by Matt Kummer
Photos courtesy: Matt Kummer & Evan Cohan
Belgium: It’s a country known for cycling champions, and some of the best beer in the world.
Naturally, the two go hand in hand.
What better way to see and experience the essence of the country than by combining those two things into beercycling!
My wife and I spent nine days with the tour company Beercycling on their “Ardennes Challenge” in southern Belgium.
We took in amazing rural scenery, punishing hills, cute small towns, castles, and of course sampling world-class beer from the source, whether they were Trappist abbeys or farmhouse breweries.
In Belgium, most travelers visit either the Brussels region around the capital, and/or the Flemish region that’s home to cities such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Less known is the Walloon Region, or Wallonia.
This is the French speaking part of Belgium, and one that is more rural and less prosperous than the northern part of the country.
Its manufacturing heyday is long in the past, and the area has struggled at times to reinvent itself. There are a lot of similarities to what we would consider the Rust Belt in the United States.
Our journey began in Liege, which is the third-largest metro area in Belgium, and the economic and cultural epicenter of Wallonia. It is a lively city of about 200,000 and feels (and looks) in many ways like a smaller version of Pittsburgh.
One of the main sights to see in the city is the Montagne de Bueren, which is a 374-step staircase. When you see it from the base, it is imposing.
The climb is also a vigorous workout, but when you get to the top, you are rewarded with a tremendous view of Liege and the River Meuse from above.
That climb, was just a primer for what was to come for us on two wheels.
At the base of the Montagne de Bueren, is Brasserie C—which produces some excellent craft beers and has a very nice taproom and courtyard. The Curtius blond, and the Torpah single hop ales are tasty and recommended.
Having picked up our rental road bikes the day before, we embarked early on a sunny morning out of Liege into the Wallonian countryside.
The first half of our ride was spent mainly on the RAVeL network. These are dedicated bike trails that follow old rail lines. This generally means flat roads, following rivers or new trail lines.
After lunch is when things started to get real.
The 12-kilometer (seven and a half-mile) ride from our lunch spot in Barveaux to Brasserie Fantome featured long, challenging climbs much of the way, until relief on the downhill into the little village of Soy where the brewery is located.
Rinse and repeat for the next eight days.
Brasserie Fantome is located in an old farmhouse, run by Dany Prignon and his wife. The brewing facility is small, as you can see (left). It’s really no bigger than a garage, and the rest of the space is a tasting room and there’s a pleasant patio outside.
Like many small Belgian breweries, Fantome’s brews are not massively popular in their home country. However, Fantome has developed quite a cult following among Belgian beer fans in the U.S. Much of the beer Prignon makes is exported to America, but it is still hard to find.
Fantome is well known for their Saisons, and they are delicious.
From there, another 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles), with more hills to our home for the night: La Roche en Ardenne.
La Roche is a postcard-perfect little town that is popular in the summer with Belgian, Dutch and German tourists.
The highlight was a beer tasting in a castle with one of the brewers from L’Arogante—which is a brewery based both in La Roche and Ghent. They only make a couple of beers, a blonde and a dark beer which they call “Stout-ish”.
A bottle of the blonde came home with us!
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La Roche, Houffalize and Bastogne were all critical areas during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945. We saw several famous battle sites and memorials.
The two of note were “Jack’s Wood”—made famous by “Band of Brothers”, as well as the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne. We visited these sites on a picture-perfect summer day. It’s unconscionable to think of the cold, the suffering and the violence during that time, and the courage and perseverance of the American soldiers.
The second part of the trip featured three Trappist abbeys, all world-renowned for their beer. The first, and most expansive and accessible to tourists, is Orval. We got to spend time touring their beautiful grounds and attend the noon mass that’s led by the monks.
Orval has a café on site called A l’Ange Gardien, which is notable as it’s the only place in the world where you can have the Orval Vert beer. This is the session beer that is brewed for the monks, and is lighter in alcohol content (4.8%) than the regular Orval beer, which they sell to the masses in bottles all over the world.
It is a must-have.
At Chimay, we spent time touring their abbey, and spent the night at their B&B: Le Auberge Poteaupre.
The abbey grounds are smaller than Orval, and significantly less crowded with tourists (Orval was, by far, the most tourist-populated place we saw during the tour).
