South of Brussels, the western reaches of Wallonia comprise the province of Hainaut and the French-speaking portion of Brabant, Brabant Wallon. The area has its beauty spots, with plenty of rolling farmland and wooded hills dotted across the entire region, but industry sets the general tone, especially between Mons and Charleroi, where the landscape is puckered with grassed-over slag heaps from the region’s coal-mining heyday and the towns are for the most part functional and not very alluring. In the western part of the province, close to the French border, Tournai is something of a highlight – once part of France, and now a vibrant, unpretentious town with a number of decent museums, some good restaurants and a magnificent cathedral. East of Tournai, the town of Mons is also an agreeable place – and home to a fine church – but its appeal is more in its ebullient street life and hilltop setting, and its usefulness as a base for seeing some of the region’s more scattered attractions. Within easy striking distance of both Mons and Tournai are several châteaux – of which Beloeil is the grandest and Attre the most elegant – and other more workaday leftovers form the area’s industrial past. To the east, Binche is a humdrum place best known for its explosive February carnival (and its carnival museum, open all year). Nivelles is the principal town of Brabant Wallon, and boasts another Romanesque church in its abbey of Ste-Gertrude, while the elegiac ruins of the Abbaye de Villers, on the edge of the town of Villers-la-Ville, lie in a wooded valley just a few kilometres beyond.
To the south, the industrial and engineering centre of Charleroi is the biggest city in Hainaut by a long chalk, and few would call it pretty. But it is gallantly attempting to reinvent itself, and there are worse places to spend some time; it also has a couple of worthwhile attractions on its southern outskirts in its excellent museum of photography and the mining museum of Bois de Cazier. South of Charleroi, the rural Botte du Hainaut is actually an extension of the Ardennes and is named for its shape as it juts boot-like into France; most of the “boot” is part of Hainaut, but it also incorporates a narrow slice of Namur province, which for touring purposes we’ve included in this chapter. Largely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, the area is a quiet corner of the country, its undulating farmland and forests dotted with the smallest of country towns. Among them, Chimay, with its castle and pretty old centre, is the most diverting, while Couvin is also fairly picturesque, and is well endowed with facilities for holidaymakers, since hundreds of vacationing Belgians hunker down in cottages in the surrounding countryside. Outside of these two towns, both of which are readily reached by public transport and have small supplies of hotels and B&Bs, you’ll definitely need a car – and sometimes a tent.Read More
Just along the rail line from Attre, Ath is a run-of-the-mill industrial town that boasts a major claim to fame in its festival, the Ducasse, held on the fourth weekend in August and featuring the “Parade of the Giants”, in which massive models, representing both folkloric and biblical figures, waggle their way round the town. If you’re in the area around this time, don’t miss it.
The Trappist monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance live outside Chimay in the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont, an architecturally dull complex dating from the 1850s near the French border, about 10km out of town. The monastery itself is out of bounds, but you can wander the grounds and visit the church, though frankly this is not exactly riveting stuff. The Trappists no longer brew beer at the abbey – the modern brewery is some way away and is also closed to the public – but you can sample their beers and cheeses at the nearby L’Auberge de Poteaupré, a restaurant-brasserie and shop in a converted school about 500m from the abbey on the main road (t060 21 14 33, wwww.chimay.com).