For more than a millennium this picturesque town in the heart of Haute Ardenne was the seat of the Princely Abbey of Stavelot-Malmedy.
The abbots of Stavelot had power that reached well beyond modern Belgian borders, as far as the Loire, and had a lasting influence on the arts in the Medieval period.
The abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution, but many of its monastic buildings remain, and the ruined 11th-century Romanesque church is an enthralling archaeological site.
Within the palatial 18th-century outbuildings are three museums, one for the nearby Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps the venue for the Belgian F1 Grand Prix.
1. Abbaye de Stavelot
The Benedictine Stavelot Abbey was founded as long ago as 651, which makes it one of Belgium’s very first monasteries.
In the 10th century the abbey became the seat of the ecclesiastical principality, and the abbots took on the title of Prince of the Empire.
This all came to an abrupt end at the turn of the 19th century with the French Revolution.
Tthe abbey church, which had a bell tower 100 metres tall, was sold off and demolished.
Although some of the complex is in ruins, a lot is still standing, and the abbey contains three museums which we’ll talk about below.
On two courtyards, with a fine entrance porch from the 16th and 17th century, there’s the principality council building, a hospice, orphanage, hospital and a refectory with fabulous stucco.
All of these buildings date to the first half of the 18th century, but have vaults that go back much further.
The foundations of the 11th-century abbey church have been uncovered recently, and you can clearly make out the nave, transept, choir and crypt.
2. Musée de la Principauté de Stavelot-Malmedy
The political, economic and religious might of the abbey and principality are made clear at this museum in the corridors of the principality council building.
You can track more than a millennium of history from the 7th to the 18th century and get to know some of the more important abbots, all with the help of informative panels, multimedia and detailed 3D reconstructions.
There are plenty of artefacts on show, like sarcophagi, intricate fireplace firebacks, engravings, contemporaneous portraits of abbots, liturgical books, music manuscripts and a lot more.
3. Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
The circuit for the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August is five minutes out of Stavelot in a wooded valley.
The location deep in the Ardennes countryside has earned the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps the billing of “most beautiful racetrack in the world”. Little wonder, as the track rises and falls with the terrain, creating iconic combinations like Eau Rouge-Raidillon, where the track drops into a sharp left at the base of a valley before climbing at high speed on a long blind right.
This sequence is the highlight of a track tour, which can be taken between mid-March and mid-November.
On the route are the paddocks for F1 and Spa 24 Hours, as well as the podium, commentators’ booths, press room and the high-tech Race Control Room.
4. Musée du Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
The old vaults of the Abbeye de Stavelot set the scene for a museum all about this fabled circuit.
Here you can dive into the 100-year history of the circuit, and see how it’s evolved, while pondering informative panels and decades of memorabilia.
There’s an exhibition of vehicles from different milestones in the circuit’s past, recalling the Belgian Grand Prix, but also the Spa 24 Hours, which has been going since 1924. Almost all of these machines are in working order, and among them are Minardi, Lotus, Arrows, Talbot-Lago F1 cars, as well as Porsche, Ford and BMW 24-hour cars, and a small line-up of bikes.
5. Église Saint-Sébastien
Now, while this church at the far end of Place du Vinâve may have a discreet appearance, it contains a number of treasures from the Abbaye de Stavelot, so it’s not to be missed.
The current Église Saint-Sébastien replaced an older church, and its late-Baroque design comes from the middle of the 18th century.
Many of the fittings have been moved here from the abbey church, and among them there’s an 18th-century oak pulpit and a 16th-century stone baptismal font, while the stations of the cross date to 1724 and come from Église Saint-Marguerite in Liège.
But the absolute must-see is the abbey’s reliquary shrine of Saint Remaclus, a superlative piece of 13th-century Mosan goldsmithery, two metres long and with images of Christ and Mary at each end.
Another important work is the 17th-century reliquary bust of Poppo of Stavelot (977-1048) one of the abbey’s best known abbots, and one of the first Flemish pilgrims to the Holy Land.
6. RAVeL Ligne 45
From the middle of the 19th century Wallonia became criss-crossed by railway lines, many of which have since been decommissioned and turned into a regional system of greenways.
As RAVeL paths are on old rail-beds, they’re an easy way to traverse some of the country’s most difficult but beautiful terrain.
This is the story of Ligne 45, which was laid down between 1867 and 1914, and completely shut down by 2006. The RAVeL route runs along the Amblève valley-side, past Stavelot on a 20-kilometre route between Trois-Points in the west and Waimes in the east.
Just west of Stavelot you can also get onto another greenway, Ligne 44A, which will give you a super view of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on its 15 kilometre course.
7. Cascade de Coo
The thunder of Belgium’s biggest waterfall by volume can be heard from some distance.
What’s fascinating about the Cascade de Coo is that it’s partially manmade, as monks from the Abbaye de Stavelot created a millrace in the 15th century, and then cut across the meander in the 18th century to protect the village of Petit-Coo from erosion.
