SEVEN DAYS IN ARDENNES
My 17 previous Belgian trips had comprised 13 trips to Flanders and 4 to Brussels, so it was about time I discovered Wallonia. What would I find? We had 7 days to do as much as possible, and this is what we found.
Leaving London in pouring rain at 6am, we got on the shuttle at 8am and were soon on the autoroute via Brugge, Gent and Brussels, and, thanks to Mark's excellent directions, out to the Ardennes on the 'Autoroute d'Ardennes', the E411. With the weather steadily improving as we went, we made good progress and were in a very sunny and hot Durbuy just three and a quarter hours after arriving in Calais.
Durbuy: a lovely, if touristy, little town north of Marche en Famenne, with a population of only 400. It is highly picturesque, set in what we quickly realised was typically beautiful Ardennaise countryside. A small square with many restaurants and hotels leads up to the idyllic river with small bridge round the corner. At the other end of this tiny town, which is well worth visiting, is the Ferme au Chene brew pub:
Ferme au Chene: Rue Comte d'Ursel 36; 6940 Durbuy +32 86/21 10 67
The 'Oak Tree Farm' brewery - hmm, well, I did not see much brewing going on here, and I forgot to ask Dany P at Fantome (who also brews the Marckloff beer they sell here) if he brews the beer here or at his own brewery. There's a video showing some brewing and they point out where it all allegedly happens, but the output is reputedly only 80hl per annum, so in any case its very small. The café attached is airy and comfortable, and they do lunches and drinks from a small selection. Worth a quick visit if you're in the area. The owner was not entirely sober, which made for highly some highly entertaining discussions using my poor French and his equally sparse English!
Brasserie Fantome; Rue Preal 8; 6997 Soy +32 86/47 70 44 email@example.com
This was the highlight of the day and one of the big highlights of the week. Just south of Durbuy, and on the way out of Soy as you approach from Hotton, you find the brewery in an old farmhouse on the left. Look out for the Fantome ghost and you'll know you've arrived! Entering round the back you find Dany's cosy bar, which was already entertaining a group of visitors from the US on a beer tour. Outside the bar there's a little terrace overlooking the surrounding countryside. Watch out for the old motorbike up in the rafters above the bar, another of Dany's passions! A Fantome hanging around right by the door also adds to the great atmosphere.
Dany welcomed us on arrival and gave us the tour after we had a drink. The fresh Fantome on tap was superb, even better than I had dared to imagine. After the tour Dany treated us to a sample of his new batch of the Autumn Fantome, which was a rich fusion of autumnal flavours, quite a bit darker and richer than previous years' versions, and extremely good. Upstairs Dany showed us the first part of the brewing process, which is completed at the other end of the brewery downstairs. Some of his equipment was sold to him by Achouffe, and its remarkable what Dany achieves considering he does virtually everything himself, in an old, remote farmhouse brewery. The bottling, corking, capping and labelling is all done by hand. The brewery is the most fantastic example of genuine artisanal brewing, using fairly old equipment, and it is to Dany's immense credit that he produces such wonderful beer from quite humble surroundings.
It is a fascinating place to visit, but make sure you contact Dany in advance to arrange to visit to ensure it is convenient as he is extremely busy and visits are not always possible. To see the brewery and meet Dany was an immense privilege, and an experience that I would recommend to anyone interested in Belgian beer.
La Roche en Ardennes: after Fantome it was down to another scenic town, La Roche, which is much bigger than Durbuy but still quite a small town. It has a huge castle overlooking the river, and the whole town appears to be hidden by the hills surrounding it. We called at a couple of bars before heading off to:
Houfallize, where we stayed the night at the very comfortable Hotel du Commerce. This is another pretty little town on a river, very quiet, especially midweek when many bars, etc were closed. A good place to stay though, if you want to visit Achouffe.
Driving from Soy to La Roche, and on to Houfallize was superb, along the River L'Ourthe, full of spectacular views and pretty countryside. After checking into our hotel, we went out to the Achouffe Brewery, about 4 miles out of town (closed by the time we arrived), and had dinner at the excellent café round the back which is open evenings. This does food cooked in the local beers, and of course has the Achouffe beers on tap.
