For over a thousand years, this picturesque town in the heart of the Upper Ardennes has been home to the Abbey of Prince Stavlo-Malmedy.
The Abbot of Stavelot’s power extended far beyond the borders of modern Belgium, as far as the Loire, and had a lasting influence on the art of the medieval period.
The abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution, but many of the monastic buildings within it still stand, and the Romanesque church, which was destroyed in the 11th century, is a fascinating archaeological site.
The palatial 18th-century annex houses three museums, including one at the nearby Spa-Francorchamps circuit, home to the Belgian F1 Grand Prix.
1. Abbaye de Stavelot
The Benedictine Stavlot Abbey was founded as early as 651, making it one of the first monasteries in Belgium.
In the 10th century, the monastery became the seat of the ecclesiastical duchy, and the abbots received the title of imperial princes.
This all came to an abrupt end with the French Revolution at the turn of the 19th century.
The abbey church with its 100-meter-high bell tower was sold and demolished.
While some of the complex is in ruins, many still stand, and the monastery contains three museums, which we’ll discuss below.
In two courtyards, there is a beautiful entrance porch from the 16th and 17th centuries, with the Duchy’s Parliament building, hospice, orphanage, hospital and a dining hall with fine stucco.
All of these buildings date back to the first half of the 18th century, but their vaults date farther back.
The foundations of the 11th century abbey church were recently discovered and you can clearly identify the nave, transept, choir and crypt.
2. Musée de la Principauté de Stavelot-Malmedy
This museum, located in the corridor of the Duchy’s Parliament building, clearly demonstrates the political, economic and religious power of the monastery and the duchy.
You can trace more than a thousand years of history from the 7th to the 18th centuries with the help of information panels, multimedia and detailed 3D reconstructions, and learn about some of the more important abbots.
There are many artifacts on display, such as sarcophagi, intricate fireplace tempering, carvings, portraits of contemporary abbots, liturgical books, musical manuscripts, and more.
3. Spa-Francorchamps Circuit
The Belgian Grand Prix circuit at the end of August is 5 minutes from Stavlot, in a wooded valley.
Its location deep in the Ardennes countryside has earned the Spa-Francorchamps the title of “the most beautiful circuit in the world”. No wonder, as the track undulates with the terrain, creating iconic combinations like the Eau Rouge-Raidillon, the track descends on the steep left side of the bottom of the valley, then climbs at high speed on the right side of the long blind.
This sequence is the highlight of the track tour, which can take place between mid-March and mid-November.
On the route are the paddocks for the F1 and Spa 24 Hours, as well as podiums, commentator booths, press rooms and high-tech race control rooms.
4. Musée du Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
The old vault of the Abbeye de Stavelot houses the museum for this fabled race track.
Here, you can delve into the track’s 100-year history and see how it has evolved, while pondering information panels and decades of memorabilia.
There are displays of vehicles from different milestones of the track’s past, a look back at the Belgian Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours of Spa, which has been running since 1924. Almost all of these machines are in working order, including Minardi, Lotus, Arrows, Talbot-Lago F1 cars, as well as Porsche, Ford and BMW 24-hour cars, as well as a small selection of bicycles.
5. San Sebastian Church
Now, while this church at the end of the Place du Vinâve may be understated in appearance, it contains many treasures from the Abbaye de Stavelot, so it’s not to be missed.
The current Église Saint-Sébastien replaces an old church with a late Baroque design from the mid-18th century.
Many accessories have been moved here from the abbey church, among them an 18th-century oak pulpit and a 16th-century stone baptistery, while the station of the cross dates back to 1724, from Église Saint-Marguerite in Liege.
But definitely not to be missed is the monastery’s Reliquary of San Rema Cruz, a 13th-century Moissan goldsmith’s superlative work, two meters long, with images of Christ and Mary at both ends.
Another important work is the 17th-century bust of the reliquary of Stavelot Popo (977-1048), one of the monastery’s most famous abbots and one of the first Flemish pilgrims to the Holy Land.
6. RAVEL 45
Beginning in the mid-19th century, railway lines in the Walloon region criss-crossed, many of which were decommissioned and turned into regional greenway systems.
Because the RAVeL paths are located on old railroad tracks, they are an easy way to traverse some of the most difficult but beautiful terrain in the country.
This is the story of Ligne 45, which was laid between 1867 and 1914 and completely closed in 2006. The RAVeL route follows the side of the Amblève valley, passing Stavelot and Wimes in the east on a 20 km route between Trois-Points in the west.
West of Stavelot, you can also access another greenway, Ligne 44A, which gives you a splendid view of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit on a 15-kilometer circuit.
7. Cascade de Coo
The thunder of Belgium’s largest waterfall can be heard in the distance.
The charm of Cascade de Coo is that it is partly man-made, as monks from Abbaye de Stavelot created a mill in the 15th century, then meandered through it in the 18th century to protect the village of Petit-Coo from erosion.
Those monks may be happy to hear that the waterfall continues to provide income by powering the hydroelectric power plant.
Popular with tourists in the 19th century, Cascade de Coo is now housed in an estate with a children’s playground (more on this later), and a zoo with native animals, which you’ll pass by on a tourist train.
The waterfall has two passages, descending 15 meters, you can take the cable car operated by the Plopsa Coo amusement park to the viewing platform.
From there you can admire the waterfalls and the Upper Ardennes in the distance.
8. Guillaume Apollinaire Museum
Influential French writer and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) spent the summer of 1899 in Stavlot while his mother, a Polish nobleman, frequented the Spa Casino .
This inspired the only museum in the world dedicated to Apollinaire, which is also housed in the Abbaye de Stavelot.
Apollinaire was a staunch defender of Cubism, and his play The Breast of Teresias (1917) was one of the earliest works of Surrealist literature.
In a historic abbey building, you will be drawn into the art world of the famous author of Chanson du Mal-Aimé (1913), who will learn from friends such as Chagall, Picasso, Derain, Gertrude Stein, and See his life from the perspective of collaborators, Jean Cocteau and Henri Rousseau.
9. St Remark Square
Stavelot’s charming main square is cobblestoned on a steep east-west slope.
St Lamarck Square is a stately shade of grey, created by slate cladding, natural Ardennes limestone and those pebbles.
From the higher west side you can see the Haute Ardenne hills overlooking the houses on the other side of the Amblève valley.
The buildings on the square were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and near the center is the 18th century Fontaine du Perron, a symbol of Stavlot’s liberty.
On the west side of Place Saint-Remacle, spend a minute or two exploring Stavlot’s oldest settlement.
This is in the cobbled Place du Vinâve and the little Rue de la Fontaine and Ruelle Delbrouck, only navigable on foot.
You’ll walk through the city’s oldest alley, lined with typical Stavlot houses with slate-clad facades.
A small attraction to follow is a fountain dating back to 1777 with a stone ball crest.
A small theme park run by Belgian broadcaster Studio 100 is within walking distance of Coo Falls and offers programmes for children around 10 years old. There has been an amusement park at the foot of the falls since the 1950s, before Studio 100 took over in 2006. You’ll find rides for the smaller members of the clan, many themed around Studio 100 characters such as Mega Mindy, Kabouter Plop, Wickie de Viking and Piet Piraat.
These also have a variety of other non-themed fun such as a log water tank with three dives, sleds, pedal boats, merry-go-rounds, pedal karts, and more.
12. Stavelot Plage
Just a short walk from the historic core of Stavelot, there is a little quiet place to relax by the Amblève river.
As the name suggests, until the 70s, Stavelot Plage was a place to bathe in the river, and while this is not possible today, you can enjoy the peaceful wooded banks and views along the Amblève in the shade of broadleaf trees.
The surfaces here are paved and there is a newly renovated picnic shed with a grill and chimney in the middle.
13. American Half Track
Passing through Amblève from the town center, above the left bank, you will happen to see the relics of the Second World War.
It’s an M3 half-track on a square that was resurfaced and newly fenced a few years ago.
Stavlot was the scene of intense fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45, when more than 100 civilians and American prisoners of war were massacred in the town from December 18 to 20.
As a monument to the 30th Infantry Division, the vehicles on display are armed with machine guns and carry the flags of Belgium, the United States and Wallonia.
14. Goo Goo Adventures
Take a look at the Amblève landscape of Cascade de Coo and you might be in the mood for adventure.
This activity center has been in Coo for 20 years and has a full range of adventure sports gear.
The river is a highlight here, and Coo Adventure offers kayaking and rafting trips along the Amblève, with an optional shuttle bus back to Coo.
The company also arranges hiking trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, paintball, high ropes courses, caving and more.
15. Laetare de Stavelot
On the fourth Sunday of Lent (Leital Sunday), Stavlot donned one of Wallonia’s most vivid traditional glasses, a saying for a region known for its carnival.
The festivities kick off Saturday night with a whimsical parade of lights.
Then there’s a grand parade of 2,500 people on Sunday, with quirky floats, colorful costumes and music by touring bands.
It all predates the arrival of the 400 Blancs Moussis, dressed in white capes, masks with long red noses, and throwing confetti.
Finally, Blancs Moussis leads a Farindole (traditional chain dance) around the fountains of the Place de Saint-Remacle and put up posters around the old town, making fun of well-known residents.
The story behind Blancs Moussis dates back to the turn of the 16th century, when the abbot banned the monks of the monastery from participating in the celebrations.
To mock the decision, the townspeople dressed up as monks, but after the trouble, they toned down their attire to mimic the habit of white monks.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Stavlot, Belgium
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