In the autumn sunshine, the homely red brick and grey limestone capital of the province of Hainaut is in the grip of European Culture Capital Syndrome, as an army of builders races to get the place ready for the magic year of 2015.
Arriving at the railway station, you’re in the thick of it. To one side, across an expanse of concrete and cranes, you glimpse the 19th-century statue of King Leopold, the spire of the great church of Sainte-Waudru and the soaring Baroque belfry. To the other, a swathe of newbuild, part of the new technologies park emerging in the wake of Google’s pioneering data centre just outside town, cooled by canal water. In the middle, a jumble of steel walkways straddling the rails is transmuting into the spectacular transport hub of the future Mons, courtesy of Santiago Calatrava – the Giorgio Armani of urban regeneration.
As you walk up the low hill towards the centre, you pass elegant townhouses, old-fashioned shops, plenty of dust-sheeted renovation sites, and seemingly half the streets of the centre being re-cobbled in pristine grey stone.
The city’s newest luxury accommodation, the Hotel Dream, typifies the new Mons. A former convent with stone-pillared rooms has been kitted out in red leather and black and white ponyskin, a spa, a cocktail lounge and a smart brasserie called Mea Culpa.
Mons, a transport crossroads since medieval times, was once the centre of an important mining and industrial region. It is now busy with universities and cybertechnology, so it has plenty of municipal grandeur, both new and historic. Yet it doesn’t seem to have had a grand hotel. The Hotel Dream is therefore straight in at the top, a convenient five-minute walk through medievally named streets – la Grande Triperie; le Marché aux Herbes; la rue des Clercs – to the Grand-Place, the heart of any sizeable town in Belgium.
The Grand-Place lives up to its name, a fieldsized paved expanse bordered by rows of café terraces and a series of magnificent facades. The cafés are a nice and varied selection, from the staid brass-and-moleskin Excelsior to the more bohemian Ropieur. The youth of Mons, incidentally, tend not to frequent the Grand-Place cafés but funkier, cheaper bars down on the Marché aux Herbes. For all Mons’ booming student population, the Grand-Place on a Friday night is a model of civilised animation.
The star feature of the Grand-Place, according to tourist literature, is the symbol of the city, a small brass monkey wall ornament which people rub for good luck. Not up on lucky miniature simian-rubbing, I gave the experience a miss. But the building the monkey is attached to, the great 15th-century Town Hall, should absolutely not be passed by – particularly its massive single upper floor, a series of cavernous dark woodpanelled halls divided by low flights of steps, aglow with huge paintings and gilded carving.
From the long balcony of the Town Hall many centuries of dignitaries have overseen fairs, punishments, parades and miscellaneous revelry. The most recent occupant is the town’s Mayor, Elio Di Rupo, the bow-tied miner’s son who got the Culture Capital gig for Mons. (Until last month he was the country’s Prime Minister, until ousted by a fresh coalition.
One of the chief entertainments nowadays is the annual pageant of the Doudou, Mons’ version of the Ducasse carnival wherein a giant figure of Saint George slays the dragon, known as the Doudou. This happens amid Rio-style revelry and wild music from drums and wind instruments strangely reminiscent of Brazil but apparently 100 per cent Belgian.
As part of 2015, the Doudou, which bears the Unesco World Cultural Heritage stamp, will have a new museum. In the meantime, a good way to investigate the cult out of season is to head for the Collegiate Church of Sainte-Waudru. This is a stern Gothic edifice standing on the side of Mons’ central hill, surrounded by the ivy-clad mansions of church officials and rich lawyers. Dedicated to a seventh-century canoness and plague-dispeller, this soaring grey cathedral contains magnificent stained glass, fine alabaster statuary, a crypt full of gold and silver ornaments, and a great skull-adorned death clock to remind you of the inevitable in case you’re enjoying your holiday too much.
Parked in a corner chapel is the Golden Coach. This magnificent folly, pulled by men rather than horses, is a sort of Walloon equivalent of the Seville Holy Week floats, carrying the gold-casketed relics of Sainte-Waudru towards their annual reunion with Saint George, the Doudou, and a large quantity of the excellent local beer.
From plans so far announced, 2015 will involve a suitably ambitious programme of flagship concerts, splashy exhibitions and big urban art installations. But it will also more than double the town’s permanent museum and gallery stock. Not that there is a shortage: the existing modern art gallery, the BAM, hosts a particularly rich exhibition programme, and its 2015 centrepiece, Van Gogh in the Borinage, promises to be one of next year’s highlights.
And across a tree-lined square from Sainte-Waudru, the former premises of the Belgian National Bank contain one of Mons’ most idiosyncratic claims to museum fame: the François Duesberg Museum of Decorative Arts. For aficionados of porcelain, it’s already a world-class attraction, but an encounter with the eccentric personality of its proprietor raises it to another level altogether.
