Bike Tour of the Belgian Trappist Breweries
7 days; 539 km
See below for map, elevation profile and GPS tracks.
Belgium is a land of delicious beer and excellent cycling infrastructure. Last August we set out to cycle between the Trappist breweries where mouth-watering, though sometimes elusive, beer is made by monks in traditional abbey breweries. The route was enjoyable for the scenery alone and the prospect of another beer tasting at the end of the day made it one of my favorite tours so far.
Below is a map of the seven Trappist abbeys that brew beer. Six are in Belgium and one is nearby in the Netherlands. On our trip we only made it to four but all could easily be reached in two weeks or so, depending on how much distance you cover in a day.
View Trappist Breweries in a larger map
Our route started in Luxembourg and headed west across the France-Belgium border to Orval, Rochefort, Chimay, and ended at the mythical West Vleteren Abbey St. Sixtus. Orval is a great stop on a Trappist tour because it is the only abbey that is also somewhat of a tourist site. You can tour the abbey grounds and see ruins of prior structures as well as delve into the myth of the prominently displayed fish that is on the Orval label. Orval has brewery tours once a year in September, which unfortunately we missed. If you plan ahead and feel inclined to experience the monastic life Orval offers accommodations for two to seven days. For more information you can read about it on their website here.
Trappist monks prefer to remain cloistered—closed off—from the public so that they can practice their religious devotion without distraction. This makes a cycle tour to their “breweries” somewhat silly as all you end up doing is riding around the outside of the abbey and conjecturing about inner workings and beer-related activity. What makes the visit worthwhile is the unofficial, sometimes official tasting rooms located at or near each abbey. Locals are very proud of their beer and will happily offer tastings paired with Trappist cheeses, patés, and other goodies. It is the perfect reward for a day spent cycling.
If you are planning your own tour I recommend starting in Brussels, heading north to Westmalle and Koningshoeven then back south to Achel. From here, depending on time it may be nice to head to Orval via Luxembourg which has cycling paths and a beautiful city. More information here. You can then climb out of the Orval valley and on to Rochefort where a great cycling path will take you on to Chimay. After Chimay you can pedal your way back into the flats and finish the tour at the crown jewel of Trappist breweries in West Vleteren. As an added benefit of finishing here, you will be more apt to carry home a six pack of the Westvleteren brew, available only at the abbey. From here you could either hop on a train back to Brussels or spend a few days cycling back.
We stayed mostly in campgrounds and with locals through couchsurfing. When the weather was too wet we checked into a hotel. All levels of accommodation are available and many of the small hotels look very inviting. Stealth camping would be easier in the hilly forested southern region than in the north and I have heard rumors, though have not been able to confirm that it is illegal in the Netherlands, so take caution.
You can find non-beer calories in any number of supermarkets and restaurants along the way and we found cycling shops in many of the towns we stopped in (including one in Rochefort which even had much needed chamois cream).
You can read our daily touring diary through the links below:
Day One; 25 km: Luxembourg City to the Luxembourg border: We meant to make it to Orval but our trailer broke and cost us a day and an unexpected stay in an expensive suburban Luxembourg hotel.
Day Two; 73 km: Luxembourg Border to Orval: A pretty hilly day but with great scenery. Looking back at the map we could have taken a less direct route with fewer climbs. Tour of Orval and our first Trappist tasting.
Day Three; 72 km: Orval to Rochefort: We arrived at Rochefort on a moderately busy road through beautiful forest. Had our second tasting. From Rochefort there was a bike path for 20km that ended right at a campground.
Day Four; 69 km: Rochefort to Chimay: Low traffic roads or bike paths most of the day. We took a huge detour to Chooz, a French nuclear plant which added climbing and distance, I think the cycling path will take you pretty direct.
Day Five; 87 km: Chimay to Dour: Riding on minor roads and bike paths most of the day.
Day Six; 80 km: Dour to Lille: We cycled on a bike path that followed a canal for the majority of our ride. We found a store that sold just about every Belgian beer available.
Day Seven; 57 km: Lille to Poperinge: We followed bike paths through France to minor roads in Belgium. It was flat for most of the ride.
Day Eight; 28 km: Westvletern and other Poperinge breweries: Cycled from Poperinge to Watou to West Velteren and back to Poperinge. We visited St. Bernardus Brewery and Westvletern Abbey. We then took a train to Brussels, ending the tour.
Below are some notes about the expenses for our tour, including our four days riding through Alsace.
Our average food cost including eating out was $16/person/day; add another $6/person/day for beer. One stop at a restaurant cost us approximately $8/meal.
We stayed 4 nights at campgrounds in France and Belgium with an average cost of $10/person with our most expensive being $12.50/person and our cheapest being $9/person.
We stayed at hotels two nights and a hostel one night. One hotel was $122/night and the other was $102/night, while the hostel was $55/night. These are the rates for one double room with two people. I assume if you were traveling by yourself the hotels would be the same price while the hostel would be half price.
These costs can be effectively reduced to zero if you stealth camp and stay with couchsurfing/warmshowers hosts. There may be a time when all you want is to be warm and dry or a shower, which might land you in a campground or hotel.
It’s important to consider unplanned expenses while budgeting for your trip, and include a cushion for the “what if” scenario. Over the course of 12 days we spent an additional $130 on trains, chamois cream, bike parts, hydration powder, and internet access.
There are some really great bike touring cost breakdowns here for many countries in the world.
Below is a map of our route and elevation profile. You can download the GPX file here (right click save file as).