French 19th century novelist Victor Hugo was inspired by this dreamy town, set on the hillside and surrounded by forest. It was, he wrote to his wife (while travelling with his mistress in 1837), “une ville fort curieuse” (a very strange town). At moonlight, he was enchanted by its “fantastical buildings” and the mysterious ringing of the bell from the high belfries, a song to the town. By day, he pondered the rich mix of architectural styles, arising from “the shock of North and the South, Flanders and Spain”, and praised the beauty of the Town Hall, the winding, narrow streets, gracious brick town houses and powerful fortifications. The romance of Mons is unspoilt today – come and lose yourself in Victor Hugo’s footsteps.
Vital statistics: Best for strolling narrow streets arm in arm, stroking the monkey (statue) for good fortune, watching George slay the dragon and remembering World War 1.
Flavour: Hearty Belgian food, from mussels to steak and chips at Chez Henri (41 Rue d'Havre) near the Grand' Place, a convivial atmosphere to try the local dish "côtelette à l'Berdouille" go to No Maison (21 grand-place). Or try the Salon des Lumieres (23 Rue du Miroirs) for a different atmosphere with chandeliers, mirrors.. and good food.
Status: Capital of the Belgian province of Hainaut.
Founded: Occupied from Paleolithic times, and an important Roman military camp, Mons got its monastery in the 7th century, and French, Spanish and Austrian occupiers brought layers of fortification. Dutch rulers (1815-20) destroyed the 12th century city walls giving Mons space to breathe, and expand on the slopes. The First World War swept through Mons.
Glory days: Every year for Trinity Sunday’s annual procession when Saint Wautru’s relics are paraded around town in a golden carriage and Saint George dressed in yellow and white kills the dragon at the Battle of Lumeçon.
Location: On the slopes of a small hill near the French border at the confluence of the Canal du Centre and Condé-Mons canals. Mons is just 65 /50 km from Brussels, linked by direct train, and on the E42 and the E19 road network.
Locals: 91,000 Montois.
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Mons (or Bergen in Flemish) means mountains, so it’s no surprise that this romantic little town is set on a hilltop. Mons spills out beyond its fortified walls but the centre is petite, and much of it is pedestrianised. At the heart of it all is the Grand’ Place with its gothic Town Hall (1458-1718). Go inside to the peaceful inner courtyard and the Mayor’s Garden (Le Jardin du Maïeur), home to the Ceramics, War and Coin museums and the Ropieur Fountain, sculpted by Gobert in 1937 in the shape of a naughty boy who splashes passers-by. Back on the main square, enjoy the mix of facades from 18th century baroque to 16th century styles.
If you get lost, look up to see the 87 metre-high Belfry Tower (Le Beffroi) built in a medley of late Renaissance and baroque styles (1661-1669) by Louis Ledoux. Victor Hugo thought it looked like “a giant coffee pot, with four smaller tea pots under it”. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, beloved by the locals who call it El Catiau (the Chateau).
The spire of gothic Sainte-Waudru church (built 1450-1690) climbs 190 metres. Step inside to see the Car d'Or – a gilded wooden carriage paraded around town each Trinity Sunday. When the sun shines, stroll the Waux Hall gardens (Avenue Reine Astrid) designed in the 19th century by Louis Fuchs, where ducks and swans make a splash.
Local characters: The medieval monkey perching on the left side of the Town Hall entrance is said to bring good luck to all who stroke him (with their left hand). Emperors Charles V of Habsburg, Napoleon of France and Japan’s Hakyito have all paid him a visit.
Explore The Grand-Hornu (82 rue Sainte Louise) in the neighbouring Borinage region is an old industrial coal mining complex built in grand neo-classical style (1810-1830) by Frenchman Henri De Gorge. See wide arcades, workshops and the administrators' residence, known as De Gorge Castle.