“The children in Mons learn about this dragon when they are very small. It’s a big deal in this town,” says Natasha Vandenberghe, Director of the Mons Tourism Office. This little town in the South of Belgium is cute and historical, but mostly known for its yearly event, when a man representing St George fights a giant dragon called Doudou. This strange ceremony, known as the Ducasse de Mons, has medieval origins and is held every year on the main square of the town the first Sunday after Pentecost – this year that’s on the 11th of June.
Short of seeing the event yourself on the day it takes place, visitors can get an idea from movies on a giant screen at the Doudou museum. In between crowds of people and much confusion, Saint George sits on his horse and turns clockwise, while the dragon turns in the other direction, a reference to good versus evil. Saint George tries to kill the dragon with his lance but the lance always breaks, so in the end he uses a pistol to kill the dragon with the third weapon.
Saint George is not by himself fighting this dragon, there are groups of helpers in different costumes to either help him or the beast. Of all the costumes involved, the men in the leaves have the hardest time, Vandenberghe adds. These are real ivy leaves sewn onto clothes and kept alive in water until the morning of the fight, when the men have to put on a wet costume.
While all this is going on in the ring, local men try to grab the horsehair that is stuck on the dragon’s tail as if their lives depend on it. “The hair of the tail brings luck, so my husband also goes to grab some each year,” Vandenberghe says. “It’s very rough. He is always shocked when he comes out of the crowd.”
Mons is a town of many superstitions. It starts with the metal monkey statue that an unknown person put into the wall of the town hall a few centuries ago. The creature, which looks very much out of place here, is said to bring luck when you pet its shiny head, and while we stand in front of it, the inhabitants of Mons come and do exactly that. “They can’t just walk by without touching the monkey,” tour guide Mirella Di Renzo laughs.
All this faith started with the founding mother of the town, Sainte Waudru, a noblewoman who became a nun after she had finished to raise her four children. She went to Mons to start a convent and the town grew around it. After her death in 688, she was proclaimed a saint and was canonized in 1039.
Even though she lived in the 7th century, the town people of Mons are sure they have her bones, divided up in two golden reliquary – one for the head and one for the body. We see both in the local collegiate church – an enormous church built in Brabant Gothic style and very fancy for this small town. This was because the thirty ladies of the convent did very well for themselves after Sainte Waudru died. Many of them were nobles to start with, so there was money enough to build this beautiful church. The women were a very powerful force in town until the French revolution, when they were forced to flee.
Pushing the Gilded Cart
Apart from ancient treasures in its many chapels, the church also houses the Car d’Or, a gilded cart, drawn by horses, which is used to take Sainte Waudru’s bones around town every year, right before St George fights his dragon. The procession is another colorful affair, counting more than a thousand costumed participants. At the end of the procession, the Car d’Or has to climb a steep, cobblestone street, the Rampe Sainte-Waudru. To help the horses with the immense weight, hundreds of people gather behind to push. Local superstition holds that if the Car d'Or doesn't reach the top of the hill in one go, the city will suffer great misfortune. According to local myth, this happened in 1803, and what followed was the French Revolution, and according to some also in 1914 and 1940, before the First and Second World Wars. So it’s no wonder the people of Mons do not joke around with their carriage.
The Ducasse is clearly the highlight of the year, but even when the festival is not happening, Mons is an interesting town to visit. There are some striking middle age buildings, like the town hall which started off as a medieval building. In later centuries other parts were added, making a tour here a walk through time. Another striking historic building is the Belfry, which dates from the 17th century and is the only Baroque-style belfry in Belgium. Victor Hugo described it as “a huge coffee pot surrounded by four smaller tea pots.” Now a Unesco world heritage site, you can climb up to the top for a spectacular view.
And even if you are not into climbing towers, there is a wonderful walk through an ancient hidden alley called Ruelle César, which winds up behind old houses to emerge on a summit where you can look down on the old rooftops of Mons.
One interesting place to sleep is the Carnival Room in the Dream Hotel . The bedside tables are made from drums and the carpet resembles a confetti-strewn cobbled street. Most of the 57 rooms in this renovated 19th-century monastery have happy Belgian decorations, from the bowler hat lampshades in the Magritte room to the giant Smurf mural in the Comics Room.
You can book a 'Fall in love with Belgium' tour at: www.goeugo.com/products/-detail-1645.html