"A city on a hill that inspired Hugo and van Gogh" Mons by annase

Mons Travel Guide: 213 reviews and 416 photos

I visited Mons on a Sunday afternoon in March 2006. The whole town seemed very sleepy as I wandered through the narrow little streets all on my own for quite a while. It is a rather quaint town with many old and pretty buildings and pedestrianised streets, although some are also a bit run down and seem to have just been left unoccupied. There also seems to be many student houses, and the town reminded me a bit of Leiden where I used to live in 2000-2002.

The 19th century French novelist Victor Hugo visited Mons and was inspired by this dreamy town. It was here, that he wrote to his wife whilst travelling with his mistress (the swine!! :-), describing the town “une ville fort curieuse” (a very strange town). He was enchanted by its buildings and the enchanting melody originating from the Belfry Tower (Le Beffroi) at moonlight (Like most other medieval cities in the Low Countries, Mons had one at the time and it is still standing). The Belfry Tower of Mons is located on the highest point in the town, behind the Town Hall. The Tower is 87m tall and was built in late-Renaissance and Baroque style in the mid-17th century by architect Louis Ledoux. It replaced an older bell-tower that had collapsed at the end of the 15th century. The upper part of the tower is quite remarkable, with a collection of onion domes and a 49 piece carillon. Hugo once wrote his wife about it "Imagine a giant coffee pot, with under it four smaller tea pots. It would be very ugly if it weren't that big."

By day, Victor Hugo 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. These romantic features of the town discovered by Hugo are unspoilt today.

At the heart of it all is the Grand’ Place (The Grand Square). It is large and pretty. There are several cafes and restaurants around and in the vicinity of the square. You can take in the sights and sounds of market day or look up at the Belfry Tower on the hill behind and to the left of the Town Hall. I visited an Italian pizza place on the left as you view the Town Hall. The food was very nice, but it was very quiet in the restaurant - apart from the loud Italian CD that they had on replay!! :-) It must have been some special day, since hardly anyone was out.

Mons was built on the slopes of a small hill and it surrounded by forest. The site has been occupied since Paleolithic times. There was also an important Roman military camp once, as well as a monastery in the 7th century. Later in the 9 th century a castle was built on the hill where the Belfry now is. The town was occupied by French, Spanish and Austrian occupiers who brought in layers of fortification. After the Independence of Belgium, the 12th century city walls that had by then become obsolete were destroyed, giving Mons space to breathe, and expand on the slopes. Although the town now spills out beyond its fortified walls, the centre is small. A large boulevard, planted with shady trees took the place of the demolished fortifications and in 1872 the River Trouille was deviated out of town.

The town is located near the French border, about 50km southwest of Brussels. It is at the junction of two canals, the Canal du Centre and the Condé-Mons Canal. The town was established at the top of a hill, around a 7th century monastery that was founded by a noble lady named Waudru (also known as St. Waudru). It has expanded over the centuries, outgrowing its fortified walls more than once, and engulfing surrounding communities. The central core of the town is not very large, so you can easily walk through it. There is a concerted effort to keep vehicles out of the narrow cobbled streets, and parking regulations are strictly enforced. You will only get 20 minutes at most of the road side parking bays. Use one of the car parks on the edge of the town and walk. Besides, the one way system is a bit of a nightmare.

The Collegiate Church of St. Waudru is a somewhat dark and imposing edifice situated on the hillside leading down to the train station. It was built between 1450 and 1686, but never really finished which may account for its rather odd appearance. On Trinity Sunday each year the Chariot of Gold from the church is carried through the streets to the Grand Place, where St. George fights his dragon once more. The chariot itself is an 18th century carriage which was built for the relics of St. Waudru. The interior of the church is well worth viewing for its work by local artists.

Vincent van Gogh lived in Cuesmes, a suburb of Mons, at n° 3 Rue du Pavillon in 1879 and 1880 before moving on to Provence. The house he lived in can be visited. It is an authentic and preserved environment and it now houses a permanent exhibition of reproductions and an audio-visual show in various languages.

  • Last visit to Mons: Mar 2006
  • Intro Updated Feb 26, 2008
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annase

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