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More than 100,000 people in town: the incredible success of Mons 2015

Posted on 25/01/2015

An incredible crowd and atmosphere worthy of the best times of the Ducasse (yearly festival occurring every Trinity Sunday), marked the opening of Mons 2015 as European Capital of Culture.

The opening of Mons 2015 met a success beyond all expectations especially if one thinks of the polar temperature that invaded the city after a snowy Saturday morning and an afternoon under the cold winter sun.

From 18 pm, more than 100,000 people invaded the city enjoying a party that lasted well after midnight. The Foundation Mons 2015 and the city are very satisfied with this magic figure considering that the city centre has a population of just 10,000.

Everything went well, although there were times with high attendance density, such as the moment of the incredible display of "chromatic Wings" on the Grand Place at 21:30. At that moment not one square inch was available and the shoving, the human crush, and the rushes to leave the square were tremendous.

This was the only downside, but organizers expected it and had warned that it was not possible for everyone to attend the twenty announced shows for that day, obliging visitors to make choices as some places were more crowded than others, like the gardens of the belfry or                St. Waudru collegiate.

However, frustration was quickly forgotten in the countless pubs or restaurants of the city. This is indeed another success of this popular event: the cold boosted the Horeca sector. You had literally to fight on Saturday night to get a drink or find a table available for a snack, "This is incredible," said the restorer of the Marché-aux-Herbes, "barely 10 pm and I'm already on my fourth service."

After such a crazy night, Mons and Mons 2015 are now entering a form of "routine" with the first of the 300 reported events: this morning at 10 am, the Van Gogh exhibition at the Borinage, inaugurated yesterday by the King and Queen of Belgium, opened its doors to the public in a groggy city after a night of glare and celebration.





Mystery of the War HelmetMartin BanksMartin Banks


By Martin Banks

Posted on 13/01/2015

A Flemish family have turned detective to trace the well-connected owner of a piece of hardware from the Second World War which had been in their possession for over 40 years. 

After months of pain-staking research Jean-Marie Gillis and his wife Martine Callewaert discovered that the military helmet gathering dust in a cupboard of their Belgian home belonged to one Dennis Clementi, a descendant of the famous Italian musician Muzio Clementi, who personally knew Mozart and is buried in Westminster Abbey in London.


The father and grandfather of Col. Clementi, who served in the Corps of Royal Engineers, were officers in the Indian Army.

As part of their Remembrance activities in November, the civic authorities in Knokke-Heist on the Belgian coast handed over the helmet to their counterparts in Fordingbridge in England where Col. Clementi lived and, at the age of 91, died in 2000.

The well-maintained helmet has now been donated to the Museum of the Royal Engineers in Gillingham, Kent where it will go on display to the general public.

The Gillis family, who live in Knokke-Heist, have had the helmet since the early 1970s but even Jean-Marie says he can no longer recall how it came to be in their possession.  "To be honest, it´s all a bit of a mystery as to how we came by it," he said. "But when we started to research the helmet´s history and its ownership it turned out to be a rather fascinating story."

With 2015 being a key year for military anniversaries, notably in June the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, combining a visit to the Royal Engineers Museum with the many other attractions in Kent makes for an ideal short break.

Any winter trip should take in Dover Castle, one of the most striking and best preserved of England's castles with tunnels deep in the cliffs which were so significant during WW2 and now include a vivid recreation of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Just up the road, Walmer Castle recalls some key political figures in Walmer's history, including its role in hosting military planning when William Pitt the Younger met his ministers at the castle to plan the country’s defence from invasion by Napoleon and how, years later, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's cabinet met to plan the Dardanelles Campaign during the early months of WW1.

As 2015 marks 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo, the story of the Duke of Wellington's later life is also vividly told at Walmer. As Lord Warden of the Cinque ports Wellington spent many years at Walmer Castle and it was here that he died in 1852.

