There is an article in The Guardian newspaper from January 6th, 2015, that celebrates Mons taking on the title of European Capital of Culture. The surprise is not to discover that there are many reasons to visit this attractive and historic town, but that in 2021, well over six years later, they still haven’t finished the new train station that was meant to welcome visitors during the time it was Capital of Culture.
Designed by notorious Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the station was supposed to be a statement of civic pride that would outlast Mons’ year in the sun. Yet, a line of The Guardian article today reads almost prophetically, “this costly project won’t be finished until late 2015 at the earliest”. I doubt the journalist could have imagined that “at the earliest” would mean “not even by the end of 2021”.
What greets travellers today, and for the previous half dozen years, are metal corrugated ramps and shipping containers where a state of the art train station should be. It bears testimony to breathtaking incompetence, bordering on criminality, that has dogged the rejuvenation of this former mining town. No one seems to know when, or if, the station will be finished. The cost has, inevitably, spiralled.
Leaving the makeshift station, four lanes of traffic and a roadside barrier block the route to the town centre. A detour of a few hundred metres is needed. This is what the more than 20,000 daily arrivals at the station can expect, but, and I can’t stress this enough, Mons is well worth the inconvenience. I say that even though the 14th century Town Hall, centrepiece of the wonderful Grand Place, was covered in scaffolding.
Although bright and sunny, it was a cold, crisp autumn day, when I descended the hill into the Grand Place. At 10am on a Sunday morning, things were only just beginning to open, so I made my way to the one thing I knew for certain was open: the Beaux-Arts Mons. On my way to the centre, I’d passed a remarkable poster claiming that there was a major exhibition by Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.
This seemed unlikely in a town of 95,000 people, but not only did it turn out to be true, on this particular Sunday, entrance was free. I love the work of Botero and saw many of his outsized sculptures and paintings in Bogota and Medellin years ago. This was a real treat, dozens of his paintings hung over two floors, including his outraged response to the torture committed in Abu Ghraib.
If the result of having been crowned European Capital of Culture, is that small places like Mons can attract a world class collection of art like this, then why waste money on a train station no one wanted and which is millions of euros over budget? It wasn’t quite time for lunch, so I headed to another museum, one that had made me want to visit Mons in the first place: Mundaneum.
The museum is dedicated to Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, and the vast card index system they created in the early 20th century to catalogue all of human knowledge. Using the Universal Decimal Classification system, their life’s work is known by its modern-day nickname: the paper Google. I was excited, a museum of index cards is the sort of oddity at which Belgium excels. It was closed.
It was a salutary lesson that I need to do some research before heading off on a day trip, but then again, I would probably never have got to see the Botero exhibition if I’d known the Mundaneum was closed. Plus, it provides another reason to return. I strolled back to the Grand Place and had lunch, things were much more lively now, and afterwards I set off to explore more of Mons.