BRUSSELS TO MONS: A plan for 5-days long sojourn in Wallonia to have a cultural & historic experience, made us combine Mons & Tournai, 2 of the very charming historic towns of Belgium. With an approximate itinerary in hand, we headed to our first destination, Mons by train from Brussels.
DAY 1 - MONS CITY TOUR
As soon as we reached Mons, after dropping off our luggage at our hotel, we started to explore this beautiful town. Mons is a perfect place to begin a cultural journey of Wallonia, especially because it was chosen as the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2015.
Our first stop in Mons was the Mons Belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a very unique architecture compared to most other belfries all over Belgium & France, with an onion shaped dome! It has 5 floors and the way up was using an elevator and I took the staircase to come down, so I can see the clock, carillon etc. But, be aware, the steps are very narrow and it can be a bit difficult to walk down those, if you aren’t sure footed or if you’re carrying a baby in your hand, you may not want to climb down these stairs.
The sight from atop was an exquisite panoramic one with a birds-eye view of St.Waudru church! I climbed it shortly before the clock struck 10:00AM and I got to hear the belfry’s carillon play with its 49 bells!
MONS BELFRY TOP TIP: If there’s a tiny baby or someone with bad knee in your group, who’d like to skip the belfry, a good idea is to wait at the Parc du Château located just beside the Belfry. It has the Belfry on one side and the view of the city on another.
Mons Belfry Location: Parc du Château,7000Mons
My next stop in Mons was the Grand Place and Town Hall. While the Grand Place is a nice place to hangout, a guided tour of the 15th C Town Hall is an interesting thing to do in Mons. To begin with, there are 2 things to notice, even before you enter the Town Hall - a monkey and a door-handle.
There’s a sculpture of an iron monkey a few steps away from the entrance. No one knows its history, but it is believed that stroking its head brings good luck! The head is now literally shining, because everyone keeps stroking it every day!
At the entrance, do stop by, to see the door-handle. It is a miniature version of the town hall’s façade with a soldier standing on it with his dog!
The interiors are accessible only by a guided tour. The most beautiful room there was the Wedding Hall whose ceiling has a 1682 fresco! Not so surprisingly, when I visited, I saw one wedding just wrapping up and I saw the next wedding party at the gates!
Mons Town Hall Location: Hôtel de VilleGrand-Place 22,7000Mons
My third stop in Mons was the Doudou Museum that can be accessed from the hidden garden behind the Town Hall.
The Doudou festival is a UNESCO recognized intangible cultural heritage event which happens every year. A battle between a huge dragon and St.George is enacted here on the day when the procession of the town’s patron saint, St.Waudru's Relic takes place which usually attracts humongous crowds!
The Doudou museum gives an overview about this festival with information, photos, miniature sculptures etc. It’s a tiny museum and we paid a very quick visit.
Mons Doudou Museum Location: Jardin du MayeurGrand Place,7000Mons
After the Doudou Museum I stopped at the Mundaneum. It is quite an unusual place. It is associated with UNESCO but is not a World Heritage Site; it is a Memory of the World Register site.
It is a ‘Search Engine’ meant for books, in an era before Internet existed! Today it is fondly called ‘Paper Google’! It was developed by Henry La Fontaine and Paul Otlet.
The whole place is like a humongous bibliography! In 1895, the original idea was to come up with a 10-digit code to document every page of every book that had ever been published (do keep in mind that we are talking about an era when self-publishing or e-books didn’t exist).
Today the entire knowledge behind making this happen, the entire work of La Fontaine and Otlet, in all the bibliography has been stored in cards in tiny drawers in huge chests in Mundaneum!
Mons Mundaneum Location: Rue de Nimy 76,7000Mons
Later I did a quick stop at St.Elizabeth Church and wrapped up the day at St.Waudru Church. St.Waudru church, as the name suggests, is the church of the St.Waltrude, the patron saint of Mons who is believed to have saved the town from the deadly plague.
Her relic is in the church in 2 parts - one in a golden shrine and another in a head shaped case.
The golden shrine alone is carried around the town on a golden chariot during the annual procession.
The 18th C chariot is also here in display on other days and during the procession, it is pulled by 6 horses.
Since obviously, I was not here during the procession, I was able to see the shrine, relics and the chariot in my own pace.
