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January, 2015

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The medieval city of Mons celebrated its new standing as the European Capital of Culture in 2015. It has experienced dramatic political changes from antiquity into modern times.

It has been the scene for many battles amongst Europeans from Roman times, affecting ancient Belgian tribes to its occupations by Spanish and Dutch rulers in the 16th Century. Mons’ sufferings continued in the 17th and 18th centuries when French and Austrian armies conquered it, consecutively. The city was fortified again in the 19th century by the Netherlands, before Belgium gained independence in 1830. The agony of its inhabitants prolonged during World War I, when the city witnessed British forces fighting Germans. Canadian forces eventually freed the city towards the end of the war. The mining city of Mons, which was industrialized in the 20th century, became an important economic center and an easy target during the World War II. The heavy bombardment and the fighting between the Americans and Germans anguished the city again.

The war stories of Mons is opening a new vision of European collaboration, focusing on art and culture. Thirty years ago, Melina Marconi, the Greek Minister of Culture initiated an idea to promote the European city of Culture. The concept of a European Union required a deeper attention beyond political and economic partnership. The member states needed to return to their routes and create a new awareness to stimulate european culture.

The program, which was renamed as the European Capital of Culture in 1999, aimed to pump fresh blood in cities in need of urban regeneration. A city designated by the Council of Ministers of the European Union to be the European Capital of Culture organizes a series of events with very high European angle to boost cultural and artistic image of the city in order to get social and economical benefits.

The campaign of redevelopment and transformation of the city caught international attention and created wider visibility on the world map, inviting more tourists throughout the year. It seems that the initiative was the best way to resurrect the forgotten cities.

When I arrived in Mons station from Brussels, the first thing that caught my eyes was the construction work on the railway station. A major innovative project was delegated to the famous architect Santiago Calatrava to design a railway station to meet the demand of a new city, combining the historic character of the old town with the modern part of the city. A walkway will connect it to the new Digital Innovation Valley with many international tenchology companies. “It is where technology meets culture”, as echoed by Mons 2015 slogan.

The new station was originally estimated at a budget of 37 million euros, but the forecast has increased dramatically to 155 millions euros. It was expected to be finished in 2015 for the opening celebrations but it appears that it won’t happen soon and may in fact take another few years to complete. The train stations are the gateway to enter or leave the city and very important to impress the visitor, but the prospect is positive that this important asset of the city will eventually be completed.

Another setback for the city was the collapse of a modern wooden artpiece designed by Belgian artist Arne Quinze hanging over Rue de Nimy. The €400000.00 sculpture had to be dismantled in December 2014 just five weeks after its installation, due to concerns over health and safety.

The Mayor of Mons, Elio di Rupo, the ex-prime minister of Belgium who recently returned to lead his town is very optimistic. He believes in innovation and moving forward to make Mons beautiful and attract more investors.

He spoke to the guests, the business leaders, investors and journalists in a reception held on Thursday 22nd January in the newly opened convention center. The Mons International Congress Xperience (MICX) designed by Daniel Libeskind, it is one of many major projects planned for this southern city as the European Capital of Culture in 2015. The well-designed building with a façade of wooden lines and curving walls is a great architectural landmark for ten thousand inhabitants of Mons and the region. It is anticipated to connect the historic town with new innovative cultural and technological developments in the area.

It is scheduled to have five new museums opening in April to highlight the city’s cultural dimension. There are many art events planned this year, which would certainly attract many visitors from all over the world. But the main center of attention is the Van Gogh Exhibition which officially began on the weekend of the opening ceremony in the presence of over 150 European and International journalists.

The recently modernized BAM museum house over seventy pieces of Van Goh’s early drawings, paintings and as many as twenty paintings that he copied from other artists, titled as “Van Gogh In The Borinage – The Birth of An Artist” from 25th January to 17th May 2015. Many of his written letters to his brother are also on display. The exhibition’s main focus is on the period from 1878 to 1880 when Van Gogh lived as a preacher among the poor miners of Borinage in the south of Mons. The poverty and the living standards of miners influenced and inspired him deeply in picturing the daily life of workers and peasants. His fascination to share his vision with the world forced him to abandon his job as a preacher to become an artist.

Mons has many more attractions to offer to the visitors in its ancient cobbled alleys and hilly roads surrounded with old houses leading to the roof of the city where 17th century baroque style Belfry tower is located. From this summit, the picturesque town with slate rooftop houses is under your feet. A city filled with a rich cultural background and deeply rooted industrial vision deserves an extravagant celebration beyond words. The organizers certainly knew how to launch their showcase in the opening ceremony to impress visitors with the most beautiful and attractive features.

A year packed with many events started on 24th January with the slogan of “In 2015 I am from Mons, and you?” and the theme of illumination and enlightenment to celebrate the idea of the European Capital of Culture. Despite the cold weather, the central square (Grand Place) was swamped with large crowd wearing the silver ponchos to unify and sing in harmony. The white balloons, light shows and fireworks illuminated the dark night all over the city. The impressive art installations, sparkling shows, events and concerts across the city carried on all night.

In the early morning the white snow covered streets, historical houses and buildings creating a postcard view of the city with a nice shaded colouring. But it was all melted before the events started in the evening. With no further snow or raining, the weather helped the celebration to go more smoothly despite freezing cold. Place du Parc was decorated with various fire installations, thousands of candles, the pots and the rings of fire, magically shinning the square to symbolize the theme of the enlightenment. Two artists were also playing a very soft and smooth music on a stage lit by many candles. In the street adjacent to the square, a giant octopus shaped instrument was blowing fire all around. The Belgians were very relaxed about the health and safety as everybody could get very close to the flames.

There was a large crowd queuing to get into the site of the illuminated Belfry Tower to watch the wired sculptures installation titled “Once upon a time”. There were George and the Dragon surrounded by an army of fairy tale statues, lit up by spotlights, changing colours. Cedric Verdure, a French artist, has used simple wires to create ghostlike models, which invoke the imagination. Cedric has displayed his installation all over the world and wishes to express his artistic talent and ideas by dreamy and imaginary forms.

In another part of the old town in Rue de la Poterie, the whole street featured an artistic sound installation titled ‘Song Lines’ decorated with portraits of Mons singers from all over the world projected over hanging linens. As you walk slowly, a voice in different languages repeat the hit song by Salvatore Adamo.

But the main event in the Grand Place was Envolée Chromatique where the huge balloons were flying in the sky and large white toys run by humans were wondering in the crowd. An acrobat in the sky at the bottom of one balloon impressed the audience with her acrobatic moves whirling around a white fabric. The show continued with a flying accordionist who continued playing and singing around the square followed by a flying woman. The celebration could not have been complete without a huge firework in another corner of the town and the party did not want to stop. The event was a great success for the organizers.

Despite the high cost to European citizens, the European Capital of Culture is sure to bring people together through the universal language of art and culture. Mons has many more surprises for visitors in 2015.

For more information about Mons 2015, visit “Belgian Tourist Office”:

Mohammad Reza Amirinia

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