Hainaut is an area rich with cultural heritage and historic experiences.
This Belgian region has several UNESCO World Heritage listed properties, areas and constructions and also a few historical events on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The areas multiple well preserved historical city centres are also a must visit when in the region. We visited Hainaut to explore the cultural scene and were quite taken aback by the variety and the uniqueness of the area. Since we wanted to explore large parts of Hainaut, we booked a hotel in the city of Mons, hired a car and drove our way through the region in search of a cultural experience.
We were not disappointed!
Here Are Some Highlights of Our Cultural Exploration of Hainaut:
Triobalade and the Le Passenger
To start out our cultural exploration, we started off by doing a guided trip in the city closest to our hotel, the city of Mons. Mons is a great historical city to explore, and what better way to do it than in a private, 3 wheel vehicle? We went for the Triobalade experience! We started our guided sightseeing trip across Mons with the wooden art construction called Le Passenger. Le Passenger is placed at the gateway to the Grand Place, the heart of Mons. Our driver told us about the construction, the history of it and that this edition of the construction was the second, after the first one partly collapsed in 2015, about a year after it first was finished. The construction is created to mimic the flow of the people in Mons, and is painted in strong, warm colors as a wave across the Grand Place main entrance.
During the Triobalade sighseeing trip we criss-crossed through the streets of the city, visiting a lot of the significant places and areas, including the Grand Place with the City Hall and a sculpture of a monkey bringing good fortune if stroking it with your left hand. We also passed by the Civic Museum and ended up at the Dou Dou museum to learn more about this very special, UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage event.
The Dou Dou Festival and Museum
The Dou Dou festival is an eight day, UNESCO listed festival that annualy takes place in the city of Mons. It is always held on Trinity Sunday, 57 days after Easter. The festival was held the first time as a religious procession in 1349 as a reaction to the city being touched by the plague. After the religious procession, the plague miraculously disappeared. Over the years the festival has changed and adapted to the changes of times, and it now contains a mix of religious events and entertainment of less religious origin. The Dou Dou festival was not held during the French Revolution, in 1803 and during World War 1 and 2. The Dou Dou festival is on the Intangible Cultural Heritage UNESCO list.
After the guided Triobalade trip we were dropped off and visited, the dedicated Dou Dou museum to learn more about the festival, the events happening during the festival week and it’s origin. The museum is spread over multiple levels and you can follow a trail to inside the museum to watch photos and wide screen videos from the very special entertainment, events, battles and parades held during the week long festival. Even though you get a lot of information about the festival when visiting the museum, you will not understand the full concept without visiting Mons when the real event takes place.
The Grand Hornu
After exploring the historic parts of Mons we decided to learn more about another important heritage of the region, the mining tradition. Hainaut has a very strong mining tradition, and there used to be over 300 mines in the area. After closing down the mines, 4 of them were turned and taken into different use. The Grand Hornu is one of the mines turned into a completely different and new location.
Grand Hornu was not only a coal mining company, but the area also had a company town, constructed with small houses around the mining area for the workers to live with their family. The houses are still there and a lot of families with young children are living in the area as the houses are quite cheap compared to other areas. The whole Grand Hornu area was built between 1810 and 1830 and is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list as one of only four industrial sites.
Today the mining construction is owned by the province of Hainaut and holds contemporary arts exhibitions and events.
House of Giants
After learning about the mining traditions at the Grand Hornu, we headed towards the town of Ath, with a very special museum and festival.
The House of Giants is a museum and it is located in the centre of the town of Ath. It hosts giants from around the world during the winter time. The rest of the year the giants are being used in traditional parades and events. The museum opens the door into the world of Giants, and you can learn about the history of the giants, how they are made and how they are used. The creation of the giants runs in the family, and the art of making the giants is delivered from one generation to the next.
In Ath they have a traditional Giants parade and event every 4th weekend of August. This special event is also on the Intangible Cultural Heritage UNESCO list. The event is divided into different stages and starts with burning of the pants of Goliath, a symbolic gesture that is done to mark the ending of his life as a single person, and stepping into marriage. The second stage is the marriage between Mr. and Mrs Goliath, and the battle between David and Goliath. The festival ends with a huge street parade filled with giants. As with the Dou Dou festival, I don’t think visitors can really grasp the whole concept of the festival without visiting during the event week, so if you are into Giants and parades, make sure to visit Ath in late August.
The Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose
From Giants in Ath, we continued our cultural exploration in Hainaut. Our next stop was The Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose located in Lessines. This property is also a part of the Monumental Heritage of Hainaut. It was founded in 1242, and is today known as the last remaining example of a fully-preserved self-sufficient, medieval hospital site. It contains a farm, monastery, hospital, garden with medical herbs and a cemetery. The hospital was dedicated to poor people and all the nuns working there were originally from quite wealthy families. This way they were able to get enought funds to run the hospital for free. The hospital was run for over 650 years and it was only closed down as late as 1987. Today the property is turned into a museum.
When visiting the museum you can see how the treated patients lived during their stay, the medical equipment they used, and learn about the extensive use of medical herbs in their normal cooking as a way to treat the whole person. The property also has a huge selection of paintings, including one of the few paintings showing Jesus with female attributes, as a symbol of being ‘Mother’ of mankind.
Le Canal du Centre
From the century long history at the Hospital of Our Lady with the Rose our roadtrip continued towards a more contemporary cultural site at Le Canal du Centre. Le Canal du Centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hainaut. The system consists of 4 hydraulic boat-lifts located over a distance of 7 kilometres, and represents an industrial monument of the highest quality. Le Canal du Centre with it’s boat lift and canal itself is a well-preserved and complete example of a late 19th century industrial landscape and the only boat lifts from this period still exist in their original working conditions.
The canals and connecting structures were originally created for the transportation of coal from the mines in the area. The construction started in 1884 and the structure was opened in 1917. Each of the lifts covers a change of level of 15-16 metres. The 4 original lifts are now replaced by a new, modern lift for the industry transportation needs on the canals, but the old ones are still in use during the summer season as a leisure offer.
Along the canals there is a nice area for recreational activities. Along the water front there are lots of trees, green grass and there are nice walkways for walking, biking and running. Benches are also spread out along the walkways, so make sure you go for a stroll and just enjoy the view of the canals and the recreational delights the area provides.
Chateu de Chimay
The last stop of our cultural exploration of Hainaut was the small town of Chimay and the Chimay Castle. The Chimay castle was located just by the town centre of Chimay, and has been owned by the Prince of Chimay and his ancestors for centuries. The family still have their home in parts of the castle. Even though the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt lots of times during the past 1000 years (the last time being in a fire in 1935) the castle comes across as well preserved. Reconstruction work is still being done by the current owner and it is possible to visit the castle during most parts of the year, except the winter months.
The castle has a huge art collection, and a fantastic decorated theatre, completed in 1863, where they arrange classical music concerts. The theatre can hold 200 spectators. For children the castle offers tours and half day learning sessions and they can even hold their birthday party at the castle.
Also Learn About the Activities and Food Scene in Hainaut
As you can see, the Hainaut region has a lot to offer for travelers interested in cultural heritage and history and during our week in the area we learned a lot! The experiences took us all over the Hainaut area and in addition to the cultural and historical sites, we also made sure to explore the different activities and the food scene in this exciting region. You can read more about these experiences and watch our interactive videos in these two articles:
Links to the two other Hainaut pages