Mons in a day

Jojo was off early for a job interview in Brussels, but the rest of the family sorted me out, breakfasted me up and set me off for a walk around Mons in the sunshine. It’s a very small town, but ideal for a stroll.

Like all Belgian towns, I am told, it is based around a large “Place” in front of the town hall, or Hotel de Ville. Roads lead in/out in all directions and the town square is surrounded mainly by night shops, bars and restaurants. At lunchtimes and in the evenings the atmosphere is wonderful. On the front of the town hall in Mons is a brass monkey which is not used for telling the weather. Instead it has a very shiny head, as rubbing it with your left hand is supposed to bring luck. I gave it a fair old rub after yesterday’s events.

Inside the doors are several plaques, mainly relating to the first World War. Mons was the last place liberated on Armistice Day, 1918 after 50 months of occupation. The last bullets fired in WWI were fired here.

A street or so away from the centre is a very old church which I took a quick look around. It’s very reminiscent of a traditional British church, if such a thing exists and from what I can remember of them.

Walking around randomly I always seemed to end up at the Town Square. It’s hard to get lost in Mons. There is a McD’s on the square – the only consession I could spot to a major international restaurant anywhere in the town. I decided to avoid it as they didn’t even have free wireless! Instead I walked off the main square, past the obligatory Irish bar and to one of many Belgian ones of a street by themselves. I settled on a glass of Belle Vue Kriek cherry beer and a sunny seat outside. As the barman said “Belgian beer – best in the world!”. Except mayby Newcastle Brown but I’ll allow him his national pride.

On the way back to the house I picked up another Belgian speciality – the waffle. All I needed now was some of that lovely chocolate… I chilled out for a bit back at the flat and booked a hostel in Frankfurt for early the next week. I ploughed through some more of the book I was reading and then went out again to keep the legs stretched… and to find a chocolate shop.

Believe it or not it took me 45 minutes to locate such an establishment (I’d walked past it on the way to the square and not seen it), but when I did I picked up a handful of choccies for after dinner. I couldn’t believe the price – 2.50 Euros for ten, around half what I’ve have paid back home. That’s when I felt like a skinflint and wished I’d bought more.

I returned with my bounty and Jojo’s mum prepared dinner. Tonight we had Authentic Portuguese cod, steak, veg soupm sausage and Belgian chocolate. Some combination! After dinner, Jojo invited me for a walk and we wandered into the centre with one of his brothers. There we located an Arabian tea shop and sat drinking delicious mint tea for a while before my hosts showed me around the university.

As we walked, Jojo told me a little about the history of Mons. The town was actually built around the largest church which used to be a convent and is the oldest building in the town. Each year there is a festival (I missed it by 2 weeks) where a holy relic is taken from the church and paraded around town. Legend has it that a dragn was slayed nearby as well and a large plastic reproduction (real ones are hard to find these days) is taken into the town square and “dances” for the crowd. The area is packed with people trying to snatch hairs from the dragon’s tail for good luck.

Afterwards, everything must be taken back to the church up a very steep hill using an old cart pulled by people. It’s not allowed to slide down the hill otherwise the town will suffer bad luck in the coming year. Tradition is a very important part of life in Mons!

At the universitym a small memorial has been set up for all the victims of those killed during the Japanese nuclear bombings and in all the tests performed before and since. Sadly, to say it’s in a state of disrepair is an understatement. Not only is grass growing through the gravel in places, certain parts have been uprooted and damaged. “This would never happen in Holland,” Jojo told me – he lived and studied there for a year. It is such a shame as it’s a lovely, simple monument as well. I guess even somewhere as nice as Mons has its idiot minority.

Back at the house I ploughed through the rest of my novel so I could leave it for Jojo before zonking out on my mat after a really enjoyable day.

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Champ de Mars to (Olympus) Mons

Get the tenuous link there and you’re doing well. Today was departure day for France, A short but busy visit and somewhere I definitely want to return for a more leisurely time in the future. I woke earlier than expected, ate my passable breakfast and realised I felt a whole lot better than I had recently. I still thought it would be a 2-hankie day, but the cough had all but gone and my head felt less concretey.

My heels had, annoyingly, come close to blistering. I think this was because it had been so warm the day before and my feet got sweaty. Still, better to learn this now than later on The Walk. From now on I change my socks once a day if I’m walking a lot. Otherwise, my legs and feet were fine which is a good sign for the punishment to come!

