The Mole Diaries: Mons, Belgium
Jess Dunhill is in the final year of her Joint Honours French and Spanish degree at the University of Southampton. She spent her year abroad studying at the Université de Mons (UMONS), in Mons, Belgium. She says, "I chose to study in Belgium since I wanted to go to a French-speaking country, but perhaps somewhere a bit more central within Europe so I was able to travel to other countries – something I can definitely say I did while I was there!" Here is her insider guide to living in the city.
1. What to Pack
The weather in Mons, and Belgium in general, is relatively similar to that of England. I would say that winters are colder though, and there is a lot more chance of snow! Luckily, the Belgians are more well-equipped to deal with the adverse weather than us Brits, but my advice is to definitely come prepared with a decent winter coat, thermals and a sturdy pair of boots for those chilly winter mornings.
2. Finding Accommodation
Finding somewhere to live was my first challenge in Belgium, since I wasn’t told I hadn’t been accepted into university halls until quite late on in the year! Luckily, there are lots of websites around to help students find legitimate accommodation. I personally used ‘Student.be’, which allowed me to view flats and contact the landlords directly about property viewings at quite short notice. UMONS also has a Facebook group specifically aimed at people who need accommodation, where landlords and current students post about current availability of properties, so it is well worth joining the group to see what’s available. It’s also worth noting that in Belgium, some properties are advertised with ‘charges comprises’ (bills included) so it is worth double checking whether this is the case with the landlord before you sign anything.
3. Things to do in Mons
Despite being relatively small, Mons does have the classic ‘typical European city’ vibe. There is definitely something for every type of tourist. If you’re interested in culture, there are tours up the Belfry Tower (free entry on the first Sunday of the month) as well as guided tours around the Town Hall and city in general. One particular place of interest is the little metal monkey outside the Town Hall, as legend has it that if you rub its head, you get good luck for the whole year! If food is your passion, the Grand Place is filled with restaurants which vary from typical Belgian, to Italian, to Moroccan as well as lots of bars serving typical Belgian beers. If you’re searching for something more familiar language-wise Citizen Fox and Texas Coffeehouse are both English-speaking establishments. Citizen Fox is an Irish Bar which serves bar food (burgers, nachos etc) and Texas Coffeehouse is a café with arguably the best hot chocolate in the city. If you’re looking for retail therapy, there is a large shopping street close to the centre of Mons, though many of the ‘normal’ English shops (H&M, New Look, Zara) can all be found at the shopping centre just outside of town. If you’re a history fan, you might well be aware that there was a Battle of Mons in WW1, and there is a tank festival held in September every year! There is also an ex-prisoner of war camp (now used as a working prison). The Tourist Information has information on all of the above activities, and as well as being a very useful source of information, it also rents out bikes by the day – ideal if you’re a keen cyclist or would rather see the city in a typical European way!
4. The Belgian University System
The main thing that threw me about the university system here is the fact that you create your own timetable. It is unnerving, having to organise it entirely by yourself, especially since it is practically handed to us on a plate in the UK, and it took me a while to I understand fully what I was supposed to be doing! However, other elements of the system are like the UK. They have different faculties within the university, and most faculties have their own campus, or share a campus with similar subjects. I used the university website to find out the key details of my faculty, as most of the information you will need will be online. The final thing I ought to mention is that they start classes around 8am here, which was definitely a shock to the system! I’m almost looking forward to going back home and the luxury of starting at 9am!
5. Exploring Belgium and Neighbouring Countries
Definitely make the most of cheap train tickets whilst you can! If you’re aged between 16 and 26 there is the GoPass1, which allows you to travel anywhere within the country for just over 6 euros one way! This is such an easy and cheap way to discover Belgium – my top 3 cities to visit are Brussels, Bruges and Eupen.
As well as national travel, international travel is extremely cheap. I have crossed all 4 of Belgium’s borders with ease, most of the time you just have to hop on a train to Brussels (only 40 mins away by train) and change there to get to your preferred destination! Trips to Maastricht (NL), Aachen (D), Lille (Fr) and Luxembourg City (L) are all around €15 return (Luxembourg is a little more expensive at €25 return). I would definitely recommend a trip to both Aachen and Luxembourg City in the winter whilst the Christmas Markets are on, since they are typical German-Style markets with the most amazing Glühwein and other tasty German delicacies!
Homesickness is such a huge worry for so many people who go abroad for a year. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t affect your year abroad, but I will try and offer advice as to how and try and beat it. The first thing to do is plan things to distract you. This could be day/weekend trips with your new Erasmus friends to neighbouring cities/countries or maybe just going to the cinema or the shopping centre – just something to take your mind off the fact that you’re missing home.
Another thing I would suggest is to research your university term dates online, and use any bank holidays to visit home or other friends who are also on their YA. Doing this then gives you something to look forward to, as well as giving you a sense of familiarity or normality in the midst of all this unknown, even if just for a couple of days.
For 20% off the booking fee for your accommodation abroad, visit UniPlaces.com and use code THIRDYEARABROAD :)
Our Mole Diaries are insider city guides written by students about their experiences, filled with top tips and recommendations. Please view our 200+ Mole Diaries arranged by language, and if you'd like to contribute, do find out more about becoming a Mole!