Brasserie d'Achouffe: Route du Village 32; 6666 Achouffe +32 61/28 81 47
First stop was the brewery. Unfortunately Chris the brewer was out of town, so we had only a quick tour, but it's a highly impressive operation, on a totally different scale to that at Fantome. Based in two separate buildings way out in the countryside, you can imagine that it too started with very humble beginnings, but now it's a totally different and very busy enterprise.
After buying beer, a gnome, and other goodies, we went back to La Roche to see what we had missed the day before, then went via Erezee (of Fantome 'Saison de' fame) out to the Spa Francorchamps Motor Racing circuit. Unfortunately the circuit, which you can normally drive around, was closed so we left in a hurry. Lunch in Stavelot was followed by our drive south via:
Bastogne: bustling town, and scene of various WW2 battles, with random old tanks littering the area to prove it;
Suxy: in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Check out the amazing 'Stop' bar, at Rue Grande 52, +32 61/31 56 43, which has to be seen to be believed - how many other bars do you know with a 10 pin bowling alley tucked in the back by the toilets, and a stuffed animal on the wall wearing sunglasses??! Decent beer list too, plus grocery store out the back!
Florenville: to our superb hotel, Hostellerie du Prieure de Conques:
This beautiful hotel is a former Cistercian priory which used to belong to Orval. Very peaceful, based just 3 miles south of Herbeumont, about 4 north of Florenville, it's an ideal base for visiting Orval. It has a couple of acres of grounds right on the River Semois, and is the place to go for a relaxing break. It's a very romantic venue, and ideal for taking your partner, especially if you have dragged them round endless Wallonian breweries - this place will definitely keep them very happy! Superbly furnished, comfortable quiet rooms, lovely bar with a few Trappist ales downstairs, and with renowned Ardennaise cooking - all you need for a relaxing few days. Watch the food portions though: like with many posh places, the portions were very small. You should plan on eating all 3 courses to ensure you are full.
Brasserie d' Orval: 6823 Villers-devant-Orval +32 61/31 10 60
We had prearranged a visit with the charming and exceptionally helpful Commercial Director, Francois de Harenne. He spent almost three hours with us, giving us a full tour, explaining the brewing process, discussing our favourite Belgian Beers, showing us his collection of old Orval, and his collection of gifts that he has been given by various visitors. Our Denver babblers will be pleased to know that he has a bottle of La Folie from New Belgium in his office, and I had great pleasure in recommending this one to him wholeheartedly!
The tour was fascinating. We were shown the stores of all the raw materials, then the giant, gleaming brew kettles, which are highly impressive. Each room is carefully temperature controlled - the hop store was about 36 degrees, and smelt wonderful! Each brew is 100hl, and they do 400 brews per annum. The early shift starts brewing at 5.30am and finishes at 1.30pm, with a second shift starting then if they are doing two brews that day. The fascinating bottling plant was working flat out when we arrived. They bottle 20000 bottles an hour, a totally different world to that at Fantome. They even have this machine that checks the old bottles which have been returned and picks out the most microscopic defects - the machine itself cost £150,000 ($210,000). The store has 70000 crates each holding 24 bottles, which made me very thirsty indeed. They also have a very modern laboratory.
After the tour, we had lunch, courtesy of Francois, in the 'Ange Gardien' a small inn which is just up the road from the abbey. We continued our discussions and enjoyed an Orval Vert 3.5% (the monks' everyday drink) followed by the real thing! Francois is a joy to spend time with, and we really appreciated the time and effort he put into welcoming us and showing us round. He also answered all of our questions and told us many interesting historical stories about the abbey, the area and the beer. Later we visited the ruins of the old abbey, which is also well worth doing. Early afternoon, we set off to the next part of our trip. First stop:
Brasserie St Helene: Rue Sainte-Hélène 21; 6724 Orsinfaing +32 63/41 22 79
This is a tiny micro in the small village of Orsinfaing, about 15 miles north of Orval. There really is nothing there, and we were surprised to find that the address we had for the brewery was just an ordinary house. We rang the bell and were greeted very frostily by a woman who said the brewery was 'ferme'. Her expression said we should not argue! We later found out that the brewery is anything but 'ferme' and the reason for our frosty reception was that the brewer and his wife have split up! Oh dear. Next stop was:
Brasserie de Rulles: Rue Maurice Grevisse 36; 6724 Rulles +32 63/41 18 38
This place was great. Another classic Wallonian micro, in a converted shed or garage by a house in the tiny village of Rulles, just round the corner from Orsinfaing, again right out in the middle of nowhere. I had sampled the Rulles Blonde at the Bier Circus and was therefore intrigued to find out where they came from. I was delighted to not only find the brewery but meet the brewer, Gregory Verhelst, who stopped work to chat to us, show us around, and share a sample of his new Brune with us! Gregory will go far in the brewing world, I have no doubt. He has converted a house across the road into a small sampling room for group visits, and also organised the recent Marbehan beer festival which was held in September for small breweries. This attracted 3000 visitors and he hopes to run it again next year. He has got some very impressive modern equipment, but it's a classic tiny microbrewery in some space where a barn or garage once was, a great use of space producing fabulous products. To find it, proceed through Rulles and it's on the right just before the village ends.