I had the good fortune to find Baron François Duesberg himself at home. The patron lives in what one imagines to be considerable grandeur up a marble staircase above the shop. I was treated to a fascinating personal tour from the slight, pinstripe-suited figure. He flitted volubly through the gleaming forest of gold ormolu and china ebony, from Meissen clock (one of six made for Napoleon to give to his generals), to an 18th-century African statuette from the beginnings of the Robinson Crusoe craze, occasionally complaining that Mons didn’t appreciate his treasures.
A little more than a century ago, a young Dutch resident had the same problem. Vincent van Gogh’s period as a trainee Evangelist pastor in the mining communities of the Borinage came to end when he was fired for unseemly Christ-like behaviour among his congregation. He went off to Arles and posthumous fame.
A Van Gogh trail is one of Mons’ tourist attractions, calling at two red brick houses that the young Vincent lived in. Both of these properties have been under leisurely repair for an indeterminate period, and the whole Borinage area is rather agreeably under-exploited in industrial heritage terms.
The great model mine complex of Le Grand Hornu has been renovated into opulent gallery and restaurant spaces. But the old miners’ villages that surround Mons are mainly poor, unchanged, and therefore authentic. This includes the slag heaps, transformed by nature into densely wooded hills much favoured by riders from the stables which have established themselves in some of the old mining precincts.
Mons’ busy 2014, as anniversary setting for many dramatic events of the two World Wars, is merging seamlessly into the programme of 2015. Another man-made hill overlooking farmland at the edge of town bears a brand new stone inscription marking the visit in August of the Duke of Cambridge to St Symphorien Military Cemetery, one of the prettiest and least forbidding of military graveyards, where an elderly gent showing his grandson the grave of the first Victoria Cross recipient congratulated me for being British. Not surprisingly, Mons’ war heritage will have its new museum too.
The efficient modern railway system I arrived on – a skeletal remnant of another great slice of Walloon history – appeared to be one of the few things not to have a new museum for 2015, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Santiago Calatrava’s got an idea or two up his sleeve for that as well.
Hotel Dream, Rue de la Grande Triperie (00 32 6532 9720; dream-mons.be).
Collegiate Church of Sainte-Waudru, Rue du Chapitre (00 32 65 87 57 75; waudru.be).
Musée François Duesberg, Square Franklin Roosevelt (00 32 65 36 31 64; duesberg.mons.be).
BAM (Beaux Arts Mons), Rue Neuve (00 32 65 40 53 30; bam.mons.be).
Maison van Gogh, Rue du Pavillon, Cuesmes (00 32 6535 5611).
Le Grand-Hornu, Rue Sainte-Louise (00 32 6561 3881; grand-hornu.eu)
Getting there and getting around
French-speaking Belgium is easy to reach from across the UK. The main approach is on Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford in Kent via Brussels-Midi. The Belgian capital is 121 minutes from London by non-stop train, and connections from elsewhere in Britain are readily available – Kings Cross is adjacent to St Pancras, while Euston is just a 10-minute walk or one Tube stop away.
Brussels-Midi is the main hub for the nation’s railways. A ticket to “Any Belgian Station” does exactly what it says. The price starts at £79 return, just £10 more than the fare to Brussels. You can change quickly and easily from Eurostar to Mons, Charleroi, Namur and Liège , or anywhere else up to the southernmost station at Virton, close to the French border. You simply show the international ticket on the domestic train. Stopovers in Brussels are available at no extra cost. You need to continue your journey within 24 hours of arriving in the capital, or – on the homebound leg – begin within 24 hours of your departure time.
Tournai, close to the frontier with France, is most easily reached via Lille-Europe. itself just 82 minutes from London. You need to take a 10-minute walk from Lille-Europe to the terminus of Lille-Flandres. From here there are frequent trains to Tournai, taking around half an hour, for a one-way fare of €6.
By air, Brussels airport is the main hub, with flights on Brussels Airlines from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Manchester. In addition, bmi regional flies from East Midlands and Newcastle; British Airways flies from Heathrow; and easyJet flies from Gatwick. The airport has its own station, with a fast rail connection to the capital. Connect in Brussels for destinations in Wallonia.
Charleroi airport, also known as “Brussels South”, is served by Ryanair from Edinburgh and Manchester. The airport is a short way north of Charleroi city centre. A special Charleroi Airport Ticket offers cut-price bus/train combinations. At the airport near Door 2 there are two ticket dispensers where you can buy a single or a day-return ticket valid to any Belgian station”. This ticket covers the bus journey from the airport to Charleroi-Sud station and a train journey onwards.
By ferry, the best access points are Dunkirk – served from Dover by DFDS – and Zeebrugge, reached from Hull on P&O Ferries. Calais, the main French port and terminus for Eurotunnel shuttles, is a short drive away.
The best way to travel around Belgium is by train. Departures are frequent on the main lines, and even branch lines have a regular and reliable service. Reservations are not necessary, except on Thalys or other high-speed services between Brussels and Liège, which are not covered by the Eurostar deal.
See the excellent English-language website belgianrail.be for details of an extensive range of discount fares – including a Weekend offer of halfprice tickets.
More information http://mons2015.eu/fr; 020 7531 0390