Mons: culture from conflict

The centenary of the start of the first world war will put Mons in the spotlight in 2014, and the city itself is already making plans for 2015, its year as European Capital of Culture
BTB: The Golden casket inside the Collégiate Ste-Waudru, Mons, Belgium.
A gilded chariot inside thei church of Saint Waudrui. Photograph: Greg Funnell

There's a good chance that you're already familiar with the Belgian city of Mons. Most of us know it from school history lessons, famous as the site of the first major battle between British and German forces of the first world war. But in the coming months, Mons will gain a much higher profile. It's gearing up for next year's centenary of the outbreak of war, when a host of commemorative events will be held around the city and at Saint Symphorien military cemetery, just over a mile east of the old town.

Military cemeteries are usually characterised by manicured lawns and precise rows of graves and box hedges but I discover that this one, run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is unexpectedly beautiful. Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, who originally allowed the Germans to use his land as a burial ground in the aftermath of the Battle of Mons, was a botanist and horticulturalist. I spot dozens of different types of trees, plants and rare wildflowers, with shady spots for contemplation and reflection.

Known locally as le cimetière britannique, it is the final resting place for 284 Germans as well as 230 Commonwealth soldiers: de Lehaie having donated the land on condition that enemy soldiers were buried with equal respect. Among those buried here is Private John Parr, the first British soldier to die in the war. Born in 1898, he is believed to have lied about his age when he applied to the army. He was deployed with the 4th Middlesex Regiment and his unit took up position near the village of Obourg to the north-east of Mons. Two days before the battle of Mons, Parr encountered a German cavalry patrol and was shot dead. He is thought to have been 16 years old.

Poignantly, I notice that he is buried opposite the grave of the last British soldier to die in the conflict, George Edwin Ellison, a 40-year-old former coal miner from Leeds. He fought in the battle of Mons in 1914, as well as several more, and was killed while on patrol the day peace was declared, 11 November 1918. Also laid to rest here is Maurice Dease, a 24-year-old soldier who won the first Victoria Cross of the war. Dease was in command of the machine gun section at nearby Nimy bridge. You can visit the bridge where it all happened just outside Mons. Next year there will be a battle of Mons trail, complete with a smartphone app, in time for the anniversary.

BTB: Symphorien Cemetry, Mons, Belgium. Soldiers of many nationalities arei buried at Saint Symphorien cemetery. Photograph: Greg Funnell

As I head back into the centre of town, I'm reminded that Mons is not only about sombre remembrance. The city is gearing up for its year as joint European Capital of Culture 2015 (with Pilzn, Czech Republic), and boasts some altogether more glitzy attractions. In the heart of the old town (12 Square Franklin Roosevelt), in what was formerly the headquarters of the National Bank of Belgium, I find the François Duesberg Museum of Decorative Arts and its collection of neo-classical pieces from 1775-1825, which includes gorgeous fans, tin-glazed pottery in the famous faience tradition and an astonishing collection of more than 300 clocks. If you're lucky, you'll get a personal tour by the museum's owner, who still works there.

Afterwards I explore the Grand Place, with its fountains and high-end cafes, and the surrounding streets which are a mecca for shoppers looking for handmade Belgian chocolates and one-of-a-kind gifts. I pay a visit to the beautiful Parole de Djinn on rue d'Havré, a store devoted to the theme of Arabian nights and fairytales, where you can pick up everything from lucky charm jewellery to sumptuous home furnishings. And I duck into Baroc on rue des Fripiers for handmade costume jewellery and the best collection of retro hatboxes I've ever seen.

Also not to be missed are the secret gardens in the inner courtyard of the town hall. This is the home of the Ropieur fountain, a bronze sculpture of a naughty boy who splashes passers-by, which was created in the 1930s by sculptor Léon Gobert. At the entrance to the town hall I'm told to pat the monkey statue (Le Singe du Grand Garde) on the head with my left hand: doing so is meant to bring me good fortune. I happily oblige, and get ready to leave Mons with my luck enhanced, as well as fresh take on a contemporary city that I only knew from the history books.

1914-18: A myth is born
After thriller-writer Arthur Machen wrote a story for the London Evening News about ghostly archers from the battle of Agincourt saving British soldiers at the Battle of Mons, his romantic yarn soon became an urban myth. Shell-shocked soldiers confirmed the presence of supernatural apparitions on the battlefield and the legend was preserved in The Angels of Mons, a painting by Mons artist Marcel Gillis.

Cultural heritage: Sainte-Waudru

The gothic Collégiale Sainte-Waudru (pictured above) was built between the 15th and 16th centuries, on a scale that overwhelms even today. It houses dazzling stained glass and a collection of artefacts from the 9th to the 19th century. There is also a large body of work from Netherlandish sculptor Jacques du Broeucq, who was born in Mons. The star of the show, however, is the car d'or, a 17th-century gilded chariot that contains the shrine of the eponymous Saint Waltrude. Every year on Trinity Sunday (which falls on 14 June in 2014), the golden chariot is paraded around the whole city as part of the Doudou festival and raised back up the cobbled streets to the church by crowds of enthusiastic locals.

Where to eat, drink and sleep

Eat:Le Saint Germain, Grand Place 12
The best place in town for local specialities. There's moules cooked eight different ways, a menu of trademark Belgian stir-fries and rabbit cooked in prunes, and enough beer to make you stagger. Be sure to tuck into one of the many pasteries, crepes or ice creams, too. Just perfect.

BTB: glasses of Belgian beer in a bar Photograph: Martin Child/Getty Images

Drink: L'Excelsior, Grand Place 29 ( +32 65 36 47 15 )
This dark wood-panelled bar offers more than 100 beers, many of them local specialities such as the La Binchoise Blonde and Augrenoise, a cult wheat beer from a local microbrewery, as well as Orval, brewed by trappist monks in the south of Belgium. There's a buzzy vibe here in the evenings and a terrace for sunny evenings.

Sleep: Dream!, rue de la Grande Triperie 17
Housed in a former convent, this 57-bedroom boutique hotel opened in May. The building still has the ancient Gothic windows and stonework, but everything else is hip, from Delirium, the sleek and well-stocked wine bar, to the graffiti-effect bedroom wallpaper. Doubles from £49 (€70).

  • Credits

    Commissioning editor: Perri Lewis
    Produced by Guardian Creative to a brief agreed with Belgian Tourist Office – Brussels & Wallonia
    Paid for by Belgian Tourist Office – Brussels & Wallonia. All editorial controlled by the Guardian
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