After coffee in a bar in Etalle, it was off to Athus, right on the border with Luxembourg, and the next brewery:
Trois Brasseurs: Rue de Rodange 53; 6791 Athus +32 53/38 31 72
This is a new and very impressive brewpub, with gleaming brewing equipment upstairs, visible from the main bar area downstairs. I got a tour from the brewer, but the other staff would gladly show you round if he is unavailable. My criticisms are that the beer is not exactly world beating, and the feel of the surroundings, while very pleasant and modern, is a bit too artificial. It belongs to a chain of four Trois Brasseurs - this is the first in Belgium, the others are in northern France - and it does have a 'chain' formula feel to it. The beers - blanche, brune, blonde and ambree - are ok, but only the brune was impressive, the others ordinary and fairly watery. I hope they improve, because in common with many similar places, this is the only beer that they do, although they do have an extensive food menu.
After the brewpub, it was over the border and up to Luxembourg City for dinner. This is a lovely city, with a dramatically situated and very pretty centre, and being only 20 miles from the border, we felt that we may as well see how what its like. We were right - it is well worth it, and if you are in South East Belgium then definitely consider half a day or an evening in Luxembourg City.
We had a very scenic drive up to Namur via the incredibly beautiful River Semois valley. We passed through the towns of Rochehaut and Alle sur Semois en route, and would recommend this area to anyone visiting the southern Ardennes. There are endless breathtaking views of the river as it cuts a swathe through the valley. Next stop was:
Brasserie Caracole: Cöte Marie-Thérèse 86;5500 Falmignoul +32 82/74 40 80
Based in Falmingoul, just a few miles south of Dinant, the brewery is very easy to find, on the first street off the main road to the left as you enter the village from the south. It is also well worth a visit. The building used to be the home of another brewery, Brasserie Moussoux and then later the Brasserie Lamotte, and has been in use on and off as a brewery since the 18th century. It is a fascinating old building, with equipment from its past lives on display as you enter. Inside, one long room has been converted to a very atmospheric tasting room/bar, which includes a little shop selling all the beers plus other souvenirs. Behind all this is the brewery itself, which the accommodating and friendly staff showed us around. They were very interested to know how we knew of their beers and genuinely pleased that we visited and took an interest in their brewery.
After this we went through Dinant, stopping for coffee and a quick tour round the centre. A charming place, we would happily spend some more time there. Checked out a couple of bars but found nothing that special.
Namur: we stayed at the Hotel Beauregard, in the casino complex. I am not giving the URL or address, because all you need to know is that you should not stay in this hotel unless you are really desperate. We tried, unsuccessfully, to reschedule our second night there. We did not rate Namur, and we definitely did not rate this hotel. The rooms were small, drab and uncomfortable, the breakfast very average, and the whole place is dull and uninspiring.
