I don’t suppose too many people have heard of Mechelen in Belgium – I have to confess I hadn’t until I was offered the opportunity to attend a Conference there and what a little gem it turned out to be!
It is a small city (as it has a cathedral) with a population of approximately 85,000 situated on the River Dyle, between Brussels and Antwerp in the Flanders area of Belgium, but is within easy commuting distance: 25km south/20 minutes by train from Antwerp, 25km north/25 minutes by train from Brussels, as well as being 25km northwest/20 minutes from Leuven and 78km from Ghent. It’s actually only 180km from Amsterdam and 350km from London (just over 2 hours on the Eurostar and a local train). The airport is very close – indeed the (4*) Novotel Mechelen Centrum Hotel seemed to be a popular stop over for airline crew.
It is a very friendly place – one of my colleagues was served refreshments in the Conference by a lady who later recognised him in a nearby supermarket and wished him a pleasant stay, then echoed by other local shoppers!
The Tower of St Rumbold’s Cathedral dominates the skyline and offers fantastic views at the top – once you’ve climbed over 520 steps to get there! The tower is incomplete, as potential subsidence issues prevented its completion and therefore its claim to fame as the tallest church tower in Belgium – an honour currently resting with the cathedral in Antwerp. Nevertheless, as Mechelen is home to the world famous Carillon School (church bells played via a keyboard), it does house 2 carillons which are still in use today.
Next to the Cathedral is a rather strange giant yellow sculpture of a man lying on his back with his feet in the air – this is Opsinjoorke, a fictitious figure from local folklore who was reputedly a drunk and a wife beater. Much of Mechelen’s history and folklore revolves round the product of its breweries as the city’s nickname is ‘Maneblussers’ or Moon Extinguishers, after the brave attempt to fight a fire high up in St Rumbold’s tower (actually caused by a red moon shining through the windows) presumably observed by imbibers of too much beer!
There are lots of squares (although the oldest ones are actually triangular in shape), like the Vismarkt (fish market) with bars and restaurants along the canal and a very friendly atmosphere in which to sample the local brew – products of the Het Anker Brewery which we were shown round and then had a delicious meal at, washed down with three types of Gouden Carolus beers (they produce and distribute over 16 different beers, 4 sakes and a single malt whisky). Not only can you visit the brewery, dine and taste the beer, but part of it operates as a hotel as well.
As you would perhaps expect in Benelux countries, innovative interior design is to the fore– the Convention Centre was the old (Lamot) brewery, the (4*) Mercure Ve Hotel was originally two warehouses and the (4*) Martin’s Patershof Hotel where we were entertained with a beer pairing workshop, used to be a church. (In Belgium it is traditional to serve food rather than snacks when drinking beer). Here we tried a local delicacy – Mechelen cou cou (chicken served in a rich beer sauce). We also took the opportunity during our stay to sample other dishes like frites (chips) and mayonnaise and churros. After all, when in Belgium...
Mechelen was a prominent city for historical art. Painters and sculptors were attracted by the patronage of Margaret of York and Margaret of Austria (honoured in a statue in the city) and there remain numerous examples of these works today in the many churches and museums. They include ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ painted by Rubens (St Rumbold’s Cathedral) and in the square bearing his name, a sculpture of the composer Beethoven, whose grandfather lived in Mechelen.
All in all, there are over 300 hundred protected monuments in Mechelen. In the 16th century, Flanders was famous for tapestry and a highlight of the city today is the De Wit Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry Museum, located itself in the historical Refuge Abbey of Tongerlo. It is the only place in the world that restores medieval tapestries.
Mechelen prides itself on being family friendly –there is a very large Toy Museum, Plankendeal (a zoo) and Technopolis (a science and technology museum), as well as parks and open spaces to let off steam, child friendly city walks and hotels. A different slant on getting to see Mechelen is to play City Golf – 6 or 9 holes or beer themed, take a circuitous route round Mechelen, with golf club in hand, play off a purple mat tee, mind your head, watch the river, dodge pedestrians and perhaps tee off from under St Rumbold’s Tower. Even a visit to Kazerne Dossin – now the site of the Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights – but for 2 years from 1942, the assembly point for the transportation of more than 25,000 Jewish people and gypsies to Auschwitz, can be made child friendly.
So much of what happened and why, can be told through the experiences of one of the thousands of children who were involved. It is an exceptionally moving place, as so many similar historical sites are, but is a living museum in that each of the people transported has a chronological plaque on the wall – over 20,000 have an individual verified history and as family members come forward with their stories, even now, new pictures and history are added. I couldn’t believe how close to the centre of town these old barracks were, but what it also aims to illustrate is how often this type of mass violence has been replicated since and is still happening today.
Strolling round Mechelen is easy – there is always the river and the Cathedral Tower to act as landmarks. There is an interesting mix of architectural styles, a labrynth of narrow streets, sometime called beguinages (after the Beguins: women who did not want to or who could not enter a convent, so were set up as brewers and lived on these streets) and a selection of well known brands and individual shops on the largely pedestrianised streets of De Bruul, IJzerenleen, Onze Lieve Vrouwestraat.
I didn’t get chance to walk or take a boat trip along the river or visit the Art Nouveau Ursuline Winter Gardens – so that will have to wait for another visit.
There is more than sufficient to see and do in this little town for a day or two, but I think it truly comes into its own as a base for visiting other parts of Flanders – what could be better than returning at the end of each day to somewhere you can relax, sit in a friendly square and eat and drink local delicacies? And don’t forget – if you travel on Eurostar to Brussels, local rail travel is included in the cost of your ticket, but only on the same dates of travel.