Much like the other towns we visited in Belgium, Mons offered up some awesome history, but it also threw in a couple of extras to pique our interest. Namely, a modern take on belfry conservation and biblical style hail showers… in the middle of summer!
We parked up on the outskirts of the city centre, down a quiet little road with a large green space on one side. It was a hot and overcast day which made it pleasant walking under the big leafy trees. We headed for the main road, needing to cross it to enter the city. The cars whizzed beneath us as we crossed the bridge and in no time we were disappearing down a little street and away from the noise of the traffic.
We walked through the streets aiming for the main square, always a good place to aim for to get one’s bearings! Strolling along the small roads it was hard to miss how unique and appealing this place is. The buildings are tightly packed along the narrow cobbled roads, all completely different but seeming equally historic. There seemed to be a plethora of different building styles – we saw vibrant red brick, deep brown brick, timber frames, tall windows, small attic verandas, dark stone, light stone, painted frames, iron bars, tiny courtyards and large archways.
What made the variety all the more appealing was the twisting, turning nature of the streets. They seemed to spider their way through the town cutting jagged edges through the buildings which crowded over us. Every so often one of Mons’ spectacles would appear between the roofs, looming up and grabbing our attention.
We ambled around, dropping into a small church and ducking under an interesting sculpture to try and shelter from the passing rain showers. One shower was a little more persistent so we decided it was lunch time – a small Syrian restaurant appeared at just the right time, and the food was awesome!
After the rain, the humid air hung heavy in the damp streets and the sun looked as though it was desperately trying to break through the thick clouds. We resumed our strolling until we came across the Saint Waltrude Collegiate Church. The history of the church dates back to the 14th century. The exterior is an example of Brabant Gothic architecture, however in the 17th century the work was halted and the building was never completely finished. Inside was dark and quiet, all that could be heard was the soft shuffling of feet on the stone floor.
Light filtered through the stained glass windows that lined the top of the building, gently illuminating the sculptures and paintings throughout. In one corner stood a magnificent carriage with incredibly ornate detailing, the gold decoration enhanced by the soft light falling upon it. It was very beautiful and very eye-catching set against the harsh stonework of the walls and pillars and the dark flagstones beneath.
Out of the church we could see Mons Beffroi not too far away and decided to make that our next destination. However despite the short distance to get there, the weather seemed intent on making it a more exciting journey! What started as big raindrops falling slowly turned into a heavy rain, which turned into a downpour. We hurried under a large archway and decided to shelter there until it eased off, but it only got heavier. The rain thundered down around us, creating dramatic splashes with every drop that hit the ground. Puddles formed instantly, the drains obviously struggling to remove the surface water quickly enough. After the usual flashes, thunder rumbled across the sky and all of a sudden those large drops of water were falling as ice. Hail bounced off every hard surface it came into contact with. It gathered between the cobbles and in every available nook and cranny – we couldn’t help but laugh! Eventually the storm seemed to be passing over and it got light enough that we decided to make a dash for it. We quick-marched the final stretch up to the belfry.
Mons belfry is the only Baroque belfry still in existence in Belgium, built between 1661 and 1672 by Louis Ledoux and Vincent Anthony. Interestingly copies of the original designs for the belfry submitted by Ledoux and others are displayed within the beffroi interpretation centre. The previous bell tower collapsed due to dilapidation, which is when the authorities at the time stepped in to rebuild in the style of the era. It stands at 87 metres high with an impressive 459,000 bricks making up the outer walls; Mons Beffroi was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
In 1845 the current belfry was restored for the first time. In 1866 the first positive developments took place, clock dials were restored and weather vanes repaired and re-gilded. In 1976 a corbel supporting the first balcony fell into the park below resulting in an in-depth examination of the buildings structural integrity. This highlighted the need for action and the most recent restorations lasted 30 years before it was reopened to the public.
The inside is vastly different to any other tower we have visited – it is open plan, the huge modern steelwork supports visible and a large glass elevator stands in the middle to take visitors most of the way up. It has been transformed from a traditional piece of preserved history into a museum, an interpretation centre and an interesting example of conservation in action. Although not as fun to climb as the more traditional towers, it gives and insight to the level of work needed to a repair and protect buildings like these.
After our time in the belfry we spent more of our day ambling, once again enjoying the makeshift nature of the streets before making our way back to the van. Luckily, the rain held off for the rest of our time in Mons and we and made it out dry and happy!