In 1486 Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I made the little town of Chimay a principality, and declared that its first prince Charles I de Croÿ would have the same rank of any other in the empire.
Even now, Chimay is known as the “cité princière” (princely city), and the 21st prince resides at the opulent château that has stood here in some form for a millennium.
The name Chimay rings a bell for other reasons thanks to the Trappist Cistercian monks of Scourmont Abbey.
They have brewed the namesake top-fermented beer for 160 years, and also produce a delicious selection of goats’ cheese.
And, a brief stroll from the château, Charles I de Croÿ’s 16th-century alabaster tomb is the highlight of the church on the welcoming Grand-Place.
1. Château de Chimay
Chimay grew up around its Medieval castle, resting on a promontory above the Eau Blanche valley.
There was a castle on this spot by 1000, and the fortress was beefed up in the 15th century, and then made more habitable for the princely family in the mid-19th century.
The Château de Chimay has also come through lots of difficult times, having been almost levelled by John of Austria the Younger in the 17th century, suffering a period of dereliction in the 1700s and then a fire in 1935. The Chimay family has been in residence throughout, and as of 2020 Prince Philippe (21st Prince of Chimay) lives here with his third wife Françoise . The château opened to the public after a restoration in 2013, and you can tour the great hall, guard room, chapel, portrait gallery and theatre with an iPad in hand.
That 200-seat theatre, a miniature replica of Louis XV’s theatre at Château de Fontainebleau, is spellbinding and has a lively season of classical performances.
2. Scourmont Abbey
The Trappist monastery south of Chimay is on the Scourmont plateau and was set up in 1850, accompanied by a model and school for orphans and delinquent children.
The monks started brewing top fermented ales in 1862, and today Chimay is up there with the best reviewed labels in the world.
The three main varieties are Red (dubbel), the acclaimed Blue or Grande Réserve and the hoppy golden Chimay Triple.
There’s also Chimay Dorée, a “patersbier” intended only to be consumed by the abbey’s monks, but occasionally available in special runs.
The abbey has also produced a range goats’ cheese since 1876, including Chimay with Beer, the ring of which is steeped in Chimay ale.
The tour departing from L’Espace Chimay (more below) shows you through a modern exhibitions, before an interactive walk through the abbey garden, church (1950) and the monks’ cemetery.
3. L’Espace Chimay
The brewery itself is located at Scourmont Abbey but not open to the public.
So the place to pay homage to Chimay’s trappist beer and cheeses is on the east side of the abbey’s forest, at Hostel Poteaupré.
An up-to-date multimedia exhibition reveals 160 years worth of secrets, history and splendour.
There are interactive modules as you go, like an ingredients cupboard, herb garden, animated model of the abbey.
And at the end of the visit, after touring the grounds, you’ll be poured a complimentary 250ml glass of Chimay beer.
And of course then there’s the shop where you can stock on some of the best beer in the world, and find out about the best beer-cheese pairigs.
4. La Collégiale Saints-Pierre-et-Paul
Presiding over the terrace on Grand-Place is a church considered one of the most beautiful in the Hainaut Province.
The oldest part of the building is the choir from 1250, in a Gothic style typical for the northern French cities of Soissons and Laons (Chimay was controlled by the Counts of Soissons at this time). The remainder of the building, apart from the 18th-century Baroque tower, is Hainaut Gothic, dating to the 15th century and noted for its sobriety.
Look for the recumbent alabaster tomb of Charles I de Croÿ (1455-1527), the 1st Prince of Chimay, but also the godfather of Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
In that tower is a carillon with 26 bells (curiously no E flat), the oldest of which was cast in the 17th century.
5. RAVeL Ligne 156
From the middle of the 19th century Wallonia gained a whole tangle of railway lines, many of which had outlived their purpose a century later.
That was the fate of Ligne 156, linking Hermeton-sur-Meuse with the town of Anor in France, via Chimay.
This was built mainly to serve the blue limestone quarries in the area, such as those around Wallers-en-Fagne.
Now only a small stretch is used as a railway line.
Between Aublain, 10 kilometres east of Chimay, and the French border at Momignies there’s a paved greenway on the railbed, mainly for cyclists but also for walkers.
The path shoots through a green landscape of hedged farmland and forest, past preserved old stations.
From Chimay you can also get onto the north-south Ligne 109/2, running as far as the banks of the Sambre River, 35-kilometres north in Thuin.
6. Lac de Virelles
Now a leisure amenity and nature reserve, the Lac de Virelles north-east of the city has been shaped by humans over centuries.
This was swampy ground until 1580 when a dam was built to create a reservoir to feed the local metallurgy industry.
The Lac de Virelles, with its wetlands and wooded banks is somewhere to come for walks, to spot birds and to rent pedalboats for a little trip on the water.
There’s a leisure park, Aquascope Virelles (more next), a campsite and a sanctuary rehabilitating sick and injured wildlife.
A curiosity to look out for is a 19th-century pavilion linked to the French socialite and revolutionary muse, Thérésa Tallien (1773-1835), who went on to marry the Prince of Chimay in 1805.
7. Aquascope Virelles
On the south bank is a nature-oriented attraction, showing off the lake’s natural abundance and kindling interest in wildlife and conservation.
Wallonia’s only pair of storks visits the lake every summer, and live cameras let you watch these birds on the lake or in their nest without disturbing them.
There are also lookout towers and birdhides around the park, as well as a discovery trial, an educational apiary, a garden for wild plant species, a big play area for children and a brasserie with a scenic terrace.
8. Source de l’Oise
In the Bois de Bourlers, ten minutes in the car from the centre Chimay, rises the Oise river, which flows south-west for 341 kilometres before joining the Seine west of Paris.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Oise Valley has been the easiest route for invaders from the north attacking Paris.
