European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Guardian travel article


Grand Place in Mons                                                                        Photograph: Alamy

Mons, Belgium, Capital of Culture 2015 The Guardian, Tuesday 6 January 2015


Mons’ year of celebrations to mark its status as joint Capital of Culture (with Pilsen in the Czech Republic) involves 300 events, ranging from a major Van Gogh exhibition to a maze of 8,000 sunflowers. We look at the highlights, plus the best lunch in town, the quirkiest hotel and a bar with 170 brews on the menu.

The first thing you should do is climb a hill. In the town centre, an ancient hidden alley called ruelle César winds up behind old houses to emerge on a summit where you can look down on the old rooftops of Mons. This picturesque southern Belgian town has a population of just 93,000, but numbers are boosted in term time by students attending Mons university and the music conservatory.

It’s easy to forget that Mons was once a mining town, because it’s now more like Silicon Hill. Internet search giant Google has built a huge data centre outside the town, creating a digital community among the abandoned pits. The locals have responded in their own way by creating mock Google street views of Mons, including one with two people paddling canoes down a Mons street pursued by police officers (launches 24 January at

Mons locals are renowned for fighting a green dragon called Doudou. This strange ceremony, known as the Ducasse de Mons, has medieval origins and is held every year on the first Sunday after Pentecost (that’s 31 May this year) on the main square. It involves men dressed in green leaves, a swinging dragon’s tail and a man representing Saint George, who kills Doudou with a single pistol shot.

The most stylish of recent European leaders comes from Mons. Local mayor Elio di Rupo became prime minister of Belgium on 6 December 2011 after the country’s record-breaking 541 days without a government. He transformed grey Belgian politics with his Italian charm, smart red bow tie and fondness for posing in swimming trunks. Now he is back running Mons.

The most impressive new work of modern art is a sprawling wooden structure in rue de Nimy, installed on 6 December by Arne Quinze. Called The Passenger, it hovers above a busy shopping street with blood-red struts brushing against the law courts. The street had to be closed off when the installation partly collapsed on 24 December, but the damaged parts have now been repaired.

It’s hard to pick the strangest Mons event of 2015. There’s an opening ceremony on 24 January involving dancing robots, eight Finnish hot tubs, a re-enactment of the Woodstock festival and 18,000 people dressed in shiny aluminium ponchos (free, more details at But the organisers hope to hit another high in February when they reconstruct a traditional London working men’s club inside an old school building named La Maison Folie. The aim of the four-day event (19-22 February) is to spice up Mons with a mix of British eccentricity and cutting-edge culture.

The organisers of Mons 2015 want you to get lost and discover unexpected places, so it is worth exploring the town’s steep cobbled lanes, hidden gardens and secret courtyards. Along the way, you will come across art installations, pop-up bars, street art and a poetry installation on buildings stretching for 10 kilometres called The Phrase.

The biggest event in Mons’ year as cultural capital is the Van Gogh exhibition. It willtake place in the newly renovated BAM museum (25 January-17 May, timed ticket €15), but don’t come expecting starry nights or yellow sunflowers. The focus is on the period Van Gogh spent as a preacher among the poor mining communities of the Borinage, just south of Mons, with many of van Gogh’s early drawings, copies of paintings by other artists, and letters written to his brother, Theo.

The weirdest museum in Mons is the Mundaneum. It contains the remains of a vast collection of newspapers, posters, catalogues and curiosities gathered in the early 20th century by the Belgian philanthropist Paul Otlet. For years it lay forgotten in a Brussels underground car park until it was snapped up by Mons, housed in an empty department store and rebranded as the world’s first internet.

The most inspiring art gallery is located in a restored 18th-century building that once belonged to a carriage maker. Yvonne Legrand’s L’Art Recréation gallery at 72 rue de Nimy (no website) displays contemporary glassware on battered tables, ancient cabinets and salvaged wooden posts.

The best spot in town for lunch is Boule de Bleu on rue de la Coupe. It’s a rambling bohemian place with wooden floors, ancient objects hanging from the roof beams and toilets that look like mini art galleries. The multilingual staff are irresistibly charming as they serve generous salads made with unexpected ingredients such as boudin blanc (white sausage).

The most striking historic building is the Belfry. Victor Hugo described it as “a huge coffee pot surrounded by four smaller tea pots.” Now a Unesco world heritage site, it has just been restored, so you can heave up to the coffee pot-shaped top for a spectacular view.

One of the strangest places to sleep is the Carnival Room in the Dream Hotel (doubles from €55). The bedside tables are made from drums and the carpet resembles a confetti-strewn cobbled street. But most of the 57 rooms in this renovated 19th-century chapel have their quota of Belgian weirdness, from the bowler hat lampshades in the Magritte room to the giant Smurf mural in the Comics Room.

Try a local beer in La Cervoise on the Grand’Place. The interior is furnished in traditional Belgian style, with leatherette benches, brass rails and little hooks to hang your coat. The lengthy beer menu lists 170 brews, including hard-to-find local specialities such as Quintine beers from the witches’ town of Ellezelles (which claims to be birthplace of Hercule Poirot, solely on the basis of a fake birth certificate) and lovely spicy, unfiltered La Chouffe on tap.

The independent Plaza Art Cinema is a favourite of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. These two brothers make acclaimed indie films set in gritty Belgian industrial towns. Unlike most cinemas in French-speaking Belgium, the Plaza Art screens international films in their original language rather than dubbed into French.

At the Saint Symphorien War Cemetery, 2km east of Mons, German and British soldiers are buried together in a beautiful verdant setting. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stood among the graves on 4 August last year in a moving ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war.

Don’t expect to be wowed if arriving by train. Top Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was commissioned to design a sublime new station, like the one in nearby Liège, but this costly project won’t be finished until late 2015 at the earliest, so many of the expected two million visitors will have to pick their way around a muddy construction site. It makes you wonder if you have got the wrong Mons, or the wrong year, but this is definitely the right place and the right time to visit.

Derek Blyth, Mons, Belgium, Capital of Culture 2015 The Guardian, Tuesday 6 January 2015

Derek Blyth is as well author of The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels and the blog


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