Wednesday, September 13, 2006

LET'S GET LOST: Mons' Monkey Business

Mons' magical monkey business

The Bulletin, 22.4.06

An hour from Brussels, Paul Stump uncovers Mons' singular secrets

Mons hides its lights under bushels. The literature doesn't mention it, but it's a fair bet that no other town in Belgium is immortalised in a prog-rock instrumental. Clocks-The Angel of Mons (1979) by ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, enables one of Hainaut's nicest corners to be quirkily remembered. But three minutes and 21 seconds are, I fear, too little to adequately do justice to such an underrated and understated burgh.

Hackett's song evokes the fabled Angel (s) of Mons of World War One, something else the local tourist office is curiously coy about. The legend arose thanks to a mystical short story in the London Evening News entitled The Bowmen by Arthur Machen that during the bloody debacle of the retreat by the British Expeditionary Force before a German offensive in 1914 a host of heavenly archers interposed themselves in the sky above the ruined town between the two armies. Within a week of the story's publication, it had become so much a part of the war's mythology millions believed it to be true.

Mons must have looked a bit of a mess then, and to the unwary it might still; approaching it by road or taking the wrong street after leaving the railway station (look for Rue de la Houssiere, not Rue Leopold II) and drab, proprietary Wallonian brick and stucco in dreary streets are the rule. But penetrating the rings of mediocrity is to prepare for a treat, a place where the ermine, braid and scarlet tunics of medieval civic pomp still seem to live on in a poetic after-echo. "It's wonderful," wrote one anonymous observer in 1861, "that Mons seems to have escaped the worst of industrialisation."

Situated in the midst of Belgium's nascent Black Country of steel and coal, this was no joke. The scrub-tufted slagheaps of derelict collieries poke like oversize molehills through the greenish fields. Mons (or Montes, or Monts, depending on the period) as its ongoing nomenclatures indicate, is on a hill of its own. Not much of a hill, but a hill nonetheless, handily situated near major trade routes between the Channel Coast and Germany and between France and the Low Countries. It was here in the 7th century that the unassuming divorcee St Waudru set up a little chapel and did sundry good works for the local farmers. Canonised by the population, her collegiate church has become the town's focal point (visually, if not geographically). The current Gothic edifice was begun in the late 1440s, when trade made Mons a prosperous place. Building was slow and piecemeal; at one point the canonesses in St Waudru commissioned a tower 190m tall, never to be completed. Indeed to this day the Montois refer to an unending labour as "like St Waudru's tower'.

Even towerless, the church has a notable reliquary said to contain Waudru's remains, and 16th century sculptures by local artist Jacques Du Broeucq, flush full of new Renaissance influences. The church's treasures are stiff with gold, not least some of Wallonia's finest religious goldsmithery. The Golden Carriage (car d'or) is a 1781 fancy in the style of Louis XVI used to carry St Wauru's relics through the town on Mons' maddest day, Trinity Sunday, when the town turns out for the Battle of the Lumecon. Maybe overshadowed by the Lenten riotousness of neighbouring Binche, the Lumecon is certainly one of the Belgium's most furiously picturesque revels. Ostensibly a magificently-formalised battle between good and evil in the shape of St George (hurrah!) and his lilywhite sidekicks the chinchins and a fire-breathing (for real) dragon, a 9.4 metre wickerwork monster weighing 200kg and his gesticulating, demonic courtiers (boo!), it takes religious-historical processional history into the realm of life-threatening injury. As the 'combat' commences, the surging crowd of bellicose locals around the sandy oval are encouraged - improbably - to grab sheaves of brushwood from the madly careening dragon's tail as it whirls amidst the crazed choreography.

It all takes place in Mons' splendid Grand' Place, dominated by another building whose picturesque greatness as been achieved piecemeal, the celebrated Hotel de Ville. Conceived in Mons' 15th century pomp, it has been continually added to throughout the Renaissance, the Baroque and even into the Industrial Revolution as Mons went through boom and bust and periodic jags of civic pride. The result is hybrid but remarkably homogenous, not least thanks to the neo-Gothic additions of the 19th century which aped so assiduously the style of hitherto - most obviously, the dazzling 15th century facade, which really should be better known than it is. The place's origins are manifold, but nobody, even today, is sure of the source of the famous brass monkey which crouches pensively next to the main entrance. Its little head is silvered by the rubbing of many generations of Montois, who believe it to be a lucky charm (certainly the current writer managed to locate a just-lost bank card after doing the deed).

Curving streets of pavé and upright townhouses radiate steeply off the square; Mons' lively and boisterous student population can be seen pouring down them in colourful cataracts at lunchtime and teatime. This also means a surfeit of decent, cheap shops in among pricier chains. But Mons, even when the locals and the students converge on the centre, never seems crowded. There are always alleyways and impasses to filter off people and traffic, and any walker's progress to the fabulous 17th-century belfry (a joyously OTT array of 49 chiming bells, or "a great big coffee pot with four smaller teapots right underneath", according to Victor Hugo's jocular words) ) or the 11th-century Sainte-Calixte church is usually serene.

Mons' centre is not perfectly concentric, but seems so; a cosy whole, embracing more culture and venerable visual charm than such an outwardly humdrum town ought to enjoy; and I haven't even mentioned the ornamental hauteur of the Francois Duesberg Museum with its exotic late-18th century clocks (whether this or the belfry was an inspiration for Mr Hackett's clangorous mini-epic is unrecorded), the Mons Folklore Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, the fortified redoubt of the Counts of Hainaut... but I'm getting hungry. And there are fewmore auspicious places in Belgium to feel peckish than Mons.

Where to eat. Mons is stuffed with restaurants. Most of them are cheap, cheerful, studenty; many are of high quality, the cuisine often driven by a faithfulness to classic, fill-her-up-garcon Belgian cuisine with beery notes but also to Northern French currents (the border is just 18km to the south). Devotees of the former need look no further than the aptly-named yet inaptly-modest Excelsior. A cavernous, unpretentious bistro with token Art Nouveau scrolling and elderly wood panelling, it's a bustling place that's slightly out-of-date, like a put-upon great-aunt's parlour. It specialises in juicy, hearty staples like steaks, lapin à la biere, hotpots and stoemp at knockdown prices in civilised surroundings and with a refreshingly good beer list at one's elbow - notably rich in Wallonian specialities often overlooked by Bruxellois bars - you can eat and drink your gourmandising fill here for 25 euros, lunchtimes and evenings. More ambitious palates can't miss Devos (7 Rue de la Coupe, 065.35.13.35); run by the Devos-Dandoy Belgian culinary dynasty, it's formal-chichi, all tailcoats and polar-white napery (shame about Norah Jones on the stereo though). Effortlessly luxuriant, beautifully-balanced classic contemporary Belgian-French dishes, to sample cooking this good at just 30 euros for a four-course lunch (my dessert, a chocolate outrage so wonderful as to surely not be of this earth) would have been worth the price alone. Expect 55 euros for dinner, 75 from the carte.

Where to stay? Ticklish. Possibly due to its proximity to Brussels and Lille and proximity to motorways, Mons lacks much in the way of characterful accommodation, more beds situated at the town limits than one might expect. Maybe it's packing everything else into that vibrant heart that does it. That said, behind its stoutly bourgeois facade St James (117 Chaussée du Roi Bauduoin, 065.72.48.24), is unpretentious, and offers more attentiveness to service, food and decor than a grudging award of three stars might indicate.

SNCB trains leave Brussels South Station every hour. Journey time approx 58 mins.
Maison du Tourisme, 22 Grand-Place, Mons, 065.33.55.80.

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