As I sat in reception killing time, I noticed something about the Metro system – the names used for stations are genuinely useful especially for tourists. They’re all pretty much named after the sight or building they take you to: Notre Dame, Concorde, Trocadero, Opera. Mind, they’re a little off with Luxembourg and Stalingrad. I don’t think you get that far for your 1.4 Euros.

My last stop in Paris was to be the Cemetiere di Pere Lachaise. This one was for Chunky – I got some pictures of Jim Morrison‘s grave. This was the only one surrounded by basic security fencingm and also one of a very small number with fresh flowers on. Oscar Wilde is also buried here (or interred or whatever) but I was short of time, so I’m afraid he’ll have to bask in my presence on another visit.

It’s a huge place with some very ornate tombs and crypts, all joined by a maze of paths. The maps are genuinely helpful, in fact necessary, in finding your way around.

The Eurolines terminal was maybe twenty minutes’ walk from there and involved some interesting navigation over some serious roads. It’s obviously somewhere they don’t expect you to walk to. I checked in then doubled back to McDs for lunch where I got stuck behind the most annoying people in the world ever. A couple who discussed their order for five minutes then placed it. Then when they had it, dug out a Post-It and read another order off there and waited for it. Then the guy ordered another meal for himself.

Just before I dig out the knife I’ve bought in Thailand last year and informed them how hungry I was, the girl serving moved their stuff to one side and finally provided me with my Big Mac meal which I wolfed down iat indigestion-threatening speed before haring back to the bus station.

Aboard the Mons Express, I dozed for around two hoursand at 1626 saw the blue signs telling me I was now in “Belgique”. Half an hour later we pulled up as the coach swapped drivers. I asked one passanger, “C’est arrivee?” and my response was a lot of handwaving and shaking of heads so I sat back down.

Ten minutes later I noticed that I didn’t see any more signs for Mons. Or Charleroi. But lots for Brussels. Oh dear. I crept to the front of the bus where the original driver was obviously scrounging a lift home. I didn’t understand his exact words, but they were definitely French for “Didn’t you get off at Mons?”

Great. Next stop, Brussels. The new driver spoke English and phoned ahead to explain the problem. He told me they’d sort me out a train ticket as they had no more buses that day heading back south. Then the original driver spotted my shirt – “Ah, Newcastle!”, the first French/Belgian/Spaniard to not proclaim “Juventus!”

“Et tu?” I asked.
“Chelsea!” he beamed.
“Quelle surprise…” – that got a laugh.

Somehow despite my rusty French and his non-existant English we managed to discuss football for five minutes including Liverpool’s two recent Champions’ League finals before I “retourne’d a ma chaize” and awaited my very short visit to Brussels.

When we got there I was shepherded very carefully to the train ticket office and then to the correct platform by one of the Eurolines staff. Eight Euros. Grr. Ah well, next time I ask the driver not one of the passengers who’s going to the next stop. Fortunately I’d managed to text Jojo in Mons so he wasn’t sat at the station there wondering where I’d got to.

I picked up a Mars Bar to munch – a “double pack” which I notice has replaced the King Size ones since I left as Mars do their bit for the enlargening waist sizes in Europe. The fact that the twin is only 10 cents more than a normal bar and (I believe) larger than the old King Size ones is beside the point. Eat less, get ripped off. Eat more, get fat. The instructions on the pack are fun, too. They tell you to hold one bar in each hand and pull downwards to break the seal in the middle then tear it in two. This is obviously for bars right out of the fridge as the ones I had would have burt out of the wrapping and disgorged warm chocolatey/nougatty goodness all over my trousers courtesy of the 30 degree heat.

I arrived at Gare de Mons (for the second time) on time as far as the train was concerned – 2 hours 20 minutes later than I had originally intended. Jojo came to meet me and walked me back to his nearby flat where I was introduced to his mum and two brothers. I dropped my stuff and we took off on a 30 minute “taster” walk around Mons. We returned to an Authentic Portuguese meal or Authentic Portuguese soup, Authentic Portuguese burgers and salad and Coke made in the United States of Portugal. Sorry – running joke from the evening!

After dinner I had a shower and managed to flood the bathroom when the tap wouldn’t turn off until Jojo came to the rescue with a screwdriver. I certainly made an impression on my first visit… Despite this, the family made me feel a lot less bad about the whole mess than I really had any right to. We sat for a couple of hours and chatted about travel, films, TV, computers and so on and then off to bed. I road-tested my new bed roll (supplied by the kind folk at Kudos Adventure in Cardiff on the floor of Jojo’s room and it did the job just dandy. I’m sure it’ll be even better on the grass of all the European countries I have yet to visit!

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