Abbaye d’Aulne sits on the Sambre River. On the way aboard Viking you pass through an old industrial area outside Charleroi. The Abbaye is a ruin now, but 500 plus years after its founding it had grown large and powerful, before being largely destroyed during the French revolution. Its presence adds to what is otherwise largely landscape charm as the river winds its way through the hills of the Ardennes. The Abbaye was part of the Cisterncian order that today gives its name to some 11 brands of Trappist beer. The Trappist order originated in the Cisterncian monastery in La Trappe, France.
We took the boat to the small settlement that hosts the Abbaye, mooring just outside the lock. Already there was a music, sounding like a concert in progress, although it turned out to be live bands at one of the bars across the street from the ruins. A few women were dancing. I ached to join them. Instead we took a look at the Auberge in the ancient building complete with a road passing through it, then the restaurant at the Abbaye itself, in the cellar of a ruin, and along the quiet street. Next we came to the entrance to the Abbye. You get a good look at the remains of the immense structure. You can walk around and even take a tour. The next day we skipped the tour and just enjoyed walking through the architectural skeletons.
There’s a well recommended restaurant at the lock. We’d made reservations. We ordered an Irish steak with a Roquefort sauce. I assume they imported it from Ireland. It was not a pretty piece but the sauce was out of this world – Belgian sauces are outstanding. The vol au vent, which features a pastry shell normally in the shape of a volcano with the top blown off. This one had grilled chicken breast and a cream sauce, all excellent. The third dish was a rack of lamb with another great sauce, this a brown gravy. The wine prices were out of this world so it was beer or a glass of wine. My beer was the Abbaye d’Aulne label. This is not a Trappist beer so no monk had approached the production but it’s just as good. I got the blonde en fut (on tap). We were there two and half hours, munching on the superb bread while we waiting the first hour for our entree- in French an ‘entree’ is the starter course, not the main course as it is in the US, which uses the French word but not the meaning for some reason.
There are few rivers more charming than this section of the Sambre. The hills through which it passes are heavily forested with multiple shades of green (see next photo). The river’s edge flows with a pleasant irregularity, unlike a canal’s sharper edges. Trees occasionally push their way a few meters from the shore. There are a half dozen or so old locks, manually operated with cranks. They allow boats climb the hills. The river remains in its natural path at the junction with the lock. On the way back I was able to close one side of the lock, saving the lock keeper a walk around to the other gate and us a few minutes of engine time.
There’s an excellent cheese shop, Temp du Fromage. We bought some goat cheese, Morbier, as well as fresh, rich and creamy ricotta, just like I remember from my childhood when you could get raw milk ricotta. Some mighty fine stuff. Around the corner there’s a boulongerie (bakery) selling boules (large round rolls, the shape of a ball- boules is the word for ball). From “boules” you get the word “boulangerie,” or so it seems. Just makes sense that it would.
Thuin also has a rail museum containing street cars starting from late in the 19th century. They have all been restored and are now indoors. There is one in use for the tourists. We took the 40 minute round trip ride. The other passengers came well equipped with cameras. There were two stops for photos along the way, and click away they did, with real cameras.
The morning after our lovely dinner at the lock near the Abbaye we left, with the cliff lined Meuse our goal. It hosts the Citadels of Namur and Dinant. Between the two cities there is more dramatic scenery and fabulous chateaux.