The region immediately southwest of Mons is known as the Borinage, a poor, densely populated working-class area that, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, was one of Belgium’s three main coalfields, an ugly jigsaw of slag heaps and mining villages. The mining is finished, but the cramped terraced housing remains, a postindustrial sprawl that extends toward the French frontier. There are, however, a couple of attractions that may tempt you out here, specifically a house that was once lived in by the painter Vincent van Gogh, and the Grand Hornu, a very real remnant of the region’s industrial past.
Between 1810 and 1830, in the village of HORNU, the French industrialist Henri De Gorge set about building the large complex of offices, stables, workshops, foundries and furnaces that comprises Grand-Hornu (wwww.grand-hornu.be). De Gorge owned several collieries in the area, so the complex made economic sense, but he went much further, choosing to build in an elegant version of Neoclassical style and constructing more-than-adequate workers’ houses just outside which survive to this day. This progressiveness did not necessarily win the affection of the workers – in 1830 the miners came within an inch of lynching him during an industrial dispute over wages – but De Gorge’s mines, as well as Grand-Hornu, remained in operation until 1954. Thereafter, the complex fell into disrepair, but it was revived in the 1990s and, with its large elliptical courtyard and ruined workshops, it’s a compelling slice of nineteenth-century industrial history. Furthermore, the old office buildings on one side now hold the Musée des Arts Contemporain (MAC’s; wwww.mac-s.be), which has already established a regional reputation for the quality of its temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. There’s a bookshop and café, and a nice restaurant too, overlooking the large courtyard. To get to Grand-Hornu, take bus #7 or #9 from Mons train station (every 15min) and alight at place Verte, from where it’s a five-minute walk.