In a peaceful, hilly park two kilometers outside of Mons’ city center lies the final resting place of over 500 soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Mons. The white tombstones surrounded by trees and fields are impeccably maintained with two sections for both British and German graves. The beauty and significance of this tranquil spot pack a heavy emotional punch.
Few are aware of this, but it was in the greater area of Mons, in the small village Cuesmes to be more exact, where tormented Vincent Van Gogh chose his life’s profession in 1880. Born in a Dutch upper-middle-class family, it was in the Belgian coal mining area – where he originally came to try out a career as a preacher – that he witnessed the hardships of poorer families, experiences that would later weave their way into his art as a major recurring theme. His modest house, the Maison du Marais, has been turned into a permanent exhibition dedicated to the spirit of its famous inhabitant.
Maison du Marais, Rue du Pavillon, Mons, Belgium, +32 65 35 56 11
Part of an ancient tradition that goes back to medieval times, the procession of Ducasse – lovingly dubbed DouDou by the locals – is a boisterous folkloric fest taking place on Mons’ Grand Place every May on the Sunday after Easter. First order of business is parading around the relics of Saint Waltrudis, believed to have saved the city from the plague after a desperate plea from the citizens. Next is the most entertaining happening of all, the fight between a 10-meter-long green dragon nicknamed ‘DouDou’ and ‘Saint Joris’, during which all the bystanders sing the song also called ‘DouDou.’ The whole curious spectacle is on UNESCO’s list of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The Sunday after Easter
There’s a giant dominating the valley between the villages Strépy-Bracquegnies and Thieu, and he’s one of the ultimate examples of human ingenuity. Somewhat out of the center but a unique sight anywhere in the world, the mushroom-shaped boat lift impresses at 102 meters high. Once inside the concrete and steel monster, you get the chance to climb it all the way to the top and marvel at its efficient engine room. There’s even the opportunity to board a ship and make the crossing yourself like a true sailor.
Belgium is the proud home to a collection of over 30 belfries inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, with the Mons’ edition as the only baroque one in the bunch. For centuries it determined the rhythm of the city with its 49 bells chiming away every hour. Erected in Bray sandstone and pillars out of bluestone, the Mons Belfort is one of the most elegant ones around and has become a symbol of Mons’ identity. A glass elevator will take you to the top for a panoramic view of the city.
In a funny turn of events, Mons’ City Hall (a very fascinating piece of Renaissance architecture in its own right) frequently gets overshadowed by the innocuous-looking monkey statue on its façade. Where he came from remains a mystery, but the tiny creature might just have the most power of us all. Legend has it that stroking the head of the small iron fellow with your left hand will bring luck to those in love, even providing newlyweds with a baby within the year – though that also might have something to do with the fact that they’re newlyweds.
Drive or bike two kilometers out of Mons’ city center, and you’ll find yourself at the largest and earliest grouping of ancient mines in Europe. With evidence of human presence since the Paleolithic age, its value in studying the history of mankind has been priceless. Traveling down into the mines is limited to 5,500 visitors a year due to conservation concerns, so make sure to book your ticket in advance.
Sundays from March to November, 10pm-4pm
Camp-à-Cayaux, Rue de la Petit Cavée, Mons, Belgium, +32 65 84 68 12