Deep in the south of Belgium, not far from the French border, the modest town of Mons hit the international headlines in 2014 as commemorations for the Great War got under way. The first and last British soldiers to die in the conflict lost their lives here and, a century later, rest at Saint-Symphorien cemetery just outside the town.
But this year, the atmosphere in Mons is distinctly more upbeat, as the town celebrates a bright future as European Capital of Culture 2015. I’d already visited the usual Belgian tourist destinations of Brussels and Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, so decided to see what Mons has to offer British visitors on a two-night city break.
The journey is certainly simple. Just take Eurostar from London-St Pancras to Brussels-Midi and change onto one of the regular local services for the 45 min journey to Mons. Your Eurostar ticket can specify Any Belgian Station at no extra cost – just ask when booking.
As you pull into Mons station, the towers and domes of the Old Town loom invitingly over the rooftops, although the station itself is somewhat less arresting. Mons is getting a big new station but completion is years away and at the moment, the facility consists of temporary cabins and metal walkways.
No matter. There were plenty of taxis outside to whisk us to our hotel. It’s barely ten minutes from here on foot to the heart of the old town, but with cobbled streets and pavements to contend with, it’s easier – and quieter – to take a cab.
We were booked into the Hôtel Dream, just five minutes’ walk from the Grand’Place (double rooms from €112.50 per night). An imaginative conversion of a huge church, this popular 4-star hotel with spa and busy restaurant is decorated in contemporary style – a lot of black and white splashed with primary colours. Our double room featured gothic arches behind the dressing table and overlooked the rear car park. For a town centre hotel, we found it blissfully quiet at night – a real plus for light sleepers.
So what to do? Already designated Cultural Capital of Wallonia in 2002, Mons has attracted its latest label thanks to its efforts to safeguard its heritage and share it with visitors. Three of its attractions are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list – the Baroque belfry, the Neolithic flint mines at nearby Spiennes, and the Doudou, an annual carnival celebrating St George’s victory over the dragon.
Heart of the town is the Grand’Place, dominated by a Gothic-style Town Hall. On a sunny Sunday in March, we found the square buzzing with life as residents and visitors sat at cafe tables watching a big rally of Harley Davidsons. Slightly surreal beneath the elegant facades, but we made like a local and sat at a cafe table with a glass of local Montois beer.
Parts of the Town Hall are open to visitors and well worth a look, especialy if you can access the huge hall and balcony overlooking the square. Then walk through the courtyard and to the quiet garden behind, where a new museum celebrating the Doudou opens in April. Also scheduled to open in April is the new Mon Memorial Museum to the events of two World Wars.
We visited in March so were too early for either, but we did catch a temporary exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum to Van Gogh who spent some of his formative years as an artist in the mining district of Le Borinage near Mons – on show till May 17. But the heritage buildings have no time limit and we enjoyed exploring Mons’ peaceful cobbled streets, discovering St Waudru’s huge Collegiate Church, and looking over the town from the foot of the 87-metre high Baroque Belfry. Perched on the hilltop site of the old castle, the bell tower was still under refurbishment during our stay, but opens soon with a new interpretation centre. Climb to the top for a real pigeon’s eye view.
In fact a variety of new cultural sites and temporary exhibitions will open in Mons this year and beyond, ensuring that this pretty small town maintains its cultural momentum. For British visitors, we felt that Mons makes an attractive day trip destination from Brussels. Or stay overnight for a real two-centre city break. But unless you have a car to visit the surrounding countryside, two nights is one too many.
And whatever you do, avoid Mondays. Shops and museums are all closed, apart from a quaint Natural Sciences museum full of Victorian stuffed animals with snarling expressions. Even the tourist office couldn’t suggest any Monday activities to occupy us so we hopped on a train mid-morning back to Brussels where their Grand’Place was well and truly in business – a lively end to a lovely weekend that contrasted two historic but very different cities.
The new Mons city guide by Anthony Mason (Bradt, £6.99) makes an excellent travelling companion – www.bradtguides.com.
Tourist information from www.visitMons.be