Westvleteren, hiking and tasting
The Trappist of Westvleteren holds an almost mythical reputation among beer enthusiasts. This is undoubtedly due, in a large part, to the taste of the beer. However, the relative rarity also plays a significant role. It makes the Westhoek region of Flanders an excellent destination for the fifth hike from the hopefully forthcoming book “The Best Beer Hikes of the Benelux.”
The monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey unintentionally provide a valuable lesson in economic principles. They want to prevent their beer from becoming a commercial product, which is why the bottles have traditionally only been available for personal pickup at the abbey, under strict conditions. But precisely because of this, Westvleteren trappist beer becomes a scarce product, and scarcity drives up the price. So, if you see the beer listed somewhere in the Netherlands, don’t be surprised to find a price tag of around 15 euros.
Recently, it was announced that to prevent these undesirable practices, the beer will be directly delivered to some Dutch liquor stores in the future. However, whether this will completely eliminate scarcity remains uncertain for now. Travel companion A. and I saw no reason to cancel our long-awaited Westvleteren expedition based on that news.
Saint Sixtus Abbey is located in the Westhoek region of Flanders, literally the West Corner, an area wedged between the North Sea and Northern France. That’s quite a train journey from Rotterdam. With good planning, a bit of luck, and an early start, the expedition is theoretically possible in a day. Fortunately, we were able to have a base camp in Hillegem, East Flanders, at family member M.’s place. However, from there it’s still a little over two hours by train to Poperinge, the end of the railway line and the start of the hike.
Today’s route has a length of 19.5 kilometers and can be followed on the map above. The map can be zoomed in, and a full-screen version is available here.
Poperinge is a charming town with around 20,000 inhabitants, boasting several noteworthy (neo-)Gothic buildings and a hint of Art Nouveau. There is also a wide choice of establishments to enjoy the traditional fruit snack with whipped cream.
We leave Poperinge through Burggraaf Frimout Park, accessible via a narrow alley from the Grand Market. On the other side of a stream called Poperingevaart, we see tall hop vines, a well-known local product from the Westhoek.
We continue our walk through fields of wheat, corn, and potatoes. The landscape is gently rolling and quite open. On rainy days during colder seasons, walking here might be less pleasant, and it’s not the ideal route during heatwaves either. However, today, with temperatures around 24 degrees and a light breeze, it’s quite comfortable.
In De Vreede
After a little over eight kilometers, we reach the goal of our journey. We don’t get to see much of the abbey as it is surrounded by a high wall. But across the road, there’s the “Meeting Center In De Vreede,” which is essentially the visitor center of Westvleteren, offering a large terrace.
Blond and Brown
The monks brew three different beers: the blonde 6, and the brown 8 and 12. We choose the 8; with more than half of the route still ahead of us, the 12 might be a bit too ambitious. We have a portion of paterskaas (monk’s cheese) and a plate of hummus with it. Additionally, we buy a few bottles of the 12 to take home.
A refreshment stop like this is best planned just after the halfway point of the hike. Today, however, we still have a little over half of the journey ahead, with the beer in our legs and the souvenirs in our backpacks. Nonetheless, in this case, it’s the right sequence, as the second part of the hike takes us more through forest, making it not only more sheltered but also (even) more beautiful than the first part.
To begin with, we pass through the Saint-Sixtus Forest, adjacent to the abbey. Here, among other things, we find the Lourdes grotto, built after the First World War as a gesture of gratitude that the horrors of the war had largely spared the abbey.
That war is never far away in the Westhoek region. A few kilometers further, we pass a war cemetery. It’s relatively small, yet it holds hundreds of graves of soldiers who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong time. It’s a moment that makes us pause and reflect.
A little further, we cross the densely wooded grounds of Château de Lovie, nowadays used as a psychiatric center. And then we find ourselves back in Poperinge. Although a distance of twenty kilometers is not unusual for us, we are now somewhat exhausted. Nevertheless, the effort was worth it.
Upon returning home, I read in the serving and tasting tips that Westvleteren 8 and 12 reach their full potential after one and a half to two years of maturing. A great exercise in self-control. But will I be able to resist?
Previous beer hikes: