All eyes are on Mons right now. That’s right, Belgium. This little city, famous for being the place where the first and last shots of World War I were fired, is in the midst of a revival. Not another battle, thank goodness. It’s actually one of the two 2015 European Capitals of Culture.
Mons is an easy day trip from Brussels. It sits in western Belgium, near the French border and among rolling hills. The historic center is full of red brick houses. Grand Place, the central square, is surrounded by City Hall and restaurants with outdoor tables. The nearby Collegiate Church of St. Waudru has sculptures and stained glass from the 1450s. While the 17th-century Belfry, the only Baroque-style belfry in the country, has panoramic views of the city from the top landing.
The city is also full of art. Both old and new museums are currently staging interesting exhibits. BAM (Beaux-Arts Museum) is hosting a Van Gogh show. The Dutch artist lived outside of town as a church missionary for more than a year beginning in 1879. He lived in what is now the Van Gogh House. Artothèque, set in an old chapel, is a new interactive museum, where touch screens teach you about everything from paintings and sculptures to china and swords. The Mons Memorial Museum explores the city’s military history, including its involvement in the two world wars, in a new modern building. Plus Silex’s, outside of the city, lets visitors go underground to one of the oldest flint mines in the world. Claustrophobics probably want to avoid this one.
After spending much of the day exploring the museums and their new exhibits, return to the city’s historic center. Follow the cobbled streets to La Vie Est Belle, a family-style restaurant away from the craziness. The cozy space has puppets on the wall and large portions. Order mussels, meatballs, and rabbit to share. It’s impossible to leave hungry. Then walk back to Grand Place. L’Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) is a flashy Gothic building with a pretty garden beyond its gates. An iron monkey statue out front is said to bring good luck if you pat his head with your left hand. You pass on the monkey and grab an outdoor table at La Cervoise instead. Don’t worry, you aren’t here to eat. It’s the beer that caught your attention. With more than 170 brews, the restaurant surely has a Belgian beer you haven’t tried yet. Yet another art form, right?