Sunday, October 25, 2015

Discovering Mons with Fulbright Belgium

Sonndeg, 25 Oktouber.

Moien from Luxembourg! I've been away since Friday night and it feels great to be back in my little country. ("How much longer until I can start telling people I'm Luxembourgish? Maybe another two weeks?" I joked on the train back from Belgium.)

This weekend, I headed back to Belgium -- for the third time this month -- for yet another Fulbright adventure. This time, however, I wasn't heading to Brussels but rather to Mons, a city in the southern French-speaking region of Belgium that has recently been named the 2015 European Capital of Culture. Fulbright had organized a special day trip to the city for current grantees and Fulbright alumni, including a guided tour and (most importantly) lunch.

Because Catherine and I were coming from Luxembourg, we decided to get to Mons a day early and spend Friday night at a hostel in the city before joining the other Fulbrighters on Saturday morning. It wound up being a great decision, as we got to see the city's monuments all lit up at night and squeeze in an extra museum visit!

On Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early to visit the Mons Memorial Museum.

This new museum, which opened in 2015 in the city's former machine d'eau, is dedicated to the military history of Mons and, specifically, to its role in World Wars I and II. (I just can't stay away from World War II museums, can I?! And don't even get me started on how the decision to call this museum a "memorial museum" plays into the fourth chapter of my honors thesis...)

Although the museum provides an interesting and concise history of the city before the 20th century, Catherine and I were most interested in the sections of the museum dedicated to World Wars I and II.

Mons has a particularly strong connection to both of the world wars. The Battle of Mons in 1914 marked the first clash between the Germans and the British. In fact, it was in Mons that the first and last British soldiers to die in WWI were killed. The last soldier to be killed in the First World War was a Canadian; he, too, died in Mons -- exactly two minutes before the November 11th Armistice took effect. Moreover, the city was occupied by Germans during both World War I and World War II and remained occupied until close to the end of both wars.

The museum was great, but we didn't have time to do too much more exploring before meeting up with the Fulbright crew for lunch. We ate at Chez Henri, a traditional Belgian restaurant right off the Grand Place. Our appetizer was tomates-crevettes à la belge -- tomatoes stuffed with shrimp salad. The main course was côtes de porc à l'berdouille -- pork chops in a special sauce -- and we finished off the meal with chocolate mousse. (As someone who has spent the past twenty-two years avoiding seafood and red meat whenever possible, you can imagine which part of the meal was my favorite!)

After lunch, we picked up where we had left off with a tour of the city of Mons.

Photo courtesy of a Fulbright alum.

One of the major landmarks in Mons is the beffroi, or belfry. Built in the seventeenth century by Louis Ledoux and Vincent Anthony, the Beffroi Mons is unique in its ornate baroque style. It is 87 meters tall which -- in combination with its location at one of the highest points in the city -- means that it quite literally towers over the city of Mons.

Along with belfries in cities like Antwerp, Namur, Lille, and Calais, the Mons Belfry is one of fifty-six "Belfries of France and Belgium" considered to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to the official website:
"A symbolic element in the landscape in ancient Netherlands and the north of France, the belfry represents, in the heart of urban areas, the birth of municipal power in the Middle Ages. A practical building housing the communal bells, conserving charters and treasures, where city council meetings were held, serving as a watch tower and a prison, the belfry has, over the centuries, become the symbol of power and prosperity of the communes.
The belfries are, together with the market hall, significant representatives of civil and public architecture in Europe. The evolution from the “seigneurial keep” to the “communal keep” is noteworthy. The church belfries bear witness to the relationship, within the community, between civil and religious power. Closely associated with the expansion and government of European towns in the Middle Ages, the belfries, by the variety of their type and the evolution of their appearance, and the complexes with which they were often associated, represent an essential element in public architecture from the 11th century onwards."
Neat, right?! If you'd like to learn a little more about the belfries of Belgium and northern France, check out this video produced by UNESCO. Or just keep scrolling for more photos! :)

Another neat fact about the belfry? Our hostel, or auberge de jeunesse, was located RIGHT underneath it! How cool is that?!

Just a few steps from the belfry and our conveniently-located hostel is the Grand-Place. This city square is home to the city's stunning town hall. As you might be able to tell from its proportions, this fifteenth-century gothic structure was never fully completed. (Although our tour guide promised us that he had heard a rumor that the long-awaited third story would be added within the year!) You can read more about the Grand-Place and see some fun photos here.

One of the most unique stops on our tour was the Sainte-Waudru Collegiate Church.

Built in the fifteenth century, this massive church is dedicated to Saint Waudru, a seventh-century countess who separated from her husband so that she could become a nun and he could become a monk. She then founded a convent around which grew the city of Mons.

Photo courtesy of a Fulbright alum.

Photo on the left courtesy of a Fulbright alum.

Today, Saint Waudru is the patron saint of Mons and the inspiration for one of the city's most famous trademarks: the Ducasse de Mons, or Doudou. (Yes, the Doudou. It's okay to giggle.) The festival, which occurs every year on Trinity Sunday, originated in the fourteenth century, when a bout of the plague caused the citizens to organize a pilgrimage with the shrine of Saint Waudru. According to legend, the arrival of Saint Waudru's shrine stopped the outbreak! Ever since, the shrine has been part of an annual procession through the streets of Mons.

Within the church, we saw the shrine that holds Saint Waudru's body and the gilded chariot -- or Car d'Or -- in which the shrine is carried during the annual procession. The chariot, filled with the shrine and a dozen or so local children, is pulled through the streets of Mons by draft horses. When the chariot reaches the bottom of the hill outside the church, hundreds of people come and help push it up the hill! Check out of a video of the insanity here.

Photo courtesy of a Fulbright alum.

The Ducasse de Mons has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The city of Mons even has an entire museum dedicated to this procession -- the Musée du Doudou! (Which I absolutely completely one hundred percent thought was going to be a modern art museum dedicated to some Belgian painter I'd never heard of. Whoops.)

After exploring Mons, I teamed up with some other grantees to explore another Belgian city ... but you'll have to wait and read about that tomorrow!

1 comment:

  1. I have learned so much from your blog entries! It's like there's a whole big world out there! Amazed by the Car d'Or and all!