Hainaut and Wallonian Brabant Travel Guide
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South of Brussels, the western reaches of Wallonia comprise the province of Hainaut and the French-speaking portion of Brabant, Brabant Wallon Dropdown content. 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 Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content 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 Dropdown contentis the grandest and Attre Dropdown content the most elegant – and other more workaday leftovers form the area’s industrial past. To the east, Binche Dropdown content is a humdrum place best known for its explosive February carnival (and its carnival museum, open all year). Nivelles Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, 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
There’s not much to bring you to BINCHE, a sleepy little town halfway between Mons and Charleroi, at the southern end of Hainaut’s most decayed industrial region. However, it comes to life every year when it hosts one of the best and most renowned of the country’s carnivals, and it’s this that provides the main reason for a visit, not only when the carnival’s on, but also to take in the town’s Musée International du Carnaval et du Masque (wwww.museedumasque.be), which claims to have the largest assortment of carnival artefacts in the world. Whether or not this is an exaggeration, its collection of masks and fancy dress from carnivals throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America is certainly impressive, and it’s complemented by an audiovisual presentation on the Binche carnival and temporary exhibitions on the same theme. Outside the museum, a statue of a Gille – one of the figures that dance through the city streets during carnival – is sandwiched between the big but undistinguished Collégiale St-Ursmer and the Grand-Place, a spacious square edged by the onion-domed Hôtel de Ville, built in 1555 by Jacques du Broeucq to replace a version destroyed by the French the previous year. A small park near the museum marks the site of the town’s medieval citadel and contains what little remains of the former palace of Mary of Hungary. It’s buttressed by the original ramparts, which date from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries and curve impressively around most of the town centre, complete with 27 towers.
Carnival has been celebrated in Binche since the fourteenth century. The festivities last for several weeks, getting started in earnest on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday, when thousands turn out in costume. During the main events on Shrove Tuesday itself, the traditional Gilles – males born and raised in Binche – appear in clogs and embroidered costumes from dawn onwards, banging drums and stamping on the ground. In the morning they wear “green-eyed” masks, dancing in the Grand-Place carrying bunches of sticks to ward off bad spirits. In the afternoon they don their plumes – a mammoth piece of headgear made of ostrich feathers – and throw oranges to the crowd as they pass through town in procession. The rituals of the carnival date back to pagan times, but the Gilles were probably inspired by the fancy dress worn by Mary of Hungary’s court at a banquet held in honour of Charles V in 1549; Peru had recently been added to the Habsburg Empire, and the courtiers celebrated the conquest by dressing up in (their version of) Inca gear.
A tongue of land jutting south into France, the Botte de Hainaut (Boot of Hainaut) is a natural extension of the Ardennes range further east, if a little flatter and less wooded. It’s mostly visited for its gentle scenery and country towns, among which Walcourt and Chimay are the most appealing – the former graced by a handsome basilica, the latter by a charming château and perhaps the prettiest main square in the whole of Wallonia. The Boot’s one and only train line runs south from Charleroi to Walcourt, Philippeville and ultimately to Couvin; local buses fill in most of the gap, with a good service between Charleroi, Couvin and Chimay, but to tour beyond the towns you’ll need a car. The other complication is that apart from campsites, accommodation is extremely thin on the ground. Chimay is your best bet, but consider making advance reservations in all cases, either direct or via the main regional websites: wwww.botteduhainaut.com and the more comprehensive wwww.paysdesvallees.be.
It’s best known for the beer brewed by local Trappists, but the small and ancient town of CHIMAY, 14km west of Couvin, is a charming old place in its own right, governed for several centuries by the de Croy family, a clan of local bigwigs who continue to occupy the Château des Princes de Chimay in the centre of town. A considerably altered structure, it was originally built in the fifteenth century, but was reconstructed in the seventeenth, then badly damaged by fire and partly rebuilt to earlier plans in the 1930s. Today the main body of the building is fronted by a long series of rectangular windows, edged by a squat turreted tower. Tours are led by the elderly Princess Elizabeth de Croy herself, who is an engaging and personable guide and speaks excellent English. She’ll show you the old chapel in one of the turrets, lots of family portraits (right up to the present day), a hotchpotch of period furniture and – the highlight – the carefully restored private theatre, modelled on the Louis XV theatre at Fontainebleau, where you can watch a short film on the family and the property. Many of the de Croy family were buried in the Collégiale des Saints Pierre et Paul, a mostly sixteenth-century limestone pile with a high and austere vaulted nave. The church’s walls crowd the town’s slender Grand-Place, an eminently bourgeois and exceedingly pretty little square surrounding the dinky Monument des Princes, a water fountain erected in 1852 in honour of the de Croys.
