The name of 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 it was 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, and continues 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 town, with a good café society, spread over the hill that gave it its name.
Mons zeroes in on its Grand-Place, a square flanked by terrace cafés and framed by a pleasing medley of substantial stone merchants' houses and narrower brick buildings, both old and new. Presiding over the square is the fifteenth-century Hôtel de Ville; the tiny cast-iron monkey on the front wall is reputed to bring at least a year of happiness to all who stroke him with their left hand – hence his bald, polished crown. The porch of the double-doored gateway on the front of the Hôtel de Ville carries several commemorative plaques. One is for the food sent to the town by the Americans at the end of World War II, another recalls the Canadian brigade who liberated Mons in 1918 and yet another – the most finely executed – honours the bravery of the Irish Lancers, who defended the town in 1914.
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 former colliery complex of Grand-Hornu, industrial heritage at its most diverting. Elsewhere, to the east is the quaint little town of Binche, which boasts one of Belgium's most famous carnivals.