and began its brewery operation in 1889.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the abbey was restored and new buildings were raised. By the mid-20th century, the abbey was producing enough beer to be sold.

Orval Abbey

Orval Abbey
Orval Abbey

You’ll find Orval Abbey in Villers-devant-Orval in the region of Florenville, Wallonia in a lush, forested setting that is especially tranquil. The abbey is known for its spiritual life, rich history, and production of Trappist beer Orval. The abbey also has a cheese factory and a bakery.

The stories you’ll hear about Orval Abbey go all the way back to its founding by the Benedictines in the 11th century when it was part of the Order of Cîteaux. It endured wars and fires throughout history and was devastated during the French Revolution. The buildings were abandoned after secularization at the end of the 18th century. The monastery was rebuilt in 1926 and established as an abbey again in 1936. Its popular brewery began operating in 1931.

One particularly endearing story you’ll hear is connected to the Orval beer logo, a trout with a ring in its mouth. A legend dating back to the 11th century claims that Countess Mathilde lost her wedding ring in a nearby spring and the fish appeared with her ring in its mouth, so she founded the abbey on this spot.

Our Lady of Nazareth Abbey

Our Lady of Nazareth Abbey
Our Lady of Nazareth Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Our Lady of Nazareth (also known as Brecht Abbey) can be visited in Brecht in the province of Antwerp. Life here is characterized by the three elements of Trappist life—prayer, reading, and manual labor. The nuns produce several products such as cosmetics, cleaning products, and handcrafted banners and flags.

The abbey’s early history dates back to 1236 when a group of Cistercian nuns founded the monastery of Our Lady of Nazareth at Lier. The abbey flourished for five centuries and closed in 1797 after the Austrian Netherlands was occupied by the French Revolutionary Army. But even after the Belgian Revolution of 1830, the abbey did not recover. It wouldn’t be until the 20th century when a group of 13 nuns was granted land that the Brecht Abbey would open in 1951.

Val-Dieu Abbey

Val-Deiu Abbey
Val-Deiu Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

If you want to tour an authentic Belgian Abbey brewery, you’ll definitely enjoy the Val-Deiu Abbey, a former Cistercian monastery. Located in the province of Liège near Aubel, Val-Dieu is a stunning abbey surrounded by manicured lawns and a spacious park.

Public tours are offered for both the abbey and the brewery. The price is very reasonable at 7 Euros for the abbey and 6 euros to tour the abbey. Although the tours are given in French, you can book a tour in four other languages if you make a reservation. Adding to the enjoyment is both beer and cheese tasting.

The tour guides will tell you plenty of historical tales about the abbey amidst the abbey’s unique architecture and marvelous collection of artworks. You’ll learn how the abbey’s original church was destroyed during the War of the Limburg Succession, rebuilt, then destroyed again in the Eighty Years’ War, and once again by Louis XIV’s armies in 1683. Finally, it was dissolved after the church was destroyed for the fourth time during the French Revolution.

Val-Dieu Abbey sat unoccupied until 1844 when the last living monk and four others resettled there. Much later in 2001, it closed again after the last three monks left. In 2002, a small community resettled under the leadership of a rector associated with the Cistercian Order.

Keizersberg Abbey

Keizersberg Abbey
Keizersberg Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

For those with a keen interest in ancient history, The Keizersberg Abbey is the place to go. One of the most popular Benedictine monasteries, it sits atop Mont César in the university town of Leuven. The name Keizerberg translates to Ceasar’s Hill, and according to legend, it’s the site of a former castle with historical links to Julius himself.

You won’t be able to tour this abbey since it’s not open to the public, and no beer is produced here. The buildings are now a dormitory for university students and no monks live here. But the grounds are a beautiful place for quiet meditation and enjoying views of the city. You’ll find a large sanctuary amidst lovely public gardens. And it’s surrounded by a wall that you can easily re-imagine as a medieval fortress.

Our Lady of Soleilmont Abbey

Our Lady of Soleilmont
Our Lady of Soleilmont – © Wikipedia

Our Lady of Soleilmont is located in Fleurus in the open green space surrounding the city of Charleroi. Its history can be traced all the way back to the 12th century. A serious fire devasted most of the buildings in 1963. In 1973, the sisters moved into the new Soleilmont Abbey just a stone’s throw away from where the original one sat.

Today, a community of Trappistine nuns lives a quiet life here meditating and working in their Eucharistic bread bakery where they bake bread for sale to provide for living expenses. They also sew beautiful liturgical vestments sold in their monastery shop along with books, artwork, and other items.

Visit Our Lady of Soleilmont Abbey shop every day from 9:15 am to 7:00 pm. They sell their fresh bread on Fridays beginning at 1:00 pm.

Achel Abbey

Achel Abbey
Achel Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The Achel Abbey is home to a famous Trappist brewery, one of the fewest of its kind in the world. Along with work at the brewery, other activities include fulfilling the three elements of Trappist life—working, meditating, and reading.

