A Gaumais gem par excellence …
By Frédéric Marchesani
Whether you think of the abbey, the ruins of medieval buildings, the famous Trappist beer or cheese, Orval always evokes something in the collective imagination. A Mecca of history, heritage and gastronomy, the site of the abbey is one of the major centers of tourism in Gaume, in the province of Luxembourg, but also in Belgium in the broad sense.
A thousand-year-old history
It was in 1070 that Benedictine monks settled in Orval, on the domain of Count Arnould de Chiny. They started a church and regular buildings. But, recalled to their country of origin – Calabria for some, the abbey of Lachalade (department of Meuse) for others – they quickly abandoned the place. In 1110, Othon II de Chiny, Arnould’s son, decided to offer the land of Orval to a community of canons regular from Cheminon, a locality in the current department of Marne.
They resume construction of the church, which will be consecrated in 1124 by the Bishop of Verdun. Shortly after, Count Albert de Chiny, son of Othon II, called on Bernard de Clairvaux and asked him to send Cistercians. On March 9, 1132, Orval therefore became a Cistercian abbey, the canons already present having agreed to join the new community. It is the starting point of a formidable story punctuated by many torments.
During the 13th century, a fire devastated the estate and a new construction campaign began. It spans over a century. In the 16th century, following damage caused by the wars between the King of France François I and Charles V, Germanic Emperor, King of Spain but also Duke of Luxembourg, the nave of the abbey church had to be rebuilt. We take advantage of the work to add a square tower. In 1594, the church was again damaged by the troops of King Henri IV of France. The building is restored and the choir is increased by one bay.
Looted and burnt down in 1637, the abbey must once again be restored. The 18th century, a time of peace and prosperity, was one of Orval’s most prosperous periods. The famous architect Laurent-Benoît Dewez is chosen to build a new abbey. He built a grandiose and sumptuous monastery, which was however reduced to nothing on June 23, 1793 by the French republican troops. In order to remove the traces of their plundering, the soldiers set fire to the abbey. The two churches, the convent, the forges and the mill are destroyed. Among the priceless losses is that of the library, rich in rare books and precious manuscripts. Suppressed by revolutionary laws, the abbey was abandoned for more than a century.
In 1926, the estate was bought by Cistercians who undertook the construction of a new monastery, at the same time as the restoration of the ruins of the old construction.
Read also> Do you know the abbey of Bonne-Espérance, a true architectural gem?
Discovering the abbey
When they arrive at the Orval site, the visitor is first struck by the majesty and importance of the contemporary monastery. Built according to the plans of the architect Henri Vaes, this monumental abbey respects the ideal of the Cistercian plan. The church is flanked by a cloister, a scriptorium, a chapter room and cloister buildings. There are also many annexes: workshops, brewery, barn, hotel The buildings were built using a very yellow local stone and are articulated around a courtyard where a triangular basin extends.
The relative austerity of the architecture is softened by a decoration harmoniously integrated into the built spaces, in which many artists have participated. One cannot miss the gigantic statue of the Virgin, carved in a stone extracted from the very ground of Orval and which takes place in the gable of the church. The new abbey, which is still the home of the Trappist monks, cannot be visited. The Cistercians live in a closed community and carry on their activities there, in particular the brewing of beer. However, they offer hospitality to those wishing to enjoy a peaceful retreat in the calm of their monastery.
For a long time, the remains of the old abbey have been open to visitors. We discover the ruins of buildings erected during the 12th and 13th centuries: the church, the sacristy, the chapter house, the monks’ room, the scriptorium, the refectory, the kitchen, the cellar The promenade, in the form of a stroll romantic, has always attracted the curious, Victor Hugo in the lead.
The site has been cleared, excavated, restored before being developed. The main building is the Notre-Dame church, the ruin of which stands to the north of the cloister. It was built from the years 1160-1170 and adopted the classic plan of the Cistercian churches of that time: a basilica nave flanked by aisles, a projecting transept and a sanctuary with a right apse. We discover very beautiful specimens of stylized vegetated capitals and the spindle bases typical of this architecture. Visiting the site also allows you to discover a superb garden of medicinal plants.
Attested in Orval from 1774, it was reconstructed on the forecourt of the medieval hotel wing. We can discover squares, dedicated to different types of plants classified according to their specific uses: urinary, digestive, circulatory, respiratory and neurological.
Read also> Abbey, micro-brewery, wine… To (re) discover Villers-la-Ville
As part of the work started this year with a view to creating a new tour route, important archaeological discoveries have been made by archaeologists from the Walloon Heritage Agency. They brought to light a 16th century wing, known from old plans and paintings, but which had been filled in in the 18th century during the work undertaken by Laurent-Benoît Dewez. This is the ground floor of a building that was probably used as accommodation for the choir monks, the copyists of Orval. The remains were buried under tens of cubic meters of embankment.
There are two vaulted rooms and a corridor, built with very light stones, protected from bad weather for nearly 250 years. The decoration is very rich: many finely carved bases and marble elements have also been brought to light. This is the most important archaeological find in Orval since the 1960s.
Taste the products of the abbey
The abbey museum provides a wealth of information on monastic life in the past and presents the results of excavations carried out on the site since the 19th century. A boutique and temporary exhibitions are also added to this already comprehensive program. Once your visit is over, be sure to settle in at the Guardian Angel, a few meters from the abbey. You will have the opportunity to taste (with moderation for beer) the two flagship products of Orval, as well as to test the local cuisine.
When? The visit to the ruins and the museum is accessible from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., only through the online ticket office. The abbey store is open every day from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. One-way access, items only available at the counter, electronic payment desired.
Anti-Covid measures? Wearing a mask is compulsory on the entire site and a signposted route makes it possible not to meet other visitors.
Want to know more? +32 (0) 63 31 10 60 – www.orval.be – [email protected]