The Oise has been immortalised by some of the great artists, including members of the Barbizon School like Charles-François Daubigny, and the Impressionists, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh, who famously died in Auvers-sur-Oise outside Paris.
This famous river, defining the landscape of Northern France, springs from a rustic, circular stone basin.
In summer it can be little more than a muddy hole in the ground.
On the wall above is a board plotting the course of the Oise to the Seine, showing all the towns it passes along the way.
The Chimay tourist office has also drawn up a four-kilometre walking trail for the source, crossing a landscape that alternates between limestone and ferruginous sandstone.
9. Circuit de Chimay
From 1926 a notorious street circuit for motor racing was set out around Chimay, staging the Grand Prix des Frontières race until 1972, as well as elite rally and motorcycling events up to the 90s.
The original Circuit de Chimay was more than 10 kilometres long and extremely fast, with lengthy straights and wide bends.
This helped lead to its demise as an elite course, due to absurd average speeds and lack of protection for spectators.
There have been several fatal accidents on the course, the most recent in 2014. The Grand Prix des Frontières was a Formula 1 event, in 1949 and 1954, but for the last decade it was a date on the Formula 3 tour.
Since the 90s the Circuit de Chimay evolved into a shorter (4.5km) and more technical course that still shows off the natural beauty of the Ardennes countryside.
It also continues to be part of Chimay’s road system when there’s no race.
The main event on the calendar is July’s Classic Bikes Chimay, now coming up for its 30th anniversary.
Central to the event is a parade along the original course of the Circuit de Chimay, and there’s a big concert on the Saturday evening.
10. La Vieille Tour
At the west end of Rue de Virelles in the centre of Chimay is the best-conserved piece of the city’s old fortifications.
These defences were raised in the 13th century, but were obliterated through wars and sieges in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
La Vieille Tour, a round corner tower, has been swallowed by the city, and stands out like a sore thumb between two conventional houses.
It has long been a commercial property, and black and white photos attest to a cafe on the ground floor.
When we wrote this article the tower was derelict and behind a metal barrier, but plans are underway to give the building a new purpose.
In the meantime it’s a curious holdover from Chimay’s violent past.
11. Marché de Noël
In the build-up to Christmas, normally on the second weekend of December, the old centre of Chimay becomes a winter wonderland for two days.
From the château’s courtyard east to Grand-Place there are more than 70 stalls, each one built like a little chalet and set beneath twinkling lights.
At the stalls you can pick up handmade arts and crafts, toys, decorations, regional delicacies and tempting comfort food.
Naturally, Chimay beer will be on board, and there’s lots to keep you entertained, like concerts, street theatre, fire-eaters, a vintage carousel and much more.
12. Petit Train Touristique
Now, if you don’t mind doing the touristy thing, the road train that departs from Grand-Place is a pretty useful way of getting around and seeing the sights.
On the way to the Château de Chimay and its grounds you’ll travel alongside the Eau Blanche river, via the Maillon Vert (Green Link). From the château the train sets a course for the village of Virelles before looping back to the old centre of Chimay.
For a piece of trivia, this municipality east of Chimay is where the Donnay tennis racket brand was founded in 1910. When it comes to tourism, Couvin has quite a lot going for it.
For one thing, the rugged limestone countryside is riddled with caves.
You can tour the Grottes de Neptune, discovered in 1930 and extending for more than 1,600 metres.
The Chemin de Fer à Vapeur des Trois Vallées is a heritage line through 14 kilometres of Hainaut countryside from Mariembourg, with nine operational steam locomotives in its fleet.
And finally, if you’re on the beer trail, the Brasserie des Fagnes is a modern brewery that took over the site of the old Brasserie Degauquier de Chimay, in production from 1858 to 1977. Come for a tour and to taste the new brewery’s Brune, Blonde, Tripel and cherry beer.
There’s also a museum space preserving the old brewery’s equipment and barrels, as well as a vintage Citroën delivery truck.
14. Musée du Marbre
From the 16th century to just after the Second World War, the marble quarried close by in Rance was highly coveted for columns, pilasters, veneers, paving, stairways and fireplaces.
Geologically speaking Rance marble is actually a Devonian reef limestone, mainly red, with grey stripes, white veins and bluish spots.
The quarries in Rance had been excavated since antiquity, but Rance Marble became desirable all over Europe from the 17th century when it was used for the Palace of Versailles.
There it appears on the portico for the Marble Court, and as interior wall decoration along the fabled Hall of Mirrors.
Rance’s quarries closed in the 1950s, but a museum keeps this marble heritage alive.
The exhibition studies marble from different perspectives, including geology, social history, the craft of stonecutting and marble’s use in fine and applied art.
There’s an exhibition of pieces from Rance marble and occasional temporary displays.
15. Bunker Hitler Brûly
In June 1940 Adolf Hitler directed the final phase of the Battle of France from a bunker in the hamlet of Brûly-de-Pesche.
The story of the site testifies to the disturbing efficiency of the Wehrmacht at this time.
In May, some 20 settlements in the area were evacuated.
Construction of Hitler’s headquarters, codename Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Gorge), began on 24 May, and the complex of two chalets, two bunkers, a rotunda and reservoir was ready by the time he moved in on 6 June.
He would stay here for the next 22 days, during which he received Philippe Pétain resignation and drafted France’s act of capitulation in Brûly-de-Pesche’s church.
All the buildings save for the two bunkers were destroyed after the war, but the chalets have been reconstructed as exhibition spaces dedicated to an important milestone in the conflict.
You can watch a movie and see photos recording the German occupation of Hainaut, while one of the chalets covers the local Resistance, hidden in the forest for the next three years.