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Summer staycation in Belgium: Mons
Since Mons’s turn as European Capital of Culture in 2015, there’s no shortage of sights and attractions to enjoy in the city. The former medieval bastion and coalmining capital has undergone large-scale urban regeneration, renovating numerous heritage buildings and opening a cluster of new museums. Although the season has taken an unexpected turn, the city is laying on a programme of culture and entertainment for all ages and welcomes you to join the summer fun!
As the name suggests, and as an explanation for its former military prowess, Mons is built on a hill. Cobblestoned streets lead to the medieval Grand-Place and gothic city hall (pictured, below), which contains the tourist office. From here, alleys wind up to the city’s focal point, the Unesco-recognised belfry, offering a bird’s-eye view of the city, the gothic collegiate church of Sainte-Waudru and surrounding countryside. Spot the Santiago Calatrava-designed train station, where work is ongoing to complete the transport hub.
While the city’s 12th-century ramparts were largely dismantled for a ring road in the 1970s, stone and brick buildings dominate the centre, giving it a bygone charm. The 19th-century barracks, mess halls and riding rings are further testament to its former military might. Many of these buildings, along with empty industrial, religious and academic sites, have been transformed into cultural centres.
Culture & Folklore
Just off the main square, don’t miss the BAM art space, which stages major exhibitions. Until 6 September it is showing École de Mons. 1820-2020 Deux siècles de vie artistique. From nearby Rue de Nimy you can access the cultural kilometre, combining museums and other venues such as Mundaneum, an archive and data centre dedicated to world culture. Head downhill to discover other sites: among them the Maison du Design, the Mons Memorial Museum, dedicated to World War One and remembrance, and the Musée du Doudou, devoted to the annual folklore ritual based on the legend of Saint George and the dragon.
Up until the end of October 2020, 17 art frescoes are being painted on the walls of the city and some surrounding villages in the project L’Art habite la ville (pictured, above). The murals, in addition to some 40 existing urban artworks in public spaces, will create an open-air permanent exhibition. Discover the art trail by artists from around the world with the following app Street Art Cities. One remnant of Mons’ 2015 cultural capital title is Arne Quinze’s street installation The Passenger in the aforementioned Rue de Nimy. Due to the current pandemic, the work – which has become very popular among locals - is to remain in place until 15 August. Over the summer, the city welcomes two exhibitions of photos by French ecologist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, entitled Legacy: The Heritage We Leave Our Children. Displayed in Beffroi park are some 80 photos from his emblematic book Earth from Above. Lesser-known works by the environmental campaigner from the 1980s can be viewed inside Salle Saint-Georges until 25 October.
Eat, drink & sleep
Dining options in Mons include new Michelin-starred tapas place Le Comptoir de Marie, Vilaine fille, mauvais garçon in Rue de Nimy, and Le Bistro de Jean-Phi in Rue des Fripiers, which along with Rue du Coupe is an excellent reference for boutiques and eateries. Ô Bar’ Hik is a wine bar offering platters of charcuterie and local artisan cheese. During term time, Le Quartier Latin in Marché aux Herbes, may be invaded by students every Thursday evening, but the watering hole draws revellers for its festive and musical atmosphere every weekend.
City hotels are all conveniently situated for exploring. The four-star Dream Hotel, a conversion of a neo-gothic former church, and three-star Hotel St James, an 18th-century contemporary-styled hotel on the edge of the city centre, both combine period charm and contemporary fittings. Mons Youth Hostel is a modern structure, conveniently sited beneath the ancient belfry. The Congress Hotel Mons Van Der Valk serves the Daniel Libeskind designed Mons International Congress Xperience, located on the other side of the city’s train station.
In the area
Further afield are the Unesco-recognised Neolithic flint mines of Spiennes, complete with a visitor centre, while the outstanding 19th-century model industrial village Grand-Hornu houses two museums focusing on international art and design. A major family attraction in Wallonia is Pairi Daiza animal park near Mons. With more than 7,000 species, it takes visitors on a global journey around eight themed worlds. One of Belgium’s most successful vineyards lies nearby in the village of Quévy-le-Grand. Chant d’Eole produces quality sparkling wines according to the Champagne method, and runs group tours and tastings. The city of Mons played a significant role in both the first and second world wars. Outisde a nearby village Saint-Symphorien (pictured, above) is a small woodland military cemetery laid out on an old mine which mixes German and British graves, including those of the first and last Commonwealth soldiers killed in WWI.
Photos: Grand-Place WBT © Alessandra Petrosino; Mons city hall © WBT - Anibal Trejo; L’Art habite la ville © Ville de Mons Oswald.Tlr; Saint-Symphorien cemetery © HCT - C. Carpentier