COUVIN, just 5km south from Mariembourg, was one of the first settlements in Hainaut to be industrialized, its narrow streets choked by forges and smelting works as early as the eighteenth century. In the event, Couvin was soon marginalized by the big cities further north, but it has battled gainfully on as a pint-sized manufacturing centre. Tourism has also had an impact, as the town lies at the heart of a popular holiday area, a quiet rural district whose forests and farmland are liberally sprinkled with country cottages and second homes. Long and slim, and bisected by the River Eau Noire, Couvin is short on specific sights, but it does possess a good-looking if small old quarter, set on top of a rocky hill high above the river and main road, where you’ll find the boringly modern main square, place du Général Piron. About 3km north of town, in a lovely spot that’s difficult to reach without your own transport, tours of the Grottes de Neptune (wwww.grottesdeneptune.be) last an hour and take you part of the way by boat on an underground river, before wowing you with some typically dramatic music and light shows.
From Couvin bus and train station, it’s a ten-minute walk south to the main square along rue de la Gare and its continuation, Faubourg St-Germain. The tourist office is on the way to the Cavernes de l’Abîme, at rue de la Falaise 3 (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 10am–4pm; t 060 34 01 40, w www.couvin.be). The best place to eat hereabouts is the fabled Brasserie des Fagnes, outside Couvin on the way to Mariembourg (t 060 31 15 70; July & Aug daily 10am–9pm; rest of year Tues–Fri 11am–7.30pm, Sat & Sun 11am–9pm), which is very popular and does delicious, crispy pizza-breads topped with cheeses and ham, and serves them with its own beer, Super des Fagnes – of which there are no less than five hundred varieties, from the usual brown, blond and cherry brews to daily specials like a coriander and orange-flavoured ale.
To the northeast of Mons you cross the border into Brabant, whose southern French-speaking districts – known as Brabant Walloon – form a band of countryside that rolls up to and around Waterloo, which is now pretty much a suburb of Brussels. Nivelles is the obvious distraction en route, an amiable, workaday town worth a visit for its interesting church as well as its proximity to the beguiling ruins of the Cistercian abbey at Villers-la-Ville, a short car ride away (train travellers have to make the trip via Charleroi). The Hergé museum, meanwhile, is the highlight of the otherwise entirely missable new town of Louvain-la-Neuve.
The ruined Cistercian Abbaye de Villers, at rue de l’Abbaye 55 (wwww.villers.be), nestles in a lovely wooded dell on the edge of VILLERS-LA-VILLE, just off the N93 some 16km east of Nivelles, and is altogether one of the most haunting and evocative sights in the whole of Belgium. The first monastic community settled here in 1146, consisting of just one abbot and twelve monks. Subsequently the abbey became a wealthy local landowner, managing a domain of several thousand acres, with numbers that rose to about a hundred monks and three hundred lay brothers. A healthy annual income funded the construction of an extensive monastic complex, most of which was erected in the thirteenth century, though the less austere structures, such as the Abbot’s Palace, went up in a second spurt of activity some four hundred years later. In 1794 French revolutionaries ransacked the monastery, and later a railway was ploughed through the grounds, but more than enough survives – albeit in various states of decay – to pick out Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance features and to make some kind of mental reconstruction of abbey life possible.
