Continental Car Rentals Pale Rider: Belgian Beer Tour
The monks at the Abbey of Notre-Dame d'Orval enjoy a grandeur not usually associated with monastic life. They've set up a walking tour of the twelfth-century grounds that includes ruins, a herbarium, a cloister, a church, and a museum. As at the other abbeys, the brewery itself is off-limits, but you can hear the incessant drone of commerce behind the stone and brick walls as the factory machinery hums in a muffled chugalug, accented by the barely audible repetitious clink of glass, just enough to evoke an image of those sleek brown Orval bottles lined up on the conveyor belt, like duckpins waiting to be knocked down.
Or knocked back. The abbey is far too dignified to serve its brews on these hallowed grounds, so you need to go to the Nouvelle Hostellerie d'Orval, less than a mile down the road. The bartender, a young woman with more piercings than Saint Sebastian, pours me one in the classic Orval chalice, a goblet designed by the very architect who presided over the brewery construction in 1932, Henry Vaes. I insist that she pour it all in, a task she performs with stoic irritation, since protocol calls for holding back the dregs on the bottom.
The Orval monks put out a single beer, considered by some to be the driest of the abbey brews, a dark-orange yeasty beverage with an aggressive and challenging punch. Like a boxer showing off his toughness, it leads with its nose: a vague wet, mown grass aroma that will not be unfamiliar to connoisseurs of certain New Zealand sauvignon blancs. Others, like me, compare the scent to something else entirely—cat urine—but not in a bad way. It's just the hops, vying for attention.
The drive on Route 83 along the southern border wends through the heart of the Ardennes countryside and slips into France, but, like the brief foray into the Netherlands along the Maas, there's no way of knowing you've crossed an international border. Lush green forests drape the modest hills, which expand into broad valleys cleaved by what appears to be very clean rivers. Small villages of stone punctuate the landscape, beckoning with a quaintness that I ignore, because I want to be in Rochefort before dark so I can ditch the car and drink beer in earnest.
I am tempted to stop off in Dinant to visit the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, creator of the saxophone, one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century (ranking right behind the bicycle and anesthesia in terms of improving the human condition), but I learn from the Blue Guide that Sax also invented the saxo-tromba and the saxtuba, information that takes the steam out of the idea of a pilgrimage.
The approach to Rochefort leads me through more handsome farms, these on the hillsides along the Lesse River. Much of the river flows underground here, forming the famous limestone caves of Han-sur-Lesse, but I'm content to gawk at the aboveground pastoral beauty: fields dense with tawny wheatgrass interrupted by brilliant crimson swaths of poppies, a reminder of the blood spilled here in the Great War.