I’ve never heard of a sweepstakes offering plane tickets to Belgium as the grand prize.
No one is anti-Belgian of course — what’s there to hate? But Spain, Greece, France, Austria, Italy and a number of other countries fall on the list before Belgium, unless you’re into battlefields or…beer.
I’d never given the country of 11 million much thought myself until I moved in next door and realized that crossing the border was inevitable, like whenever I wanted to go to Ikea or drive to Paris.
However, last weekend as I sat in a village in the Belgian Ardennes by a small pond, drinking sample after sample of blissful, golden beer, Belgium momentarily became the center of my universe.
Each beer, whether a blond, brown or triple, perfectly balanced the sweet and fruity with the bitter and spicy, as Belgian beers so famously do — managing to be both refreshing and flavorful.
Side note: So as to accurately write that description I’ve popped open a bottle of dark McChouffe and subsequently broken my no beer before 5pm rule.
Achouffe was the last stop on our beer tour, a tiny, and I mean tiny, town in an equally tiny valley. According to Google, its population is 0 and that sounds about right.
As a joint birthday weekend we’d headed to the calm nature of the Ardennes for some good, clean, beer-themed fun, despite doubts about spending it in the Wallonian countryside. It’s not exactly popping.
But as soon as I took the first sip, my reservations melted away and I remembered that it’s really all about the beer. I could’ve been locked up in a nuclear bunker with a case of Trappist Rochefort and called the weekend a success.
Luckily, the Ardennes is hardly the armpit of the world. It offers hilly, lush landscapes; pastoral, brick villages; quaint farmland and did I mention the beer?
A Weekend of Belgian Beer Tasting
We booked our room in Dinant, historical home of the famous Leffe brewery, without doing any research other than a Google image search. On the drive there from Luxembourg I decided to read what Lonely Planet had to say:
“On paper Dinant sounds amazing…However, the town is squeezed claustrophobically against the cliffside. Parking is awkward, traffic is heavy and the crowded streets are perfumed with diesel fumes and chip fat.” Hm.
Fortunately, Lonely Planet is also known as the Book of Lies (at least in my inner circle and largely due to the Myanmar version which seemed to be messing with us for fun) and we liked Dinant.
Yes, it’s gritty and gray in winter but still charming in a blue collar kind of way. Its position on the water with a riverfront promenade has convinced us to return in summer.
On Sunday’s drive from Dinant to Achouffe we passed through La Roche en Ardennes where the river was bursting its banks after a rainy morning. It’s striking how open and empty most of the region still is. Tourists are generally from neighboring countries, attracted by the idyllic campgrounds, forests, trails and rivers perfect for outdoor adventuring.
Belgium as a whole does see its share of tourists who do the Brussels-Antwerp-Bruges triangle, tacking on trips to Amsterdam and Luxembourg in their week-long whirlwinds. Wallonia, however, is off the well-beaten track, unless you’re a Dutch camper or a German hiker.
We’ve squeezed in visits to Flanders in the north, including beautiful Bruges, a storybook city with winding canals and cozy plazas. We’ve also visited Antwerp and Ghent, both architecturally awesome and cafe-packed, their rich histories oozing down the cobbled lanes and terraced rooftops. Over the years we’ve made multiple trips to refreshingly raw and slightly seedy Brussels for some of our best nights out.
It’s not until recently, after long admiring these country villages from inside the car on our way to someplace “bigger and better” that we began making them our destination.
It started with a visit to Orval Abbey to see the old abbey’s ruins, its new gaudy replacement, the beer museum and, most importantly, to try some fresh Orval and beer cheese. (It’s just not complete without the cheese.) We enjoyed it and vowed to take more “mini beer vacays.”
Next up is Chimay.
We headed home after two days in the Ardennes, slightly bloated and extremely content, a case of beer in hand.
My only regret is not bringing home more than one block of Achouffe cheese, which is amazing, and I don’t use that word lightly. Beer-soaked cheese. It’s genius.
What I’ve learned is that, much like wine tasting in Champagne, you can’t really go wrong with beer tasting in Belgium — they belong together.
Belgian Beer Tasting:
The Leffe Museum, Dinant
This tasting room and beautiful restaurant are worth a visit. The €7 entry fee will get you museum admission, a Leffe glass to take home and a full glass of beer or four minnie tastings.
Achouffe Brewery, Achouffe
This is also recommended for you beer fans, where for €9 you get a brewery tour, a glass to take home and generous tastings in a pleasant cottage. The tour of the industrial brewery is quick and interesting and you get to smell and taste the ingredients, explore the equipment and learn about the history.
Of the three lunch options in Achouffe we couldn’t help but feel like we’d made the right decision with La Grange, a cozy, wood-paneled restaurant with an open fire, hardy food, including seafood from the adjacent pond, and tons of Achouffe on tap.
Belgian Beer Tasting Tips
Rochefort Trappist beer is killer, but the town isn’t a must.
Camp if you can. From what we could see the campgrounds near La Roche en Ardennes looked nice.
Notice the IPA-style beer that has begun popping up more and more in Western Europe (in Scandinavia they’ve been mainstream for awhile). They’re a milder version of the American IPA but more bitter than the average Belgian. Leffe and Achouffe have their own versions though the tour guides warn European visitors that it’s “an acquired taste.”