From the entrance, a path crosses the courtyard in front of the Abbot’s Palace to reach the warming room (chauffoir), the only place in the monastery where a fire would have been kept going all winter, and which still has its original chimney. The fire provided a little heat to the adjacent rooms: on one side the monks’ workroom (salle des moines), used for reading and studying; on the other the large Romanesque-Gothic refectory (réfectoire), lit by ribbed twin windows topped with chunky rose windows. Next door is the kitchen (cuisine), which contains a few remnants of the drainage system which once piped waste to the river, and of a central hearth, whose chimney helped air the room. Just behind this lies the pantry (salle des convers), where a segment of the original vaulting has survived, supported by a single column, and beyond, on the northwestern edge of the complex, is the guest house (brasserie), one of the abbey’s biggest and oldest buildings. The most spectacular building, however, is the church (église), which fills out the north corner of the complex. With pure lines and elegant proportions, it displays the change from Romanesque to Gothic – the transept and choir are the first known examples of Brabantine Gothic. The building has the dimensions of a cathedral, 90m long and 40m wide, with a majestic nave whose roof was supported on strong cylindrical columns. An unusual feature is the series of bull’s-eye windows which light the transepts. Of the original twelfth-century cloister (cloître) adjoining the church, a pair of twin windows is pretty much all that remains, flanked by a two-storey section of the old monks’ quarters.
NIVELLES grew up around its abbey, which was founded in the seventh century and became one of the most powerful religious houses in Brabant until its suppression by the French Revolutionary Army in 1798. Nowadays, the abbey is recalled by the town’s one and only significant sight, the Collégiale Ste-Gertrude, a vast edifice that utterly dominates the Grande-Place at the heart of the town, and was erected as the abbey church in the tenth century. Little is known of Gertrude, but her cult was very popular on account of her supposed gentleness – her symbol is a pastoral staff with a mouse running along it. Built in the Ottonian style (the forerunner of Romanesque), with a transept and chancel at each end of the nave, the church itself is a beautiful and unusual construction, in better shape now than it has been for years following a long restoration. The west chancel represents imperial authority, the east papal – an architectural illustration of the tension between the pope and the emperor that defined much of Otto’s reign. The interior is extremely simple, its long and lofty nave supported by sturdy pillars, between which sits a flashy oak and marble pulpit by the eighteenth-century Belgian artist Laurent Delvaux; the heavily restored, fifteenth-century wooden wagon kept at the western end of the church is used to carry the shrine of Ste Gertrude in procession through the fields once a year. Unfortunately, the original thirteenth-century shrine was destroyed in 1940, but a modern replacement has been made and the traditional autumn procession has recently been revived.
Outside, the cloisters are lovely, and you can see them and other parts of the church that are otherwise out of bounds on regular guided tours (t 067 84 08 64). Although usually in French, tours can be given in English if you book in advance, and take in the large Salle Impériale over the west choir, a copy of Ste Gertrude’s shrine and what remains of the original and the large Romanesque crypt, where the foundations of a Merovingian chapel and church (seventh-century) and three Carolingian churches (ninth- and tenth-century) have been discovered, as well as the tombs of Ste Gertrude and some of her relations.
Once the epicentre of one of Belgium’s main industrial areas, home to glassworks, coal mines and iron foundries, the twentieth century wasn’t kind to CHARLEROI, and its outskirts and, for that matter, its centre is not among the country’s most alluring prospects. It’s best known these days for being the home of Brussels’ second airport, and with that impetus it’s busy trying to re-invent itself – and although there’s a long way yet to go, it hasn’t done a bad job. Its centre is bustling and cosmopolitan, there are plenty of good places to eat and drink and, with three comfortable hotels, it’s not a bad place to break your journey if you’re travelling either to the Botte du Hainaut or east to the Ardennes.
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).
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.
About forty minutes by train from Tournai, MONS may be familiar for its military associations. It was the site of battles that for Britain marked the beginning and end of World War I, and in 1944 the location of the first big American victory on Belgian soil in the liberation campaign. It has also been a key military base since 1967, when Charles de Gaulle expelled NATO – including SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe) – from Paris; SHAPE subsequently moved to Maisières, just outside Mons. Both continue to provide employment for hundreds of Americans and other NATO nationals – something which gives the town a bustling, cosmopolitan feel for somewhere so small. It’s a pleasant place, with a good café society, spread over the hill that gave it its name.
Railways and roads radiate out from Mons in all directions, putting central Hainaut’s key attractions within easy reach and making for several enjoyable day-trips; what’s more, using Mons as a base avoids the difficulty of finding somewhere to stay – accommodation is thin on the ground hereabouts. The Borinage, a former coalfield southwest of the town, holds the most obvious sights: the Vincent van Gogh house and the former colliery complex of Grand-Hornu, which is given an extra edge by the addition of the Musée des Arts Contemporains (MAC’s). Elsewhere, to the northwest, lie two very visitable châteaux – imposing Beloeil, with its extensive grounds, and the enticing Château d’Attre, while to the east Binche boasts one of Belgium’s most famous carnivals.
