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.