DAY 1 - STAY AT MARTIN’s DREAM HOTEL, MONS
The best place to stay in Mons is not just Martin’s Dream Hotel, but the Carnaval room in Martin’s Dream Hotel and that’s where we stayed.
To begin with, it is a heritage hotel housed in a 19th C Gothic Church. The church’s 2 rosette windows are parts of Carnaval room and the Cinq Sens suite room. Cinq Sens has a view of the Mons Belfry from the video. Literally, how often do you get to wake up to the view of the Belfry through a rosette window? The Carnaval room, as the name suggests, has its décor inspired by the Doudou Carnaval. Even the carpet looks like a cobbled road sprinkled with colors papers.
We spent the evening at the Martin’s Alterego Wellness Area just pampering ourselves!
THINGS TO TRY IN MONS (LOCAL FOOD IN MONS): At Mons, I got to taste Chant d’Éole, a sparkling white wine produced in the Quévy-le-Grand in the outskirts of Mons. It is possible to visit the vineyard & winery here and it connected by bus from Mons as well. It was delicious and I came to know that it is almost impossible to get hold of a bottle, because it gets sold out very quickly! I also got to try the yummy dessert El cayau montois, a chocolate shortbread with an image of the Mons Townhall monkey! One of the famous Mons delicacies is the Côte de porc al’berdouille which literally means ‘pork chops in mud’, but then the mud actually is a mustard based sauce!
DAY 2 - GRAND HORNU & SILEXS
© Philippe De Gobert
My day 2 in Mons was perfectly split in 2 half day trips - one to Grand Hornu and another to Silexs.
We began our day at Grand Hornu which is again a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the 4 major coal mining sites of Wallonia. The first thought that came to my mind was that, it is grand, to go with its name. When compared to the other 3 sites, it doesn’t even look like a coal mining site to begin with!
This was the brainchild of Henri Joseph Degorge LeGrand who had an interesting mix of socialist and capitalist ideas! Grand Hornu is called the Cathedral to mining Industry. LeGrand gave a lot of facilities from higher education to better housing and earned immense loyalty from his employees. The architecture is quite impressive with the innumerable arches. Today, the premises house 2 museums - CID & MAC, both dedicated to art, design & innovation.
Here are 2 things that could be easily missed at Grand Hornu - the coal pits: that’s actually in the parking lot, covered & fenced around; and LeGrand’s tomb: the crypt is in the premises as well which has the tomb of both LeGrand and his wife Eugene. Everyday a free guided tour happens once a day if a guide is available and luckily, we were there for one. I really would have missed the tomb & coal pits if I hadn’t gone on a guided tour.
Grand Hornu Location: Rue Sainte-Louise 82,7301Hornu
After visiting Grand Hornu we returned back to Mons for lunch and then headed out in another direction to visit the Neolithic Flint Mines of Spiennes. This is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps my most favourite in the whole of Belgium. As the name suggests this was the flint mines excavated in the new stone-age era!
Today it is possible to go down the mines and see some of the galleries! The entrance is however by climbing down 10ft using a ladder. That’s the very reason why I hadn’t visited the Neolithic Flint Mines of Spiennes as soon as I moved to Belgium - I was pregnant and climbing down this ladder isn’t allowed! While there is no upper or lower age-limit to visit the underground galleries, one has to be able to climb down that ladder by themselves. My toddler daughter being too young to do that, so she couldn’t get down, but I did go down to see the galleries and the flint stones!
It is a very small area, much smaller when compared to other cave experiences in Wallonia like Grottes de Han or Remouchamps. So, it actually takes much lesser time inside the galleries. But this is very, very unique. While other caves are natural formations, the cave here was completely excavated by our own ancestors several thousands of years ago! There’s also a small museum on ground level that explains the life of people during Neolithic era, their livelihood, the geology during that time, how they made these flint weapons etc.
Neolithic Flint Mines of Spiennes Location: Rue de Nouvelles 7032, 7032 Mons
MONS TOP TIP: Grand Hornu, Silexs, Belfry, Mundaneum and many other museums all over Mons are included in the Mons Card. It is available as 24 or 48hrs cards. Buy your Mons Card here.
DAY 2 - STAY AT MARTIN’s DREAM HOTEL, MONS
DAY 3 - HALF DAY TRIP TO ATTRE
© Jan D’Hondt
We dedicated Day 3 for a quick trip to Attre before heading to Tournai. Attre is a quick half-an-hour direct train ride from Mons.