Every year, in late May or early June on the weekend before Trinity Sunday, Mons hosts the festival of the Doudou. Events kick off with a solemn ceremony on the Saturday, when the reliquary holding the remains of St Waudru is given to the city’s mayor. Locals flock into the Collegiate Church to sing their version of the Doudou folk song, which will continue for the rest of the week. On Sunday morning, the reliquary is processed around the town in a golden carriage – the Car d’Or – accompanied by a thousand-odd costumed participants, with everyone joining in to push the carriage back up the hill to the church with one huge shove: failure to get it there in one go will bring bad luck to one and all.
After the relics are safely back in the church, chaos erupts on the Grand-Place, with a battle between St George and the Dragon, known here as “Lumeçon”. St George and his thirty-eight helpers (all good men and true) slug it out with the dragon and his entourage (devils, the “Wild Men in the woods” and the “Men in White”). The crowd helps St George by pulling ribbons off the dragon’s tail as it whips through the air just above their heads, and inevitably, George and crew emerge victorious.
Completed in 1752, the elegant, Neoclassical Château d’Attre (t068 45 44 60), just to the northeast of Beloeil, was built on the site of a distinctly less comfortable medieval fortress on the orders of the count of Gomegnies, chamberlain to emperor Joseph II. It soon became a favourite haunt of the ruling Habsburg elite – especially the archduchess Marie-Christine of Austria, the governor of the Southern Netherlands. The original, carefully selected furnishings and decoration have survived pretty much intact, providing an insight into the tastes of the time – from the sphinxes framing the doorway and the silk wrappings of the Chinese room through to the extravagant parquet floors, the ornate moulded plasterwork and the archducal room hung with the first hand-painted wallpaper ever to be imported into the country, in about 1760. There are also first-rate silver, ivory and porcelain pieces, as well as paintings by Frans Snyders, a friend of Rubens, and the Frenchman Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose romantic, idealized canvases epitomized early eighteenth-century aristocratic predilections. Neither is the castle simply a display case: it’s well cared for and has a lived-in, human feel, in part created by the arrangements of freshly picked flowers chosen to enhance the character of each room. The surrounding park straddles the River Dendre and holds several curiosities, notably a 24m-high artificial rock with subterranean corridors and a chalet-cum-hunting lodge on top – all to tickle the fancy of the archduchess. The ruins of a tenth-century tower, also in the park, must have pleased her risqué sensibilities too; it was reputed to have been the hideaway of a local villain, a certain Vignon who, disguised as a monk, robbed and ravished passing travellers.
Roughly halfway between Mons and Tournai, the château of BELOEIL (t069 68 94 26) broods over the village that bears its name, its long brick and stone facades redolent of the enormous wealth and power of the Ligne family, regional bigwigs since the fourteenth century. This aristocratic clan began by strengthening the medieval fortress built here by their predecessors, subsequently turning it into a commodious moated castle that was later remodelled and refined on several occasions. The wings of the present structure date from the late seventeenth century, while the main body, though broadly compatible, was in fact rebuilt after a fire in 1900. Without question a stately building, it has a gloomy, rather despondent air – and the interior, though lavish enough, oozing with tapestries, paintings and furniture, is simply the collected indulgences – and endless portraits – of various generations of Lignes. Despite all this grandeur, only one member of the family cuts much historical ice. This is Charles Joseph (1735–1814), a diplomat, author and field marshal in the Austrian army, whose pithy comments were much admired by his fellow aristocrats: most famously, he suggested that the Congress of Vienna of 1814 “danse mais ne marche pas”. Several of Beloeil’s rooms contain paintings of Charles’ life and times and there’s also a small selection of his personal effects, including the malachite clock given to him by the Tsar of Russia. Otherwise, the best parts are the library, which contains twenty thousand volumes, many ancient and beautifully bound, and the eighteenth-century formal gardens, the largest in the country, whose lakes and flower beds stretch away from the house to a symmetrical design by Parisian architect and decorator Jean-Michel Chevotet.
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.
