Mons: A medieval masterpiece

Prepare to be seduced by Mons, a town that exudes elegance and tranquility, says Henry Palmer
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The Independent Travel

Charming and cheery

This pretty town of winding cobbled streets and elegant squares is set over a hill (the name Mons is Latin for mount).

It is an ancient place of particularly fine medieval and 17th-century buildings and, for all that one of the most famous battles of the First World War was fought just below the old town, it exudes much charm and a gently cheerful atmosphere – created in no small part by the large student population here. For a great perspective over the spires and rooftops of the town centre and across to surrounding woodland head to the park at the very top of the hill. Square du Chateau (closed Mondays, free admission) is a green landscaped space created on the site of the town’s 11th century castle of which only the stalwart stone chapel remains.

Just off the park stands the town’s great belfry, 87m tall and built in 1661 to replace an old clock tower. Currently under renovation, it contains a 49-bell carillon which rings out every 15 minutes, the mellow tone adding to the sense of tranquillity here.

Mercantile splendour

The very heart of Mons is the Grand-Place. A magnificent hub of commerce and politics since at least the 14th century, it reflects the town’s historic status as capital of Hainault and home to its powerful counts. The café-fringed buildings you see today are from a great range of periods, with gables here, pediments and pilasters there. The most striking edifice is the town hall, built in stages between 15th and 16th centuries and with an impressive belfry added in 1717. Don’t overlook the cast-iron statue of a small monkey just outside the porch.

Reputedly anyone patting its head with their left hand will have a year of happiness – hence the very shiny crown.

Amble intriguing streets

Simply wandering the web of lanes around the old town is one of the great pleasures of a visit here. There are wonderful buildings almost everywhere you look.

For a seminal stroll, walk from the Grand-Place down Rue des Clercs. You’ll pass a fine example of 16th-century Netherlands’ Renaissance architecture at number 22, an elegant brick property with stepped gables, while Hotel de Peissant at number 31 is a stone building in Florentine palazzo style. The street leads to Square St-Germain behind which is the town’s most important church.

Collegiale St Waudru stands on the site of a monastery and convent founded by St Waltrude. It is a monumentally tall building constructed over two centuries (1450 to 1621) and it contains treasures including the reliquaries that are paraded around town during the Mons Ducasse procession every Holy Trinity Sunday.

Enter a world of clocks

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs Francois Duesberg (00 32 65 36 31 64; open Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday and Saturday; adults €4) is set on the edge of the old town at 12 Square Franklin Roosevelt in an austere-looking 1892 property that was formerly the headquarters of the Belgian National Bank.

Its highlight is a collection of clocks made between 1795 and 1815. The craftsmanship of these gilded, sculpted pieces is breathtaking. Dedicated to art from the neo-classical period, the museum also contains wonderful displays of porcelain, silverware, First Empire jewellery and engravings.

Vibrant gallery

In 2007 the town’s old Musée des Beaux-Arts was transformed into a contemporary space and renamed BAM (standing for Beaux-Arts Mons) (00 32 65 40 53 30;; closed Mondays; adults €4). Set at 8 Rue Neuve, it offers a programme of changing exhibitions mostly focussing on 20th century art movements. Its permanent collection has work by Louis Buisseret, Pierre Alechinsky and Paul Delvaux.

Visit an artistic shrine

From August 1879 to October 1880 the village of Cuesmes, about seven minutes drive west of Mons, was home to Vincent Van Gogh. Here the artist lived among miners whose hard, grinding lifestyle he captured in his paintings.

His house at 3 Rue du Pavillon is nowa museum (00 32 65 35 56 11; closed Mondays; adults €4) showing reproductions of the works inspired by his time here and documents and letters from this period. “Here you would easily find something that appeals to you in the scenery and in the singularity of everything, for there’s so much picturesque character in everything in this region,” he wrote to his brother Theo shortly after he first arrived at Cuesmes.

A poignant excursion

About three kilometres east of Mons is a quiet rural cemetery. The war graves at Saint-Symphorien are all the more heartrending for the remarkably peaceful atmosphere here. The loss of lives during the Battle of Mons has never been comprehensively established although it is believed that more than 7,000 soldiers were killed. Unusually, those buried here are from both the German and the British armies.

Sit back and relax

Back in Mons, head to attractive old Marché aux Herbes, just south of the Grand-Place, one of the most vibrant streets in town. Take a table at Quartier Latin or Echalote bars and order a St Feuillien beer, brewed nearby at Le Roeulx.

Taste the local specialities

Other local beers include La Moneuse, a golden farmhouse ale made at Brasserie de Blaugies near Mons, and Cuvée des Trolls from micro brewery Brasserie le Brasse-Temps in Mons, which is an arm of Belgium’s long-established Dubuisson Brewery. For a complete flavour of Mons head to Le Marchal (00 32 65 31 24 02; at 4 Rampe Sainte Waudru. This bustling restaurant specialises in fresh local produce and serves a well-priced regional menu – choices include terrine of rabbit with plums and duck breast cooked in two beers. The three-course menu costs €29.

Stay in comfort

Set in a gracious, 18th-century townhouse, St James Hotel (00 32 65 72 48 24; at 8 Place de Flandre is a contemporary boutique establishment with 21 bedrooms and four newly completed apartments. Doubles cost from €73 excluding breakfast.

Mons also offers one of Europe’s best-sited youth hostels. Set in an ultra-modern building at the foot of the belfry, it has 115 beds in 26 rooms. Accommodation costs from €17.50 per person per night in a dormitory room, with breakfast included.

More information

Maison de Tourisme de la Region de Mons (00 32 65 33 55 80; at 22 Grand-Place is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm and Sunday 11am to 5pm.