Wallonia’s winning ways
Less than a two-hour drive from Calais or Dunkirk, southern Belgium (Wallonia) has much to offer GTOs looking for new holiday experiences as Stuart Render reports.Wallonia’s unrivalled collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, castles, gardens and museums as well as its colourful festivals, are just some of the reasons that the region is an increasingly attractive destination for tour planners looking for itinerary suggestions that are different, and not too far away.
Mention the name of King Henry VIII in the streets of the Belgian city of Tournai and you’ll likely receive a knowing glance in return. Renowned for its art and history, and now a vibrant and popular destination for visitors from across Europe, Tournai is the oldest city in the country.
Just over five miles from the French border, the city also has the unusual claim of once being British. For six years, from 1513 to 1519, Tournai was ruled by the Tudor King, and the remains of the Henry VIII Tower, built in 1515 to house his soldiers, can still be visited on the edge of the town.
In the impressive Notre-Dame Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage attraction, Romanesque and Gothic styles combine to produce a gem of medieval architecture. Guides leading English-speaking groups point to the marble columns and reveal that Black Marble from Tournai was also used in the construction of Winchester Cathedral.
Close by is the impressive 12th-century Belfry, the oldest in the country. 257 steps take the more agile visitor to the top. It’s quite an endeavour, but the reward is a spectacular view of the city.
Angels and The Doudou
Half an hour to the east is the town of Mons, European Capital of Culture 2015. Winding cobbled streets and alleyways lead the visitor up to the Grand Place, the beautiful central square. Find time to visit the Collegiate Church of Saint Waudru, built by the powerful Canonesses of St Waudru and completed in 1686.
The excellent Mons Memorial Museum, located a short walk from the Grand Place, focuses on the town’s military history. One story, the ‘Angels of Mons’, has entered into folklore. In August 1914, during the Battle of Mons, Commonwealth soldiers found themselves outnumbered by German forces. Looking to retreat, the Allied troops faced some fierce fighting but many were able to return to camp. A rumour then began circulating that angels in the form of archers had been seen in the skies over the battleground, stopping the Germans in their tracks and allowing passage for the Allied troops.
Another important military site is on the outskirts of Mons, where Saint-Symphorien cemetery is the resting place for the first and last British soldiers to die on the Western Front in the First World War.
Whilst Mons is worth a visit at any time, two events stand out that could prove attractive in creating an itinerary for your group.
The ‘Doudou’ is a week-long, spectacular festival of colour, music and entertainment. Taking place during the week leading up to Trinity (in 2020, the date is 7th June), the festival dates from the 14th century when the reliquary of St Waudru, the patron saint of the town, was paraded through the streets to save the town from the plague. It worked! Almost every year since, the people of Mons have paraded the reliquary and a golden coach through the streets, with the festival culminating in a colourful battle between St George and the dragon.
In contrast, each year, on the weekend closest to 3rd September, the town hosts ‘Tanks in Mons’, a major gathering of Second World War tanks and other historical military vehicles. The extremely popular event celebrates the liberation of the town in 1944.
Memorial to Waterloo
On 18 June 1815, the combined armies of the Duke of Wellington (Britain) Marshal Blücher (Prussia) and the Prince of Orange (Netherlands) defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, ending the French Emperor’s dominance over Europe.
Today, the story of the Battle of Waterloo is told through an impressive visitor attraction, ‘Memorial Waterloo 1815’. There are four key parts to the attraction, and undoubtedly the best known is the ‘Lion’s Mound’.
This cast iron sculpture of a lion sits on top of an artificial, 40-metre-high hill, completed in 1826 and, after ascending 226 steps, there are magnificent views from the top of the battlefield site. Inside the attraction, the ‘Panorama’ is a rotunda that houses a 110-metre long, circular painting completed in 1912, which gives a 360 degree view of the battle.
Opened in 2015, to mark the battle’s bicentenary, the underground ‘Memorial Museum’ tells the story of the battle. Uniforms, historical items, animated maps and multimedia animations make this much more than simply a museum.
A free audio guide helps visitors understand what they see as they walk around, while a 20-minute 4D film places the audience at the heart of the battle is a powerful piece of film making – the fourth dimension sees the floor of the room shake as horses charge into battle, and soldiers actually seem to move around you.
Hougoumont Farm, a key battle location, is a short drive away. Seated in a restored, heated barn, visitors are presented with a remarkable film, sound and light presentation that reveals the important role played by the farm.
A visit to the Memorial Museum, the Lion’s Mound, the Panorama and Hougoumont Farm takes around three-and-a-half hours. Group rates are available for parties of 20 or more. The nearby Wellington Museum and Napoleon’s Headquarters are also worth visiting.
Each spring, the unique Annevoie Water Gardens, located mid-way between Dinant and Namur, and famous for an ingenious hydraulic system and gravity that feeds more than 50 cascades, waterfalls and ornamental lakes, plays host to the Venetian Costume Festival. Around 100 people dress in full costume bringing a remarkable splash of colour and creativity to this three-day event.
In 2020 the festival takes place from 1st to 3rd May. Discounted rates and special itineraries including other local attractions available for groups of 20 or more.
For help in putting together an itinerary, contact the Belgian Tourist Office Wallonia in London on:
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, DFDS or P&O Ferries from Dover to Calais or Dunkirk, or take the Eurostar to Lille to join a private coach.
Suggested group-friendly accommodation
Van der Valk Congres Hotel Mons. A 126-bedroom hotel located next to Mons station and just a 10-minute walk into the historic centre. Floreal Le Panoramique. A 46-bedroom hotel set on top of a hill near Tournai.