None of the abbeys allow outside tours of the brewing facilities (although Orval does an open house once a year). The monks help brew the beer—and they are essentially cloistered from the general public.
The B&B is a pleasant place that has a sizable gift shop to buy all your Chimay memorabilia and beer. And the restaurant has all of the Chimay beers available. We stayed here on our last night of the tour, so we certainly did enjoy our share of them!
We also made a brief visit to the Rochefort abbey the morning after we stayed in that city.
They were the least accessible of the three we visited. Their small hop farm and beautiful cathedral are open to view, and you can see their brewery operation from afar.
We saw a number of monks watching our every move.
They took a vow, and live their lives in privacy—and you get the sense they aren’t terribly keen on people, especially beer fans, encroaching on that. Fortunately, Rochefort beer is widely available in the city, throughout the country, and is a beer that’s generally easy to find in any good craft beer shop in the US.
Our hotels ran the gamut from chain (Ibis), to modest independent hotels, to incredible, high-end Chateaus and Inns.
This particular Beercycling tour had five riders who were on past trips with founder Evan Cohan and lead guide/hop farmer Henk Wesselink. As a special treat, they booked the beautiful Chateau Grandvoir just outside of Neufchateau for one of our nights.
This is a restored 16th century castle. The owners bought it as a summer home, and decided to turn it into an inn. The rooms are huge, especially by European standards, have hardwoods throughout and have all modern fixtures.
The other incredible hotel we stayed in was La Malle Poste in Rochefort.
It is a lovingly restored, 17th century mansion that has a great outdoor terrace and garden. There’s also a sauna and swimming pool. The rooms are spacious and well appointed. If you’re visiting in the summer, they do not have air conditioning. We visited on a fairly warm and humid day—but a small fan managed to keep things fairly comfortable.
The onsite restaurant, La Caleche, was the best meal of our trip.
They did a special three-course meal for our group for €30 (about $36 USD). The chef also owns the hotel—and you can tell he takes a tremendous amount of pride in what he does, and expects no less from his staff.
Many of the top restaurants in the Ardennes feature wild game on their menu; the quail dish prepared here was excellent. Don’t miss their breakfast either.
This trip and the beercycling was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I learned much about Belgian beer, and the history of the Ardennes region.
Taking several days to explore a region by bicycle is an excellent way to see a country. You’re not just jetting in and doing drive-by tourism.
I felt we got to know the area and the people. It was a challenging, and rewarding ride—but with all the beer and great food, I certainly didn’t feel guilty about what I ate or drank.
I’ve developed a passion for cycling I didn’t know I had.
PODCAST: Listen to Matt & Nikki Kummer chat with The Voyage Report’s Mark Albert about beercycling through the hills of Belgium. Download now.
By air, flying into Brussels Airport (BRU) is recommended for the Belgium tours. From the U.S., Delta Air Lines flies to Brussels via New York’s JFK International Airport (JFK) and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL); United Airlines serves Brussels from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD); and Brussels Airlines flies nonstop from JFK and IAD. Other European carries have frequent flights from their connecting hubs.
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The Belgium beercycling tours begin in cities outside Brussels. By rail, there is a train station at the airport that connects you to most destinations in the country. Belgian Rail lists schedules, prices for train service across the country.
–Beercycling runs several tours in Europe, as well as some in Oregon. Prices vary from $1300 for their five-day tours in the Flanders region of Belgium, to $2600 for the Ardennes Challenge we did.
-Do pay attention to the skill level listed on each tour. The tours in the northern part of Belgium are flat to mostly flat and the distance varies, but those tours are suitable for anyone who can ride a bike. The Ardennes Challenge is their most challenging tour, and they are not mincing words when they say it is “really hilly terrain,” and that “flat stretches are rare here.”
-The price includes all lodging, guides, brewery tours/tastings and rental bikes. Breakfast, lunch, and snacks/refreshments are included. Dinner and drinks in the evening is your responsibility. They do offer some multi-course group dinners at a significant discount. Other nights, you’re on your own—typically when staying in cities.
For more in-depth advice on Belgium, check out LONELY PLANET’S BELGIUM & LUXEMBOURG guide from Amazon.com. Thank you for using our referral (“affiliate”) links to support our journalism.
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