Those monks might be pleased to hear that the falls continue to provide income by powering a hydroelectric plant.
The Cascade de Coo became a hit with tourists in the 19th century and is now on an estate with a children’s amusement park (more later), and an animal park with native animals that you’ll pass on a tourist train.
The falls have two channels, dropping 15 metres, and you can catch a chairlift run by the amusement park Plopsa Coo, up to a belvedere.
From there you can ponder the falls and the Haute Ardenne scenery in the distance.
8. Musée de Guillaume Apollinaire
The influential French writer and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) spent the summer of 1899 in Stavelot while his mother, a Polish aristocrat frequented the Casino de Spa.
This has inspired the only museum in the world dedicated to Apollinaire, also set at the Abbaye de Stavelot.
Apollinaire was a fierce defender of Cubism and his play, The Breasts of Tiresias (1917) was one of the first surrealist literary works.
In a historic Monastic building you’ll be drawn into the artistic world of the author of the famous Chanson du Mal-Aimé (1913), will and view his life from the perspective of friends and collaborators like Chagall, Picasso, Derain, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau and Henri Rousseau.
9. Place Saint-Remacle
Stavelot’s charming main square is paved with cobblestones on a steep west-to-east slope.
Place Saint-Ramacle is in solemn shades of grey, caused by the slate cladding, natural Ardennes limestone and those cobbles.
From the higher, west side you can see the Haute Ardenne hills peek above the houses from the other side of the Amblève valley.
The architecture on the square is from the 18th and 19th century, and near the centre is the 18th-century Fontaine du Perron symbolising Stavelot’s freedoms.
On the west side of Place Saint-Remacle give yourself a minute or two to poke around the oldest settled part of Stavelot.
This is on the cobblestone Place du Vinâve and the tiny Rue de la Fontaine and Ruelle Delbrouck, which can only be navigated on foot.
You’ll be walking the oldest alleys in the city, lined with houses in Stavelot’s typical style, with facades clad with slate tiles.
One little sight to hunt down is a water fountain dating to 1777 and capped with a stone ball finial.
11. Plopsa Coo
Walking distance from the Coo Waterfall there’s a small theme park run by the Belgian broadcaster Studio 100, which makes shows for children up to around 10. There has been an amusement park at the foot of the falls since the 1950s, and Studio 100 took over in 2006. You’ll find rides appropriate for littler members of the clan, many themed on Studio 100 characters like Mega Mindy, Kabouter Plop, Wickie de Viking and Piet Piraat.
These are joined by all sort of other non-themed fun like a log flume with three plunges, a bobsleigh, pedal boat, carousel, pedal karts and a lot more.
12. Stavelot Plage
A few steps from Stavelot’s historic core there’s a quiet little place to unwind by the Amblève River.
As the name suggests, up to the 70s Stavelot Plage was somewhere to bathe in the river, and although this isn’t possible today, you can come to savour the peaceful wooded banks and the view along the Amblève under the shade of broadleaf trees.
The surface here is paved and there’s a newly refurbished picnic shelter with a barbecue grill and chimney at the centre.
13. American Half-Track
Cross the Amblève from the centre of town, and above the left bank you’ll happen upon a relic from the Second World War.
This is an M3 half-track, sitting in a square that was re-laid and given a new fence a few years ago.
Stavelot was the scene of bitter fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45, and from December 18-20 over 100 civilians and American prisoners of war were massacred in the town.
A memorial for the 30th Infantry Division, the vehicle on show is mounted with a machine gun and accompanied by the Belgian, United States’ and Walloon flag.
14. Coo Adventure
One look at the scenery on the Amblève at the Cascade de Coo and you may be in the mood for adventure.
This activity centre has been based in Coo for 20 years and has the gear for a whole menu of adventure sports.
The river is the big draw here, and Coo Adventure offers kayaking and rafting trips down the Amblève, with an optional shuttle bus back to Coo.
The company also arranges climbing trips, horseback rides, mountain biking, paintballing, a high ropes course, caving and a whole lot more.
15. Laetare de Stavelot
On the fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) Stavelot puts on one of Wallonia’s most vivid traditional spectacles, which is saying something for a region renowned for its carnivals.
The festivities get underway on the Saturday evening with a whimsical illuminated procession.
Then on the Sunday there’s a bumper parade with 2,500 people taking part, with wacky floats, colourful costume and music by roving bands.
This all builds up to the arrival of the 400 Blancs Moussis, dressed in white cloaks, wearing masks with long red noses and throwing confetti.
At the end, the Blancs Moussis lead a Farindole (traditional chain dance) around the fountain on Place de Saint-Remacle and put up posters around the old town, poking fun of prominent residents.
The story behind the Blancs Moussis goes back to the turn of the 16th century when the abbot prohibited the abbey’s monks from taking part in the festivities.
To mock this decision the townsfolk dressed as monks, but, after getting into trouble, they toned down the costume to resemble a white monastic habit instead.