How to plan a cycling trip through Belgium's beer country

Just a short hop across the Channel, Belgium is a magnet for beer aficionados. Discover how to explore the southern region of Wallonia by bike, encountering verdant landscapes, historic forts and some of the country’s finest brews along the way.

By Connor McGovern
Published 9 Mar 2022, 11:05 GMT
The hamlet of Frahan in a loop of the river Semois from the balcony of Rochehaut.

The hamlet of Frahan in a loop of the river Semois from the balcony of Rochehaut.

Photograph by Getty Images

Beer is to Belgium what whiskey is to Ireland, what rakia is to the Balkans — a drink steeped in tradition and a mark of fierce national pride. There are countless varieties to try here, from Tripels (pale ales), blondes and heartier brown ales to the well-known, strictly regulated Trappist beers, brewed in just six monasteries across Belgium. There are hundreds of breweries to discover, ranging in size, age and technique, producing some of the world’s finest beer. Not bad for a pint-sized country, if you’ll excuse the pun.

You’ll find these breweries dotted across the country, but a trip through French-speaking Wallonia in particular pairs top-notch brews with pretty, little-explored countryside, much of which is overlooked. A foil to the flatter scenes of Flanders to the north, southern Belgium is where you’ll find the Ardennes: a land of winding rivers and forested valleys, gentle hills and medieval towns tucked between rocky passes. Explore it by bike, with a few pit stops along the way to sample the local nectar, for a thoroughly Belgian break.

1. Namur

Start off in the regional capital of Namur, an hour south of Brussels. Sitting astride the River Meuse in the shadow of rocky bluffs, it has a picturesque old town that’s a joy to explore on foot, home to red-brick houses, cobbled lanes and a smattering of excellent museums. Call into Le Ratin-Tot, the city’s oldest bar, which has been feeding and watering the city’s residents since 1616, and go for a bottle of malty Hercule stout, named for fictional Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. Don’t leave until you’ve climbed up to the imposing citadel, which dates to the 10th century and has sweeping views of the bucolic landscape you’re about to explore.

2. Brasserie du Bocq

A leisurely cycle south east takes you to the village of Purnode, where you’ll find the Brasserie du Bocq, an independent, family-run brewery founded in 1858. Tours of the brewery are on hold for now, but head for the shop, Le Prétery (just outside the village), where you can pick up some bottles of its celebrated Blanche de Namur, a mellow white beer with a long finish and gently fruity, fragrant notes. There are other varieties to try, too, including the rich Gauloise Brune brown beer and the fruity, blood-red Tête de Mort Red, which translates as ‘head of death’ — an appropriate name, given its 8.2% ABV.

3. Dinant

It’s hard not to be bowled over by the city’s setting, squeezed in between the Meuse and a soaring cliff, crowned with an impressive citadel. At ground level, admire the gothic swagger of the Notre Dame de Dinant church and keep an eye out for the sculptures celebrating local boy Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone in the 1840s. Head to La Capsule for a drink (or two), which you can sip on the riverside terrace. Take your pick from a lengthy menu of Belgian beers, including the fruity Ardennes Triple or the hoppy Moinette Blonde, and tuck into local cheeses and charcuterie. Spend the night in the town before setting off the next morning. 

4. Rochefort

Rest your legs in riverside Rochefort, best known for its red marble quarries and Trappist brewery, part of the 13th-century Rochefort Abbey. The abbey (and its brewery) has had a long, turbulent history, but the monks perfected its dark beers in the 1960s and now brew excellent beers using the house yeast. Expect dark drinks — Rochefort 6, 8 and 10 — that vary in strength, with delicious, almost herbal notes of chocolate and coffee, topped with creamy froth. The abbey and brewery are closed to the public, but local bars and restaurants proudly serve Trappistes Rochefort.

5. Bouillon Castle

Pedal south through the foothills of the Ardennes to Bouillon Castle, stashed above a bend in the Semois River near the French border. Dating to the eighth century, Bouillon was sold by the knight Godefroid of Bouillon in the 11th century to fund his expedition to the Holy Land during the First Crusade. The days of bloody battles may be over, but the castle still retains much of its eerie, medieval atmosphere and offers plenty of attractions, including a calligraphy museum, falconry centre, cheese cellar and a treasure hunt for children.

6. Orval Abbey

Finish with a visit to another of Belgium’s Trappist monasteries, Orval Abbey, which holds open days each year. It takes its name from the French for ‘valley of gold’, which relates to a myth about the widowed Matilda of Tuscany being presented with a gold ring by a trout in a spring. The spring still bubbles away today and its water has been used in Orval’s eponymous beer since the 1930s, when monks turned to brewing to raise funds to rebuild part of the abbey. With a rich, maple colour, Orval is made with a dry hopping technique, and is one of Belgium’s best-known beers, loved for its earthy, fruity profile.

Did you know?

Trappist beers must meet strict criteria to earn their name: they must be made by monks within the walls of a Trappist monastery; the brewery must be of secondary importance to the religious function of the building, and the brewery must not operate to make a profit. There are only 14 Trappist breweries in the world, six of them in Belgium.

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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