The Chateau of Attre is one of the most instagrammable castles of Wallonia. It is just picture perfect both inside and outside. It was built in 1752 over an existing castle in a very beautiful Louis XV style.
The rooms are exquisite with vintage wallpapers and historic furniture. Quite interestingly, there are mannequins that showcased the clothes worn by the royalty instead of being hung in glass cases. That really helped me appreciate the beauty of the clothes, the embroidery on them, the overall style including the elaborate head dress and hand fan. The detailed of the architecture is absolutely picturesque and is more Baroque than Rococo. There are also some stuffed kills of the historic hunts of the royalty!
After seeing the interiors, a stroll in the garden of Attre Chateau is a must. There’s a viewpoint, a dovecote (pigeon house), a bathing pavilion and an artificial cave that has been deliberately built to look like ruins!
ATTRE TOP TIP: If you have a full day, esp., if you have kids with you, you could spend a few hours at Attre and then visit Pairi Daiza (near Cambron-Casteau railway station) on the way back. Another option would be to proceed further ahead to Ath (2 stops after Attre) to see the museum of House of Giants & Gallo-Romain Museum.
Chateau of Attre Location: Av. du Château 8, 7941 Brugelette
By late afternoon, we returned to Mons and took a train to Tournai. We didn’t venture out that evening at Tournai, but just spent the evening relaxing in the courtyard terrace of Hotel D'Alcantara
MONS TOP TIP: Extra Day option at Mons: Since we had already been to the 4 historic boat lifts and Bois du Luc coal mine during our trip to Waterloo & La Louviere, we didn’t want to visit again. But if you haven’t been to La Louviere already, it is a good daytrip from Mons as well, with a quick stop at Havre Castle on the way.
DAY 3 - STAY AT HOTEL D’ALCANTARA, TOURNAI
Our stay was at Hotel D’Alcantara in the heart of Tournai. It is a charming hotel with all basic amenities. It looks historic from the outside with exposed bricks architecture and blends well with the historic centre of Tournai, but the interiors and décor are super chic, stylish & minimalistic. We stayed in a room with a garden view and it was really nice. We just spent the evening relaxing, sitting in the terrace sipping some drinks.
DAY 4 - TOURNAI CITY TOUR
Day 4 of our tour (or Day 1 in Tournai) began with strolling around this town. Tournai is really small. As someone living in Brussels, who needs to take a bus from one end of the city to another, Tournai was a pleasant surprise. It is not a village, but it is a relatively small town and all the main attractions of Tournai are walkable from one point to another. Why did we really choose Tournai as a part of our historic & cultural tour of Wallonia? Well, this small town has 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and this is the birthplace of France!!!
Our first stop was ofcourse one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Notre Dame de Tournai Cathedral. To begin with it is humongous, so much that it feels a bit too big for the size of the town! The history of the Cathedral begins in early 12th C CE when King Philippe Augustus became the ruler of the country he formed, France, with its capital as Tournai. It was then that the construction of Tournai Notre Dame Cathedral began. That is why some parts of the church are Romanesque in construction. At that time the church was infact completely covered with frescoes. As time went by the Gothic style was adopted. Today it is a beautiful blend of the 2 styles. It is a good idea to go for a guided tour because the sculptures as soon as we entered, told a ton of stories, incl. the story behind the annual Grande Procession de Tournai, which I would have missed if I hadn’t gone for a guided tour. Quite amusingly the story of the Bishop Radbad II of Tournai and St.Waudru of Mons, are very similar with both ending an epidemic of their times!
My 2nd stop was the Belfry. Tournai Belfry is one of the 56 belfries all over Belgium and France listed together as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The best aspect of the Tournai Belfry is that you can climb it, and have a view of the Notre Dame Cathedral from almost atop (yes, it is 257 steps but the climb is worth it)! It is an impeccable view. I started to climb a bit after 10:30 so I was there atop beside the Carillon for the 11:00AM strike. There are 55 bells in this Carillon and the music was so beautiful and it was quite an experience to hear it from just beside it! After having lunch in one of the charming restaurants around the Cathedral & Belfry, the idea was to visit a couple of museums in Rue Saint Martin in the afternoon.