For many, TOURNAI is Wallonia’s most interesting and enjoyable town, its ancient centre latticed by narrow cobbled streets and straddling the sluggish, canalized River Escaut (Scheldt in Dutch). Its pride and joy is its magnificent medieval cathedral, a seminal construction whose stirring amalgamation of Romanesque and early Gothic styles influenced the design of other churches far and wide. Most visitors zero in on the cathedral to the expense of everything else, but the town centre also holds lots of handsome eighteenth-century mansions in the French style – stately structures with double doors, stone lower and brick upper storeys, overhanging eaves, elongated chimneys and, often as not, fancy balconies and a central (horse-carriage) courtyard. Add to this several excellent restaurants, and the town’s proximity to the extravagant châteaux of Beloeil and Attre, and you’ve reason enough to stay a night or two, especially as tourism here remains distinctly low-key, with barely a tour bus in sight.
The city was founded by the Romans as a staging post on the trade route between Cologne and the coast of France. Later, it produced the French monarchy in the form of the Merovingians, a dynasty of Frankish kings who chose the place as their capital – Clovis, the most illustrious of the line, was born here in 465. It remained under French control for a large part of its subsequent history, and stayed loyal to its king during the Hundred Years’ War. Indeed, the constancy of its citizens was legendary: Joan of Arc addressed them in a letter as “kind, loyal Frenchmen”, and they returned the compliment by sending her a bag of gold. Incorporated into the Habsburg Netherlands in the 1520s, Tournai was retaken by Louis XIV in 1667, and although this period of French control only lasted fifty years or so, Louis left his mark on the town with the heavyweight stone quays that still flank the river, and in scores of handsome mansions. Sadly, much of central Tournai was damaged by German bombing at the beginning of World War II, but enough has survived to reward a thorough exploration.
Dominating the skyline with its distinctive five towers is Tournai’s Romanesque/early Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built with the wealth of the flourishing wool and stone trades. Its mammoth proportions in combination with the local slate-coloured marble were much admired by contemporaries and the design was imitated all along the Escaut valley. The present cathedral is the third church on this site, most of it completed in the latter half of the twelfth century, although the choir was reconstructed in the middle of the thirteenth. It’s a bit of building site at the moment, and likely to be so for some time, having been damaged by storms in the late 1990s, but you should inspect the west facade, on place de l’Evêché, with its three tiers of sculptures filling out the back of the medieval portico, before entering the church either here or by the main entrance on the south side. Inside, the nave is part of the original structure, erected in 1171, as are the intricately carved capitals that distinguish the lowest set of columns, but the vaulted roof is eighteenth-century. The choir was the first manifestation of the Gothic style in Belgium, and its too-slender pillars had to be reinforced later at the base: the whole choir still leans slightly to one side due to the unstable soil beneath. In front of the choir, the Renaissance rood screen is a flamboyant marble extravaganza by Cornelis Floris, embellished by biblical events such as Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
The ample and majestic late twelfth-century transepts are the cathedral’s most impressive – and most beautiful – feature. Apsed and aisled to a very unusual plan, they impart a lovely diffuse light through their many windows, some of which (in the south transept) hold superb sixteenth-century stained glass depicting semi-mythical scenes from far back in Tournai’s history. Opposite, in the north transept, is an intriguing twelfth-century mural, a pockmarked cartoon strip relating the story of St Margaret, a shepherdess martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian. Its characters are set against an exquisite blue background reminiscent of – and clearly influenced by – Byzantine church paintings. Take a look, too, at Rubens’ characteristically bold The Deliverance of Souls from Purgatory, which hangs, newly restored, beside the adjacent chapel.
Be sure also to see the trésor, whose three rooms kick off with a splendid wood-panelled, eighteenth-century meeting room and a chapel hung with a rare example of a medieval Arras tapestry, made up of fourteen panels depicting the lives of St Piat and of St Eleuthère, the first bishop of Tournai. Next door, have a look at the silver and gilded copper châsse de Notre-Dame, completed in 1205 by Nicolas de Verdun and festooned with relief figures clothed in fluidly carved robes, and a wonderful early sixteenth-century Ecce Homo by Quentin Matsys, showing Christ surrounded by monstrous faces. The treasury also once hosted a gem-studded Byzantine Cross, which was stolen in a high-profile armed raid a couple of years ago – hence the current heightened sense of security.