Travel review: Mons, Belgium, European Capital of Culture 2015
“Do or dare’’ – that was the challenge to my fellow young travellers.
Ruaridh (8) and Flora (5) carefully studied their options. Do – was to eat a huge steaming hot bowl of snails, cooked in garlic. The dare was to follow the city’s tradition and run as fast as they could through the bubbling fountain in the main square.
After examining the shell-like creatures with curious disdain, the intrepid duo followed in the footsteps of their Belgium hero Tin Tin and ran as fast as they could through the freezing cold water.
Luckily for them, the sun was out and they were soon as dry as bones and laughing hysterically at their feat. Welcome to Mons, the fun city which is really making the most of its status as European Capital of Culture for 2015.
It’s a city bursting with life. Home to two universities and lots of retired people, who come to this corner of Belgium, just an hour or so away from Brussels, because it has such a lot going on and is so easy to move around on foot. And why not, as its pretty beautiful too, with four UNESCO- listed treasures to enjoy.
Mons is most famous for being the place for the British and Commonwealth forces, where World War I started and finished and in 2014 was centre for centenary celebrations, with Prince William and Princess Kate representing Britain.
We arrived for our four day stay in lovely September sunshine at the city’s railway station which is proving to be a bit of a talking point with the locals. Plans have been drawn up for a dragon shaped design to reflect the city’s obsession with St George and the Dragon. Delays have meant it will be 2018 until it is finished, but if the drawings displayed at the temporary station are anything to go by, it will be worth it, as it really looks amazing.
From the station, it’s a short walk through the twisty medieval streets to the hub of the old part of Mons. This was where our hotel aptly named Dream! was, full of eccentricities which made it hard to leave. The rooms are wonderfully designed, all with individual themes and quirky cartoons. Even the carpets are fun, with black and white splodgy squares leading you to your room. We were on the third floor of the converted 19th century convent and were welcomed by a stained glass window to look out of as we left the lift. Our room’s huge window was framed with neo Gothic stonework and much to Ruaridh and Flora’s delight, there were back to back televisions so everyone could be entertained. With electric curtains and a jacuzzi bath which lit up in wonderful colours at night, to enjoy, we really were dreaming. And the view was spectacular, especially at night when the city’s main monuments were lit up in an array of brightness. Food at the hotel is also a luxury, all traditional and served with elegance and some lovely Belgian beer.
There is a lot to see and do in Mons and we found a novel way of getting our bearings, thanks to local teacher Ludovic Agneesens. Ludovic gives tours around the city on his Piaggio Ape three-wheeler, a smart invention which had Ruaridh and Flora in raptures. With his quirky and easy-going style, Ludovic soon had us falling in love with the city he moved to as a student and never left.
The advantage of the three-wheeler is that it can go where cars can’t, which is good in Mons as much of the city is pedestrianised and Ludovic knows every nook and cranny and shows you features you would no doubt miss if left to your own devices.
His one and a half hour tour takes you to all the major attractions including The Grand-Place, the main hub for people to meet and socialise. The 15th century Hotel de Ville or town hall is in the centre and home to the Guardhouse Monkey, whose head has lost its bronze shine, thanks to everyone following the tradition of rubbing its head with your left hand, all in the name of good luck.
Surrounded by cafes and bars, The Grand Place is a nice place to people spot. But once we had left Ludovic, we relied on our feet to see the sights. The cobbles dictate good shoes and I chose Mons to test out a pair of the Teva suede braided boots from the 2015 De La Vina collection. Comfy and stylish, they did just the job, especially when we walked up to the first of our stops on the UNESCO-listed buildings. A stroll up a big hill takes you to The Belfry, one of 56 in Belgium and France to be given the special honour. They were originally built as watch towers with the bells to warn locals of any trouble and also to house important documents. The one in Mons has been beautifully restored and is set in a park full of bicycle powered instruments for children (and big kids) to enjoy.
Just down from the Belfry is the Collegiate Church of St Waudru, which houses the Car d’ Or and the coffin of St Waudru. Both are at the centrepiece of the annual Doudou Festival, another tick on the UNESCO list. On Trinity Sunday, the coffin is placed on the Car d’ Or in a flamboyant opening ceremony, then the carriage, pulled by horses is pushed up the hill by locals. Legend states that if the carriage slips down the hill, the town will be destroyed. Locals take the event very seriously and it is followed by a battle where St George slays the dragon. So important is it, that the Musee du Doudou has been opened to tell the story.
For military enthusiasts, the Mons Memorial Museum is an excellent option, with interactive exhibitions re-living the wars and displaying memorabilia.
Outside Mons, the Pairi Daiza is a must for families, a short train ride takes you to the Garden of the Worlds, which is a theme park, garden and zoo, all rolled into one. There are no rides, but different areas of beauty, where animals of that country lived. The white tiger and pandas were are favourites and its easy to see why this park is Belgium’s number one place to visit. There are many restaurants on site to visit too, with the Temple des Delices serving the best Chinese.
Food and drink are a big thing in Belgium and Mons is lucky to have such restaurants as Petite Provence, Ces Belges et Vous and Chez Bily, serving traditional dishes ranging from the Cote de Porc A L’Berdouille, translated as pork in mud (which happens to be a delicious sauce) to the best frites (or chips ) in town.
The city’s European Capital for Culture motto for 2015 is “I Love Mons’’ and I think that is certainly true of the fountain racing Hay family!
Factfile: Mons, Belgium, European Capital of Culture 2015.
Accommodation: Dream! really lives up to its name, housed in a converted 19th-century convent, it really is a fabulous spot. Location wise, its in a great central location and inside the walls are decorated with trendy artwork and rooms are to die for, all with their own individual décor related to their names, ranging from my favourite childhood professional cyclist Eddy Merckx to the Belgium Expo 58 fair. There is also a private spa to relax in. Check out www.dream-mons.be
Tourist information: The people in Belgium are nice and friendly and that includes the lovely lot at the Belgium Tourist Office in London. For further information on Mons visit www.whybelgium.co.uk, social tag: @whybelgium. Listings of events for Mons2015 can be found on www.mons2015.eu/en
Enjoy a spin round the city in a three wheeler with fun guide Ludovic Agneesens, check out www.triobalade.be
Guide: I have author Antony Mason to thank for inspiring the trip to Mons. In his excellent guide Mons: European Capital of Culture, Anthony shows so much enthusiasm for the city, you just have to go and see it yourself! Published by Bradt Guides, www.bradtguides.com
Transport: Flights from Britain to Belgium are good with the Charleroi airport the nearest to Mons .
There is an excellent bus/train service to Mons, with the combined ticket allowing you to use both modes of transport to reach the city. Log onto www.charleroi-airport.com/en
Gear: Mons is cobble city and so you need good footwear while you walk round. Shoe specialists Teva has released a smart suede boot (£80) as part of this year’s De La Vina collection, see www.teva.co.uk or try out social tags @tevaeurope for both Instagram and Twitter.