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Tanks in Town and More in Mons, Wallonia, Belgium.
Wallonia, the southern and French-speaking part of Belgium is one of those regions you might chance upon rather than visit by design. But, go once and you’ll want to return. Gentle and slow-paced, Wallonian cities are typically unspoilt and not overly busy. However, as I discovered on a recent visit to Mons for ‘tanks in town’, that’s not to say nothing happens.
In fact, Mons has an annual calendar of events which means there’s always something going on, both for residents and visitors.
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Tanks in Town – Mons 2019
My own visit coincided with ‘Tanks in Town’ – an annual festival where the city fills with tanks and other Second World War vehicles.
It’s an exuberant occasion. Mons was occupied for most of the Second World War and the arrival of Allied Forces tanks 75 years ago still lives in the memories of the oldest inhabitants. For those of us who are a generation or more away from the war itself, it can be hard to imagine the impact. But, bear in mind the people of Mons had been under the control of the Germans for over four years, food would have been in short supply and luxuries just a distant memory. Freedom would have been unknown for most of those alive today until liberation day.
In context then, it’s hardly surprising that Tanks in Town is still such an important event for the people of Mons. For anyone interested in war history it’s also a unique opportunity to see an amazing collection of tanks and vehicles actually processing through the town, as they would have done when the Allied Forces arrived. Those taking part in the procession wear World War II uniforms or vintage costumes.
They are complemented by parades and displays by members of the current armed forces from Belgium, the USA and more, by speeches from local and international dignitaries and relatives of those who lost their lives in the war. It’s a moving experience which somehow brings an exuberance and celebratory atmosphere to an event which has a certain poignancy.
Over the weekend of ‘Tanks in Town’ you can take a step back in time, you’ll bump into clusters of soldiers manning their tanks and military vehicles. And you can even hitch a ride if you want to, this year you could ride on anything from a Leopard Tank for 40 euros a person to a Willy jeep for 5 euros. There’s a real party atmosphere all weekend.
Although Tanks in Town is focussed on the Second World War, Mons was also famously occupied throughout the First World War. The Battle of Mons took place on 23rd-24th August 1914 and after the defeat of the British Army, Mons was under German occupation until liberation by the Canadian forces during the final days of the war. It has the dubious honour of being dubbed ‘The First and Last’ since it was the site of the first and last major engagements of World War One took place and was also where the first and last English soldiers were killed in Europe, their remains buried next to each other in a cemetery on the outskirts of the town.
The German occupation of Belgium during the Second World began on 28 May 1940 and continued until Belgium’s liberation by the Western Allies. Mons was the first city in Belgium to be liberated in early September 1944. It’s the 75 anniversary of the liberation in 2019 and there’s a special immersive exhibition at the Mons Memorial Museum which runs until December 31st 2020. Tanks in Town next year, 2020 will be over the weekend of 29th-30th August.
As I discovered though on my recent visit, if Tanks in Town is not your thing, then there are also plenty of other events to consider throughout the year.
Mons Events – The Doudou and More
Like many European cities, Mons has a buzzing Christmas Market called Mons Coeur en Neige which this year starts on 6th December and runs through to the 5th January 2020. Next year, in 2020 it will run from 4th December through to 3rd January 2021
The main square and surrounding area are transformed with a massive ice-rink, a stunning Christmas tree and Christmas Village with over 40 lodges.
Perhaps the most important event in the Calendar for Mons is the Doudou. Unique to Mons, The Doudou is a UNESCO listed event! There’s a whole museum in the City about the history of the DouDou and you can see the processional cart in the Collegiate Church of St Waltrude.
After the descent of the shrine on Saturday evening, the next day, on Trinity Sunday (57 days after Easter) the Shrine of St Waudru is taken down from its altar, placed on the Car D’Or and pulled by horses in a torchlight procession through the streets of Mons. It finishes up at bottom of a steep cobblestone street, the Rampe Sainte-Waudru, at which point, due to the immense weight of the shrine, hundreds of people help to push it to the top of the hill. Legend is that if the Car d’Or doesn’t reach the top in one go, the city will suffer some great mishap. Apparently, that happened in 1803, around the time of the French Revolution, again in 194 and again in 1940.