Namur itself has quite a scenic location by the river, with its citadel towering over the town, but the centre itself lacks much of any interest and is not particularly gripping. I would not really recommend staying in Namur, and if you want to see it would suggest a stop for an afternoon or evening, but not much more. However, we did enjoy the two bars in the centre which we went to, as follows:
Chapitre: 4 Rue du Seminaire; Namur +32 81/26 04 90
This small one roomed bar by the cathedral must be one of the top bars in town. However, we liked it so much we didn't bother to check out the others, so we cannot really comment on how other bars in town compare. This place, however, is great: bare stone walls with some interesting breweriana, simple furniture with candles on each table, and the beer list on a blackboard on the wall. The owners are welcoming and pleasant, and have imposed their personal preferences and style on the place with great results. They have a passion for good whisky as well as beer, and hence the bar serves an excellent range of Scottish and other whiskies. The beer list of around 40 beers is well chosen with many treats on it. The ambience is quiet, with punters chatting and music playing at a sensible volume in the background. It's a good, varied selection too. They do nibbles as well as larger snacks. An excellent place to while away many hours, which we did!
Mibrana brewpub: Les Artisans Brasseurs; Place de la Station 2; 5000 Namur +32 81/23 16 94
This is another very good venue in central Namur at which we spent a couple of very pleasant hours. The owner is exceptionally friendly and chatty, and will show you around the plant and explain about his beers in detail. They only sell their own beers, and those that we sampled were good. The bar, situated opposite Namur station, has a fairly modern feel with ample space at the back for large groups.
After failing to get out of a second night in Namur, we decided next best thing was to plan to get out of town for the day. So after a wander round town and some coffee, it was off to Floreffe for our first stop:
Floreffe Abbaye: this was a disappointment. We had heard good reports, but felt that it was a waste of time to visit. The surroundings look shabby and unkempt, and there is little of interest as the brewing is done elsewhere. However, although we knew that there was no brewing done, we had hoped that the abbey would be a bit more spectacular. It is, however, quite ordinary. The café is worse than ordinary - our order of sandwiches with cheese and ham produced two pathetic bundles of crappy white bread containing a slither of filling, all wrapped in damp kitchen towel. No plates were offered! The café is bleak and dismal, and I will not return. I would advise other babblers to skip it, and the abbey too.
Drove the scenic route via Warnant and Annevoie to the amazing:
Musee des Bieres Belges; 19 Rue de la Gare; Lustin +32 81/41 11 02
Based at Lustin, 12 miles south of Namur, this is a must for any beer nuts. It's a fairly sizeable house which has been given over 100% to the obsession of its owners, who have over 7000 Belgian beer bottles and glasses covering literally every inch of the walls and ceiling. Check out the range of Chimay bottles, one per year going back to the 1970's. Don't miss the range of old De Dolle bottles, with many specials included in the collection. Every Belgian beer you have ever heard of will be in here, a quite incredible piece of work. After you have seen around you can buy a beer from the huge selection of over 500 current Belgian beers that the owners have in their bar. If you're a CAMRA member you avoid the 60 BEF admission fee!
Brasserie Rochefort: Abbaye Notre Dame de St. Rémy; Rue de l'Abbaye 8; 5580 Rochefort +32 84/21 31 81
About 20 miles from Lustin is Rochefort, where we headed straight for the Trappist monastery. Known as the most secretive and difficult to get into of the Trappist abbeys, I can confirm that these reports are right. I managed to get in round the corner and ended up poking my head into a little church beside the main complex, and I think the service that was commencing was pretty much open to the public. I caught a glimpse of three monks. Apart from this and the front door, you can see little else, but I left happy, feeling that I had got as close as most beer tourists to the source of this great beer.
Rochefort town is small and quite pretty. We checked out three of the bars in town, and solved the mystery of the Malle Poste! It is still open for accommodation, but has closed as a bar and restaurant. The people at the 'Luxembourg' bar now own the Malle Poste and will handle reservations. The Magasin de l'Abbaye was closed two hours ahead of its advertised closing time, so we left town without any local beers!
We left Namur to return south. Took in another scenic sweep of the River Semois, this time going via Bohan sur Semois and Membre, as well as returning to Alle sur Semois and Rochehaut. The scenery was as good second time around. Our destination for our final night was:
Bouillion: we had high hopes and were not disappointed. This is another lovely town on the River Semois, which winds its way through the small centre and provides the focal point, along with the obligatory huge castle which oversees proceedings. Two pretty bridges cross the river and give plenty of great views. Trees and hills surround the whole town. We stayed in the centre at the Hotel de la Poste, which is highly recommended, and very reasonable considering the excellent quality. Breakfast was 5 star.
After checking in we headed straight for the:
Brasserie de Bouillon: Grand Rue 22; 6830 Bouillon +32 61/46 89 40
This is a cool micro tucked into the back of a beer shop, called Marche de Natalie. The shop came first, with the brewing starting up in the last year or so. Very easy to find, tucked in a busy little street just one block from the river, this shop sells an excellent range of beers, not just their own, and other beer related souvenirs. The brewing plant is very modern and takes up about a third of the floor space. Bottling was proceeding apace when we were there, and the staff will gladly talk to you about their work and show you around. They brew a range of suitably named local beers, including Cuvee de Bouillion and Tentation de la Semois.
After this we proceeded to the bar across the road:
Vieille Ardennes: Grand Rue 9; 6830 Bouillion +32 61/46 62 77
Another bar with 'only' 45 beers on the list, but many of these are excellent choices and we happily settled in for the rest of the evening. Draft La Chouffe and the superb Tchafete from the other local brewery, Co-operative de la Basse Semois, are two of the highlights on the list. We also stayed for dinner, which comes highly recommended.
Leaving Bouillion at 10am, we charged up the autoroute and hit Brussels at 11.15. Only took us half an hour to find Cantillon, where we had a couple of drinks and loaded up with 36 of the 75cl bottles. As we had visited before, we passed on the offer of another tour, and instead quickly headed for:
Beersel: lunch at Drie Fonteinen (another dining experience which lived up to expectation, with plenty of dishes cooked with beer) was followed by a quick drive to Oud Beersel. We did not, however, have time to see these two breweries fully, and we had not set up appointments, so will return another day when we have more time to see around in full. After Beersel it was off to Ellezelles for the:
Brasserie Ellezelloise Guinaumont 75; 7890 Ellezelles +32 68/54 31 60
This brewery is signposted from the small town of Ellezelles in Hainaut. It is located in the middle of farmland, and the building is a mix of old and new. The office area is located in a new extension to the old farmhouse, which is located to the rear and which contains the brewery itself. We had not arranged a visit in advance, and despite the fact that we bought a considerable amount of beer, they were not that keen to show us around. There was also a language barrier. However, I managed to negotiate a quick look in the brewery, which is well worth checking out. It's got fairly modern equipment in a very old farmhouse, which makes an interesting contrast. They have what looks like a very good sampling room upstairs, and I would like to return with a group some day for a full tour and to spend some time in the sampling room. After this it was off to Tourpes, for:
Brasserie Dupont: Rue Basse 5; 7904 Tourpes +32 69/67 10 66
The last brewery stop of our trip, in the small village of Tourpes, not far from Tournai. Again, we had not prearranged a visit, although they were happy to let us wander round and see things for ourselves. Another brewery in an old farm building, this one too is very remote and isolated. We bought 48 bottles of beer, including 24 large bottles, and left after feeling we were getting in the way.
All of the breweries we visited on this last day, with the exception of Cantillon, who are pleased to have you drop in unannounced, seemed to be unprepared for casual visitors, and so I would recommend setting up a visit in advance for each place. Ellezelloises and Dupont are reasonably well geared up for selling beer, but not for a proper tour. Oud Beersel was pretty much all closed up, and at Drie Fonteinen it definitely seemed that you need a pre arranged appointment to see the brewery itself.
After a stop to check out Tournai for a couple of hours, we were quickly back in Calais and arrived home, exhausted, at 10.30pm.
So that was our week in Wallonia. Having already explored Flanders and Brussels extensively, it was great to see Wallonia, and to visit so many excellent small artisanal breweries. We also greatly enjoyed the superb scenery and exploring the towns and villages.
The beer scene in Wallonia, however, does not provide so many opportunities as Flanders and Brussels to sample huge beer lists in specialist beer cafes. We did find some good lists, for example in the Chapitre in Namur, but overall the average Wallonian café that we were in had only 40 - 50 beers, and few had more extensive lists. This was a pity, as with the quantity of great Wallonian beers that we found, it's a shame that there are no local cafes geared up to showcase this brewing talent. Food also, while good, is much more interesting in Flanders.
However, do not let that discourage you from a beer hunting trip to Wallonia. In my view, this is an excellent place to travel and discover great beers. With careful planning and some advance preparation, Wallonia has much to offer the beer hunter! Don't ever let anyone tell you that Belgium begins and ends with Flanders!