Located in Hamont-Achel, the abbey was first built as a chapel in 1656. In 1686, it became a hermitage, and almost two centuries later, the building was converted into a priory, and finally into a Trappist abbey in 1871. A fully operational brewery was established as early as 1852, but the renowned brewery it is today wasn’t established until 1998.

Like many other Belgian monasteries, Achel Abbey didn’t escape the ravages of war. The community was expelled in 1789 when the Austrian Netherlands was invaded by the French Revolution army.

The monks were forced to leave the abbey again in 1914 after World War I broke out. After the war, a new abbey was built (1946-1952) but only partially completed. Most of the abbey’s land was sold to the Flemish Government and the Dutch National Forest Administration in 1989.

With support from the Trappists of Rochefort and Westmalle, brewing started at the abbey again in 1998.

Westmalle Abbey

Trappist Abbey of Westmalle
© 2023 Westmalle Abbey

The Trappist Abbey of Westmalle is located in the province of Antwerp in the town of Westmalle. Also known as the Abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, it’s the oldest Trappist monastery that is still active. It was founded in 1794 after a ban on monastic life in France sent French Cistercians fleeing the country.

Westmalle Abbey is known for its spiritual life and the Westmalle Trappist beer brewery. The beer it produces is a popular beer in Belgium and is a model for other “abbey beers,” although these beers may not necessarily come from an abbey brewery.

Tours of the brewery aren’t allowed, but there is a walking trail around the abbey that provides historic information at various points. Across the street at Cafe Trappisten you can view a film about the brewery and sample Westmalle beer. The cafe will also provide a leaflet that guides you around the abbey.

Maredsous Abbey

Maredsous abbey
Maredsous abbey

Founded in 1897 by Benedictine monks, Maredsous Abbey is nestled in the Molignée Valley, one of the most beautiful places in Belgium. The abbey’s setting, along with neo-Gothic buildings, beautiful gardens, and a monastery and church open to the public makes it appealing to a variety of tourists.

Tours are offered to explore the gardens, the buildings, the cheese dairy museum, the ceramics workshop, and more. There’s a playground for children, an onsite cafeteria, and a souvenir shop. Listen out for tales about the abbey’s founding, Pope Leo XIII, and the Congregation of Beuron.

Scourmont Abbey

Scourmont Abbey
Scourmont Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Home to one of the few Trappist breweries in the world, you’ll find Scourmont Abbey in Forges Village, Hainaout province. It was founded in 1850 when a group of monks settled on Scourmont Plateau near Chimay. A brewery was established in 1863, and the priory gained abbey status in 1871. In 1876, the community started a farm and a cheese factory where they made cheese using milk from the farm.

The thriving abbey would not be impervious to world conflict. It was occupied by the Germans, but the monks regained possession after the war.

Today, the Chimay Brewery produces four kinds of Belgian beers. The brewery isn’t open to the public, but you can book a stay at the onsite Espace Chimay Inn where you will learn the stories behind the abbey’s history and its famous brewery. The chapel and gardens are open to the public where you can enjoy the peaceful, forested surroundings.

St. Sixtus Abbey

St. Sixtus Abbey
St. Sixtus Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

St. Sixtus Abbey has the distinction of being the place where the beer it brews has been named the world’s best beer several times. Called Westvleteren beer, the beer is rare since production is limited to about 4800 hectolitres per year.

The abbey’s history dates back to 1831 when it was established on the site where a hop merchant lived as a hermit 17 years earlier. The brewery was established in 1838 by Trappist monks.

Besides the award-winning beer, St. Sixtus Abbey is famous for its spiritual life. The abbey and brewery aren’t open to the public, but you can book a stay and the guest house. The 20 rooms are simply furnished, and vegetarian meals are served and eaten in silence with music in the background. Pray and burn a candle in the pilgrim chapel.

Park Abbey

Park Abbey
Park Abbey – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Park Abbey is located in Flemish Brabant in Heverlee to the south of Leuven. The Premonstratensian abbey was founded in the 12th century and has been astonishingly well preserved. It has remained inhabited since its founding. Most of the buildings were built during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The abbey reconstructed the Braxatorium Parcensis brewery after the original one was sold as scrap metal during the French Revolution. The beer brewed here isn’t the classic Trappist beer, but it’s a tasty Belgian brew and can be sampled on the grounds.

Park Abbey is open to the public. Learn about its rich history all around the grounds and visit a cemetery where legendary figures from Leuven lay at rest. The abbey grounds have nature paths for hiking and cycling.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many abbeys does Belgium have?

Belgium has 41 abbeys across the country.

Can tourists visit Belgian abbeys?

Yes, some are more welcoming than others. Several offer self-guided and guided tours, and you can purchase their products.

Do abbeys in Belgium make their own beer?

Abbey beers are similar to Trappist brews and created in the same style. However, they aren’t actually brewed within the monastery.

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