Following the procession is the game of St George, which represents the fight between St George (the good) and the dragon (evil). It’s very hard to explain this spectacle which is called Lumeçon and involves groups in costume – on the ‘good side’ white men and dogs and on the evil side, devils dressed in red brandishing cow bladders filled with air and leaf men covered in ivy leaves who try to protect the dragon’s tail. The 10-metre long dragon attacks st George with his tail and also tries to attack the public. The whole event is choreographed and, needless to say, St George wins, finally killing the dragon with a pistol.
Once the Doudou is over, the main town square is converted into a summer garden, with live music and dancing. And, throughout the year there seem to fairs and festivals taking place either in the city square or the grounds of the Belfry. As an example, we bumped into a food festival at the Belfry, held on a regular basis, where locals and visitors can try food from a whole range of restaurants in the area. My impression from this short stay was that, whatever time of year you visit, there will be something special happening.
The Canvas of the City – Things to see in Mons all year round
Mons itself is a beautifully preserved Medieval City, less than an hour from Brussels by train. There’s a lively student population and that, combined with an annual calendar of events, makes for a vibrant place to visit with some excellent bars and restaurants. So, whenever you visit, you’ll find plenty to see and do.
Make sure you visit the 270-foot belfry. like the Namur one, it’s part of the UNESCO listing. The only baroque belfry in Belgium, it has a 49-bell carillon, which rings every 15 minutes. It’s possible to climb to the top for excellent panoramic views of the city. Along the way, you’ll find the bells, of course, and a stunning restored mechanical clock.
It’s worth taking a look inside the 15th-century gothic-style Collegiate Church of Saint Waltrude, which is just around the corner from the Belfry.
You’ll find the Car d’Or on display, along with the relic and shrine of Saint Waltrude. The church also contains some splendid 16th-century alabaster statues by Jacques Du Broeucq and a beautiful collection of gold and silverware with articles dating from the 12th century.
The Town Hall dates back to between 1458 and 1477 and is built in the Gothic style and is still a working civic building.
Don’t forget to find the Mons monkey on the outside wall of the town hall. Stop and stroke its head with your left hand for luck or to be granted a wish. No one knows where the monkey came from – which makes it all the more intriguing. It’s possible to visit some of the chambers to see tapestries dating back to the 17th century and works by Mons silversmiths.
Behind the main building are the Mayor’s garden and the Doudou museum.
In fact, there are several more excellent museums and galleries in the city. Some are particularly innovative like the Artothèque where art is brought to life with stunning audiovisual effects. Others, like the Mons Memorial Museum, are particularly important to the people of this city that was so badly affected by both the World Wars. Apparently, the City opened five new museums during their year as the European City of Culture.
The best way to explore what is on offer is to visit the tourist office and buy Mons Card which will give you entry to over 15 sites and museums in the city and further discounts in restaurants, shows and leisure attractions throughout the town. You can buy a pass for anything from one to three days starting at 18 euros, with discounted rates for children.
Mons was the European Capital of Culture in 2015 and you’ll still find examples of street sculpture created to celebrate that which are due to be removed in 2020. But, more significantly, the award seems to have helped generate a passion amongst the local people and there are countless examples of integrating arts and crafts into the everyday life of the City. It’s a vibrant place with plenty of quirky designs like this knitted octopus!
Where to Stay and more useful information about Mons
I stayed at the quirky four-star Martin’s Dream Hotel, in the heart of the City and just a few minutes from the main square.
It’s built in a former chapel and you’ll find a range of rooms on offer, all with contemporary styling and modern furnishings, though some have feature windows and stonework from the old chapel. The hotel has its own restaurant and bar.
If the idea of staying in an old chapel isn’t for you, then I can recommend the Congress Hotel Mons Van der Valk which is just a stone’s throw from the central station of Mons. A large modern hotel, we enjoyed a buffet dinner with barbecue there.
I travelled to Brussels by Eurostar and then took a local train service to Mons, which takes less than an hour. The station is around 10 minutes from the city centre on foot.
For further information about Mons or to buy a Mons Card please check the Tourist Information Office online or at
tel +32 (0)65/33.55.80
I was a guest of The Wallonia Tourism Board. For more information see their website
Travelling to Wallonia? You may also be interested in visiting the neighbouring city of Namur. Check our guide to Namur for more information
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