All culture, no waffle in Mons, Belgium

The small Belgian city of Mons is in the spotlight as one of this year’s two European Capitals of Culture.

Grand Place in Mons, Belgium, a square dominated by an ornate Gothic town hall and lined with lively cafes. Mons is one of the two 2015 European Capitals of Culture, alongside Plzen. Gregory Mathelot / Mons 2015

It snowed back in January when the Belgian city of Mons inaugurated its reign as one of the two 2015 European Capitals of Culture (the other is Plzen in the Czech Republic), but that didn't chill the enthusiasm of more than 100,000 art lovers who turned up for a massive celebration that featured a mega Van Gogh show, daring avant-garde installations and video screenings, dance and music performances.

All this was just the tip of a cultural iceberg of events planned throughout the year, and now, with the weather much more agreeable, the full agenda kicks off with the inauguration of new museums and a host of exhibitions and high-technology ­initiatives.

Tucked away an hour’s drive from Brussels in the sleepy countryside of Wallonia, with barely 100,000 inhabitants, Mons can hardly be compared with world-renowned cities such as Berlin, Madrid or Prague that have previously held the prestigious Capital of Culture crown. But over the past decade, many lower-profile destinations have been bestowed the honour – Liverpool, Lille, Marseille – presenting an impressive creative agenda and a sustainable commitment of development to benefit local residents in the future. That’s certainly the aim of the organisers of Mons 2015, spearheaded by their charismatic mayor, the elegant, bow-tied Elio di Rupo, who until October was Belgium’s prime minister.

The Van Gogh exhibition at BAM, the newly renovated Beaux-Arts Mons museum, deals with the time the artist spent living in mining villages surrounding Mons, especially Borinage, where he was first inspired to become a painter by the abject poverty of the locals. It’s still possible to visit the simple miner’s house in the countryside where Van Gogh lived, and even the abandoned mine he went down to experience their suffering.

Several of the most eye-catching exhibitions will be held at the spectacular Anciens Abattoirs, especially La Chine Ardente, opening July 4, when the abattoir’s buildings and gardens will be transformed with an installation of monumental sculptures created by avant-garde Chinese artists from around the world.

The Mons War Museum has been totally renovated and reopened, with an exhibition illustrating what daily life for soldiers and civilians was like in the town during the two world wars, when it passed from being an Allied garrison to being under German ­occupation. That’s followed by two shows dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, as 2015 also happens to be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Another museum, Musée du Doudou, has been opened behind the grand Town Hall, examining the myth of St George and the dragon, which is a phenomenon present all across Europe but with great significance here in Mons, where the medieval Doudou festival re-enacts the great battle of the fearless knight and the terrible dragon. Outside the official calendar of Mons Capital of Culture, the one date that will be celebrated more than any other by the Montois themselves is this incredible annual extravaganza, held on May 31 and recognised by Unesco.

Mons 2015 has a specific theme as a Capital of Culture – “Where technology meets culture” – which may surprise many people who would hardly connect digital technology with a city more well known for its mining history. But Mons has undergone a transformation since 2004 when the internet giant Google chose to base a European data centre near here, investing about €450 million (Dh1.86 billion). A thriving Silicon Valley equivalent quickly sprung up, with more than 100 companies, including Microsoft, setting up high-tech companies.

Yves Vasseur, the curator of Mons 2015, was determined that it should present a whole series of futuristic initiatives linking the worlds of art, literature and music to modern technology. The most striking of these is undoubtedly Mons Street Review (www.streetreview.eu), a wonderfully surreal, anarchic version of Google’s Street View, created and filmed with local Mons artists and residents – something the Belgian surrealist René Magritte would have adored.

Equally innovative is the cross-Europe connection project Home & Away, where the town’s Maison Folie, an alternative arts centre, will be transformed for a series of weekend festivities throughout the year, hosting cities such as Milan, Casablanca, Tokyo and Montreal for wild celebrations of live concerts, DJs, VJs, graffiti artists, chefs and dancers.

While many visitors will be drawn to Mons for the first time because of its Capital of Culture status, this intriguing city has long been one of the undiscovered secrets of Belgium. It’s one of the key locations for those visiting the battlefields of the First World War, while its towering baroque belfry, which rises 100 metres above the rooftops, is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Like many Belgian cities, the life and soul of Mons is its impressive Grand Place, an immense square dominated by an ornate Gothic town hall and lined with lively cafes, such as the stately Excelsior and more hipster Ropieur, with packed terraces that spread out across the cobbles. A more alternative venue is the nearby Marché aux Herbes, with funky bars that are a magnet for the city’s large student population – the nightlife goes on into the early hours of the morning.

Eating out is always one of the big boons in Belgium, and Mons is no exception, with some outstanding restaurants hidden away in its narrow backstreets. The intimate Cinquieme Saison (0032 65 728 262) seats only 18 people and there’s a no-choice tasting menu (six-courses for €59 [Dh243]), but its chef Pierre-Yves Gosse has been awarded a Michelin star for inventive dishes such as seared scallops and plump mussels topped with truffle shavings, and sole fillets and forest berries wrapped and steamed in vine leaves.

Over at the chic, modern Les Gribaumonts (www.lesgribaumonts.be; 0032 65 750 455), the young chef Lisa Calcus cooks seasonally, her “cuisine d’inspiration”, pairing chicken dumplings with lobster and crunchy spinach, and veal sweetbreads with braised endives. Mains cost €35 (Dh144).

For classic Belgian home cooking – who can resist a huge juicy steak with a mountain of frites? – book at the bustling bistro, La Table du Boucher (0032 65 316 838). Mains cost €36 (Dh148).

It’s reassuring to know that in the case of Mons, spending a day in one of Europe’s current cultural capitals is not just about visiting museums and exhibitions, but also about taking the time to relax a little over lunch or dinner in one of the city’s welcoming bistros, and experience a slice of local life and typical Belgian ­hospitality.

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