Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mons 101

This is where we are
First I wrote about Belgium, then I wrote about Wallonia. Now I am talking about Mons. When people heard we were moving to Belgium they assumed we were moving to Brussels. We quickly corrected them (many times to no avail) that we were heading to Mons, a French speaking city in Hainaut Province, one hour from Brussels, in the southwest part of Belgium near the French border. With an area of just over 146 square kilometers and a population of barely over 93,000 people, in addition to Mons proper there are 22 separate communes (or villages as I think of them) comprising the municipality of Mons. Mons may not be as well known as Brussels but this small vibrant city is up and coming and has a lot to offer.

Mons was first settled during the Middle Ages and became a fortified city in the 12th Century at which time her population rapidly increased as a town hall was built, industry flourished, and the city became the new capital of Hainaut country. At various times during the next three centuries Mons was conquered or occupied alternately by Spanish, Dutch, French, and Austrian forces. In 1830 Belgium finally gained her independence and with onset of the Industrial Revolution Mons once again became an economic powerhouse within the new country. With the Battle of Mons in 1914, Mons was the site of the first British fought battle of World War I was after their defeat was occupied by German forces before being liberated by Canadian forces at the end of the war. The city was later bombed during the second World War. But Mons' role in military history did not end with the War; rather it was just beginning. Since 1967, Mons has been home to NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), which is the central military command for this international military organization.

Today Mons is a lot more than home to a large military installation. The city is home to several universities, the Van Gogh House, the Gothic College Church of Sainte-Waudru, a historic Grand Place (city square), and two UNESCO World Heritage sites. While I think these sites are great, as a (new) resident I love the vibrancy of the city around me. It is small but filled with a calm hustle and bustle. Twice a week there are large community markets selling everything from meats and cheeses to household goods and clothing. The main square regularly plays host to festivals and celebrations. But my favorite activity of all is simply wandering the narrow cobblestoned streets. I'm never sure what I am going to find around the next corner; it could be a sidewalk cafe or neighborhood bakery, majestic residences or a tucked away park. Ocassionally I run into backpack and camera toting tourists but more often than not I encounter ordinary citizens- old men and women, parents hustling their children along, or groups of students walking and going about their daily lives. I am always greeted with a smile and a "bonjour" and it just feels nice. Recently Sidney's favorite past time has been sitting on our stoop and waving and practicing his French with whomever walks by.

And the Mons of today is undergoing a transformation and is shedding her not so glamorous image of past years. Designated as a European Capital of Culture in 2015, today, in 2014, in anticipation of the high profile year to come, it feels as though the city is one big construction zone. A new and modern train station is being built and streets throughout the city center are being spruced up. Sidewalks are being redone and cobblestones are being relaid on those streets most in need of repair. Walking around I can see that storefronts and row houses are refurbished in anticipation of the hundreds of thousands of visitors that are expected to visit. A whole bevy of cultural events that showcase the Mons culture are being planned. And this is all in addition to the annual slate of festivals and celebrations which are held every year. Talk to people from Mons and they are proud to be here and are quick to extol the city's virtues. Yes, it is an exciting time to be in Mons and I feel lucky that I am here to be a part of it.

The Mons Coat of Arms

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