Mons is home to one of those quirky traditions for which Belgium is famous. Every year, on the first Sunday after Pentecost, locals take to the streets to do battle with a green dragon called Doudou before it is officially slain by someone dressed as St. George. It’s a spectacle known as the Ducasse de Mons, and UNESCO have dedicated it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
By all accounts, it’s an event that excels at bringing out the crazy in the thousands of spectators who attend. We’ll have to bide our time until next summer to witness any actual dragon slaying antics, but the legend that started the tradition can be found inside the hulking Collégiale Sainte-Waudru de Mons, a sizeable gothic church dedicated to Saint Waudru, or Waltrude in English.
Mons was founded by Saint Waudru in the 7th century and her relics are still kept in a shrine inside the church. The relics are credited with delivering Mons from the Black Death in 1349, a ‘miracle’ that gave birth to a tradition. To keep Mons safe, on the anniversary of the town’s delivery from the plague the relics are paraded in a golden carriage. If all goes well, “the people of Mons shall never perish”.
The last two times things didn’t go well, Europe was engulfed in two World Wars. Or so the legend goes. At some point in time they decided to add a battle between St. George and the dragon, presumably to give a splash of glamour (not to say a reason for heavy drinking) to parading the relics around. Inside the church, I couldn’t find the relics but the golden carriage is hard to miss.
The church itself is almost as old as the Doudou tradition, dating back to 1450. It was Sunday and they were setting up for a service, so I didn’t stay long, but the church is hugely impressive. The Doudou is joined on the UNESCO list by the nearby Belfry of Mons, a 17th century, 87 metre-high Baroque masterpiece that stands on top of a small hill with views over Mons.
Mons grew wealthy during the medieval period as a centre of cloth weaving, and it was during this period that many of its most beautiful buildings were built. This includes several that circle the picturesque Grand Place. Chief amongst these is the 15th century gothic Hôtel de Ville. The facade of which was covered in scaffolding that obscured one of the town’s most famous emblems: a small iron monkey.
Le Singe du Grand Garde, as it is known, is something of a local mystery. No one seems to know when it was attached to the Hôtel de Ville, or why. What people do know, is that rubbing the monkey’s head with your left hand (yes, I realise how that sounds) while making a wish, will make your wish come true. Behind the Hôtel de Ville is a peaceful garden and a pretty museum dedicated to the Doudou.
It was a lovely sunny autumn day, warm enough to pull up an outdoor chair at one of the many restaurants on the Grand Place. I had lunch and sampled a local beer while watching the world go by. Afterwards, I wandered around the quiet streets. In an area south of the Grand Place, I found myself admiring several pieces of street art dedicated to 1950s pulp fiction-style Hollywood films.
Belgian street art seems to be alive and well, and I saw several other artworks on my meanderings. It complimented my earlier visit to the Beaux-Arts Mons, which had an exhibition of Fernando Botero’s works. A day in Mons was just enough to get a feel for the city, but not enough to really get under the skin of this fascinating place. Luckily, it’s less than an hour from Brussels. We’ll be back.