With the acclaimed movie "Mr Turner" proving a hit with cinema goers in Belgium and elsewhere, you should try to visit the new Turner Contemporary Art Gallery in nearby Margate which is dedicated to the great English artist and whose latest display, "Self Image and Identity", presents more than 100 artist self-portraits from the 16th century to present day. The museum is situated of the site of Sophia Booth´s guest house where JMW Turner spent some time during the last 25 years of his life.

After touring the museum's world-class exhibitions try to catch its delightful cafe which boasts local beers, lovely modern seasonal cuisine and stunning views across Margate bay.

Another great local attraction is the quite fascinating and very mysterious Shell Grotto, made of 4.6 million shells, 70 feet of winding underground passages leading directly to a rectangular chamber of 2000 square feet of mosaic.

Also well worth a visit nearby is Wildwood Wild Animal Park, a woodland discovery park with over 200 native animals set in 40 acres of beautiful ancient woodland. Kids will love the adventure playground, including a zip wire and Kent´s tallest vertical drop slide.

An excellent base for overnight accommodation is the wonderful 30-room Botany Bay Hotel at Broadstairs, said to be Charles Dickens´s favourite holiday home, which boasts an unrivalled cliff top beer garden and is owned by Faversham-based Shepherd Neame, which dates back 500 years and is the UK´s oldest brewer.

A stylish, contemporary coastal retreat overlooking one of Britain’s most spectacular beaches and located on the magnificent clifftop at Kingsgate, this 3-star hotel has just undergone an impressive € 1.8 million refurbishment. Just a stone´s throw from the beach, this well-appointed hotel also features a fine a la carte restaurant and "Orangery" bar with perhaps the best view in Kent where diners can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the sea while choosing from a mouth-watering menu of classic British cuisine, with seafood a speciality.

A fine alternative base might be the equally delightful 20-room Sands Hotel in Margate town centre, an exciting and tastefully-designed new hotel and restaurant with stunning views over Margate Sands and skies above Thanet described by the artist Turner as "the loveliest in all Europe." Guests can relax and enjoy time spent in a beautifully restored building, with lovely views out to sea.

Managing Director Nick Conington, who is also involved in eagerly-awaited restoration of the town´s famous Dreamland heritage theme park, says the hotel's design and décor takes its inspiration from the magnificent seascape, with the vast open skies, sparkling sands and drama of the sea all influencing the choices for colour and lighting.

The two hotels, both highly recommended, are ideally situated very close to the newly-connected Viking coastal trail where you can explore dramatic scenery and a wealth of local historical gems.

For those travelling on a budget, a terrific eating option is Margate's "Great British Pizza Co", notable not just for its very flavoursome pizzas, cooked in a wood-fired oven and using the best of Kent produce, but also for the many accolades it has received, including inclusion in the Guardian´s "top 10 budget restaurants."

Margate is a traditional English seaside resort currently undergoing a period transition and development but one which continues to attract thousands of visitors to its pleasant Old Town, Blue Flag beaches, Victorian bathing pools and some fine buildings, such as the Theatre Royal, a lovely Georgian theatre with a programme of touring dance, drama and established comedy acts. 

The WW2 helmet uncovered by the Gillis family from Belgium will be on display at the Royal Engineers Museum which has lots of other things to see, everything from armoured vehicles to rare skills from China and is where you can learn about the Corps of Royal Engineers - Col Clementi's regiment - and the different countries they have visited.


Kent has never been easier to reach from Belgium and, with the February school half term break looming, a quick 90-minute cross-channel ferry makes for an ideal way to help                                                                                                              discover the best of this pretty county.

P&O Ferries has 23 daily crossings on the Calais/Dover route, with prices for a day trip starting from € 24 return (same calendar day). A long stay (over 5 days) costs from € 39 each way while a short break is from € 44 return. All prices are for one car and up to nine passengers. Upgrade to club lounge and add a little luxury for as little as € 14 per person.

So, with one of Kent's many fine museums now boasting a brand new donation from Flanders, it seems a great time to pay a visit to the "Garden of England", not just for its military connections but much more besides.


By Martin Banks for EU Spectator