Hainaut is the westernmost province in the Wallonia region of Belgium, and part of the former County of Hainaut, that included towns that are now in France, such as Cambrai and Valenciennes. Hainaut is a varied province, where one can go for pleasant walks in countryside that is strangely reminiscent of a surrealistic England, visit industrial towns like the ones that used to exist in England; as well as beautiful historic ones that are a 100% Belgian.
The Sambre river flows through the province before joining the Meuse in Namur. Most of the province is simply referred to as 'Hainaut', though a number of distinct regions are defined as well:
- The former industrial regions of Les Pays Noirs ('the Black Country'), around Charleroi, and the Borinage, to the south-west of Mons.
- As the name suggests, Belgian Picardy- which lies around Tournai,Ath and the river Escaut (Scheldt)- has a somewhat French feel.
- The town of Enghien lies in the otherwise Flemish Pajottenland, explaining the town's classic Flemish architecture.
- Some parts of Hainaut, such as the town of Mouscron (Dutch: Moeskroen), are part of the agglomeration that also contains the French city of Lille and the Flemish city of Kortrijk.
- The municipality of Commines-Warneton (Dutch: Komen-Waasten)is a Walloon exclave between Flanders and France.
The big towns
- Mons(pop: 93,072; Dutch: Bergen)- Also known as the ´Bruges of Wallonia´, the historic center of the provincial capital is simply stunning!
- Tournai(pop: 69,593; Dutch: Doornik)- The oldest town in Belgium along with Tongeren, Tournai is a pleasant town on the banks of the Escaut (Scheldt) that boast an impressive four-towered cathedral.
- Charleroi(pop: 201,593; agglomeration: 522,522)- Although the name ´Charleroi Brussels-South Airport´ suggest otherwise, Charleroi is not a suburb of Brussels, but is actually the largest town in Wallonia (being marginaly bigger than Liège). Sadly, it is not the kind of town that most people would want to visit, unless they´re into heavy industry and urban decay (in which case it is paradise). Nonetheless, those who venture into the center will be surprised to find it is friendly and relaxed (and to find that there are also some nice buildings).
- La Louvière - This otherwise reletavily uninteresting industrial town of about 80.000 inhabitants is home to a series of hydraulic boat-lifts that are UNESCO world heritage sites.
Hainaut also contains a number of smaller towns that are worth visiting for their historic architecture:
- Pottes - Municipality that provides for pleasant country walking.
- Spiennes- Village that is the site of the UNESCO World Heritage Neo-lithic Flint Mines.
- The famous painting 'The Potato Eaters' by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh was inspired by the period that he lived in Borinage, where he was a priest. Subsequently, one can visit his former residence in Wasmes.
Some parts of Hainaut are among the poorest of Belgium, and one might need to pay a little attention late at night, for example in the 'Ville-Basse' of Charleroi, though this area is currently undergoing urban renewal. You should have nothing to worry about in most of the province though.