© WBT - J. Jeanmart
There are quite a few museums in this street as well as the tiny lanes off this street incl. Natural History & Vivarium Museum, House of Puppets, Museum of Tapestry, Fine Arts Museum, Military History Museum, Museum of Decorative Arts, Tournai Folklore Museum & more.
My first museum was the Tapestry Museum. The very reason that Tournai was an important Tapestry weaving town in 15-16th C is why there’s a Tapestry Museum here. Some of those historical pieces are in display in one floor. The rest of the 2 floors are filled with contemporary textile art. Yes, the textile designer in me got super enthusiastic deciphering how each piece had been done!!!
My second museum was the Tournai Folklore Museum. It is housed in a 3-storey 17th C building that beautifully depicts how Tournai was a couple centuries ago. Life sized dolls handling actual, historic equipment in recreated household/shop/entertainment set up perfectly communicates it!
My next stop was esp. for my daughter - Natural History & Vivarium Museum. This is the oldest museum in Belgium. Perhaps we spent the longest time here because my girl was fascinated, esp. by the butterflies & tortoises! Yes, there’s a section dedicated to just butterflies! The museum begins with the life-sized animal & birds and moves over to tortoises & butterflies and then goes on to the reptiles. It felt like a mix between Botanic Gardens & Zoo & Natural History Museum. Definitely a must-visit in Tournai esp. if you have children.
It was almost closing time and we paid a quick visit to House of Puppets. There are puppets here from all over the world from locally made Tintin to Disney characters to historic kings & queens as well as some from across the world. There were also rooms dedicated to puppets from India, Japan and China. My daughter was pretty fascinated by the Indian dolls there!
By evening, we walked around Tournai spotting the remains of the Fortification walls that once stood here - Fort Rouge, Tour Saint-Georges, Tour Henry VIII etc and finally sat down at Reine Garden with a view of Pont des Trous to spend a couple hours, just relaxing.
- Buy your Tournai Museums tickets here
- Buy your Tournai Belfry ticket here
- Book your Tournai Notre Dame Cathedral guided tour here
- Map of Tournai Museums & Tournai Attractions
THINGS TO TRY IN TOURNAI (LOCAL FOOD IN MONS): When you’re in Tournai, don’t forget to try Tournaisien (a yummy, fruity aperitif which has both a cherry version & a peach version) and Tournay (a golden lager beer brewed in Brasserie de Cazeau, a local microbrewery). The most amusing, unusual thing to eat in Tournai, is definitely the ‘Tournai Rabbit’! As the name suggests, it is rabbit cooked in Tournai way with prunes & grapes and served with boiled potatoes. In any case, the dessert has to be Clovis, a local cake made of Apricot Jam & Pinapple!
DAY 4 - STAY AT HOTEL D’ALCANTRA
DAY 5 ECO PARK ADVENTURES
If you like tree-top adventure, tree climbing etc, Tournai Eco-Park is a must and we spent almost an entire day here. There are a series of 9 tree-top adventures here incl. the longest direct zipline in Belgium of 330m (the longest zipline course of Belgium, consisting of 3 ziplines is at Adventure Valley, Durbuy). There was also a smaller zipline for kids. Some tree-top adventures are meant for kids and some for adults. I did a few, but since my girl was a bit too young for this (you have to be atleast 5 yrs old to do this), unfortunately she didn’t get to do any of these!
But she did have too much fun jumping up & down on the nets perched several feet above the ground in the Ecopark Legends area. It was like a net trampoline to some extent! There were also some underground tunnels and pathways made of net. My toddler was a bit scared to begin with, but then, she got too excited and refused to leave!
Eco-Park Adventures location: Rue de l'Orient 1, 7500 Tournai
- TRAIN TO BRUSSELS FROM TOURNAI : By late evening of Day 5, we headed back to Brussels by train, with a head full of memories, heart full of contentment and a memory card full of pictures!
- MONS & TOURNAI TOP TIP: Many of the attractions that I visited are inclusive in Museumpassmusées. Buy your Museumpassmusées here.
About the Author: Bhushavali is an Indian travel blogger, currently living in Belgium. Her background in art-history gives her the interest and insight to explore the historic & heritage sites in Belgium. Her primary interest is UNESCO Sites and she has visited all 13 Belgian UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as the UNESCO Global Geopark. Visit her blog here: My Travelogue by Bhushavali.