This past weekend we made a beer pilgrimage to the St. Sixtus Trappist Monastery known as Westvleteren. It is located in West Flanders near Poperinge. We took a train to Brussels and from their to Poperinge. Poperinge is Belgium's main hop growing region. Upon arrival, the Flemish bus service De Lijn offers shuttle service, BelBus, in almost every region, so we were able to call ahead and get picked up directly at the train station (the Thirsty Pilgrim Blog has an extremely useful post on how to do exactly this and without a car). Taking the shuttle gave us a very scenic route through the towns of Poperinge and Watou. We passed hop fields, farm fields and the St. Bernardus and the Van Eecke Breweries.
The St. Sixtus Abbey is private and secluded. It is not open to the public, but they have a main cafe, In De Vrede, that is open for visitors and which shows the monastic way of life. Westvleteren beers are regarded as some of the best beers in the world on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. They brew 3 styles, the blond, the 8 and the 12. The abbey has refused to market their beers, forgoing labels and distribution. To pick up a case of any of the beers you must call ahead probably months in advance to secure a time slot and pick up date. You can check and read about the brewery on their website. Needless to say this may work to also increase the beer's popularity and offer visitors elaborate stories to share on how they acquired the beer, if not make it impossible for beer lovers to actually get the beer. The cafe itself is huge and modern, and they were fairly busy throughout the day. If you love beer, a visit to this area will not disappoint. You can bike along relatively flat farm roads, stay at a bed and breakfast, tour museums & churches, visit WW1 memorial sites, and visit at least 3 breweries (St. Bernardus, Westvleteren, and the Van Eecke Brewery).
Now, the beer. I sampled the 12 first (it was Beeradvocate's #1 ranked beer until just recently), and the blond. The 12 was delicious. I can't say I had a beer epiphany or found it to be the best beer I had ever tried. It was delicious, dark and brown ruby colored, with hints of coriander and clove spices, with a slight bitterness of blackberry. I don't think it will replace my all time favorite beers, but I'm certainly happy and grateful that I was able to sample this divine brew, and while living in Belgium, try to get my hands on some more. The 12 shot all my taste perceptions, so sampling the blond, it was hoppy with lemongrass aromas.
The Westvleteren 12 (above)
The Westvleteren Blond (above)
In and around Leuven, we've explored some of our own snowy rural countryside and I also went around town to explore the Botanical Gardens (the gardener in me is getting that itch), on the way to the gardens, I got lost and ended up in the Groot Begijnhof. The gardens date back to 1738, when the herb gardens were used by medical students. They have a huge orangery complete with probably hundreds of plant species, a small vegetable and herb garden, a Japanese garden, and a chicken coup, compost demonstration, and beehives.
Near the gardens is the Groot Begijnhof which today is used by KU Leuven as housing for professors and some students. It is a truly beautiful community within a community. The begijnhofs have medieval origins in which women or beguines took vows to live a monastic type of life, but were free to leave. Typically they lived in small communities (a beguinage) at the edge of towns and did either service work or manual labor. I found this post with its history and pictures of the Groot Begijnhof in Leuven to be exceptional. Below, I share some of my photos:
A few shots from the Botanical Garden properly called Stad Leuven Kruidtuin: