Van Gogh came here to be a preacher and every year locals slay a dragon. Welcome to Mons, says Rudolf Abraham, European Capital of Culture 2015.
“The missus and I are off on a city break… to Mons.” Not a phrase you’ll have heard often, I suspect. And that’s hardly surprising: with the likes of Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp to compete with, it’s little wonder this small Belgium city is omitted from travel itineraries.
But all that’s set to change. Earlier this year the city became European Capital of Culture 2015, a title it shares with Plzeň in the Czech Republic. There’s a packed programme of events scheduled through the year, but what else can visitors expect from the city? We round up the best things to see and do in Mons.
1) Do the Doudou
The what? The Doudou is an annual jamboree also known as the Ducasse de Mons, which involves the ceremonial slaying of a model dragon and a big street fight featuring cows’ bladders, naturally.
The festival dates back to 1349 when the authorities decided to parade a shrine to Waltrude (the town’s patron saint) through town to ward off the plague. It worked, somehow, and the tradition has endured ever since. The Doudou takes place on Trinity Sunday (31 May 2015) and has been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
2) Visit Van Gogh’s house
Having failed as an art dealer and then again as a schoolteacher, in 1879 a deflated Van Gogh came to Cuesmes (a working-class suburb in Mons) to become a preacher. Alas, he failed at that, too. So he picked up a pencil and found artistic inspiration sketching miners in the local collieries.
By the time he left in 1880, Van Gogh had found his calling as an artist. Unfortunately, he destroyed most of the work he produced in those early days, but fans can have a nose around his house, Maison Van Gogh, and find out how the region shaped his career.
3) Explore Beaux Arts de Mons
The Beaux Arts de Mons (BAM) displays an ever-changing roster of temporary exhibits from some of the world’s leading artists. Works by Andy Warhol have previously graced the walls, but the highlight for 2015 is an exhibition titled ‘Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist’.
The exhibition explores Van Gogh’s development as an artist in the coal mining district of Borinage, just outside Mons. It ends on 18 May, but those visiting later in the year (17 Oct-24 Jan) can see an equally fascinating exhibition dedicated to Paul Verlaine, imprisoned in Mons in 1873 after shooting fellow poet, Arthur Rimbaud, in a jealous rage.
4) Peruse the wares at Sunday Market
A time-honoured tradition for many Mons residents is a visit to the Sunday Market, held every week in the leafy Place Nervienne. Friendly hawkers sell everything from antiques and books to fresh fruit and vegetables. As well as being a great place to pick up cheap regional produce – cheeses, hams, jams – many residents come simply to imbibe the laid-back atmosphere and watch the world go by with a coffee or a beer.
5) Dine in Grand Place
Surrounded by some exquisite architecture, including the grand 15th-century City Hall, the Grand Place teems with lots of great bars and restaurants. La Cervoise (Grand Place 25) has a heroic selection of beers and serves typical Wallonian fare (streak, frites, moules, etc.) The venerable L’Excelsior (Grand Palace 69) is another favourite, serving excellent beer and local cuisine in 1930s surrounds. For livelier haunts head to nearby Marché aux Herbes, a small square near the university campus.
6) Climb to the belfry
The UNESCO-listed belfry is the only Belgium belfry built in the Baroque style. It stands atop a small hill in the centre of town and offers the best views of Mons. Throughout 2015 the hill will be crowned by a mesmerising light installation by Cédric Verdure. A must-see at night.
7) Caress the lucky monkey
Just as Plzeň has its lucky angels, Mons has a lucky… err, monkey. The small metal sculpture (Le Singe du Grand Garde, to give him his proper title) is located outside the City Hall. Tradition has it that when passing you should place your left hand on his head and make a wish. Naturally, this will come true.
8) Take a trip to Le Grand-Hornu
A slice of Yorkshire in rural Belgium… or so it seems. Mining complexes might sound dull, but the UNESCO-listed Grand-Hornu is quite something. Dating back to the early 19th century, this impressive red-brick development is surrounded by neat rows of workers’ houses, which hint at the utopian visions of its creator Henri De Gorge. Well worth a visit, even if your name isn’t Arthur Scargill.
9) Remember the Battle of Mons
Mons holds a special significance for visitors from the UK, for it was here, just before the Battle of Mons in August 1914, that the first British casualty of WWI fell. Private John Parr is buried at St Symphorien Military Cemetery, just outside Mons, alongside Private George Ellison, who was killed here 90 minutes before the November 1918 ceasefire, making him the last British soldier to be killed during the Great War.
10) Experience the Binche Carnival
Located 10km (6 miles) east of Mons, the small town of Binche hosts one of most extravagant Shrovetide carnivals in all of Europe. Taking place on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, the festival sees local men – known as Gilles – parade through the streets in elaborate costumes, featuring bells, wax masks and flamboyant ostrich feather hats. The Gilles throw oranges at the crowd and being hit by one is considered good luck – assuming it doesn’t break your nose.
11) Have a beer at La Pompe Benoit
Before you leave Mons you really must prop up the bar in La Pompe Benoit (Grand Rue 78). A local institution, this traditional Belgium boozer has an unrivaled selection of Trappist beer and its walls are festooned with antique beer trays.
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