I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of Mechelen before I began planning my trip to Flanders, but I was soon won over by the vast and varied historical legacy this city has to offer, and it became a must-see place on my list.
Arriving in Mechelen, it was clear that my instincts were correct – around every corner I’d find a piece of the past, whether in the shadow of St. Rumbold’s Tower or standing opposite a brewery with a story to tell. Now I’ve seen the sights for myself, I feel duty-bound to make other tourists add this unique place to their Belgian itinerary.
Palace of Margaret of Austria
At one stage, Mechelen was actually the capital of the Low Countries, so it was an immensely powerful place. This was largely due to the influence of Margaret of Austria, who chose to base her court here in the 16th century. Today you can cast your mind back hundreds of years as you step into the unnervingly calm palace gardens, where Margaret would have wandered.
My guide, Florie Wilberts from Tourism Mechelen, filled me in on Margaret’s unusual story. With one arranged marriage annulled and two promising marriages leaving her twice widowed by the age of 23, I’m sure the 16th century equivalent of the Daily Mail would have had a field day regarding her love life – she even turned down a match with Henry VII. Besides this, she was a strong woman who moved the government of Savoy to her Mechelen palace, negotiated peace treaties, made important trade deals and became a patron of the arts. If you want to read more about her, there’s a brilliant write-up here by the Freelance History Writer.
I’ve touched on the topic of beguinages before, but now I finally had the chance to see what they’re really like. Often described as ‘a town within a town’ with their own bakeries, churches and shops, these were places where women and children lived, often in shared accommodation, in a religious but not overly strict environment, either in a convent or a house. Florie summed them up best: “Beguinages were the economic motor of the community,” she said. The business element that the beguines worked for is now lost, but the buildings remain.
The two beguinages in Mechelen can be found next to each other, though there is no wall or boundary marking where the rest of the city ended and the closed community began. Today the houses are in high demand, with the cobbled streets and picturesque window boxes unsurprisingly appealing to buyers. In fact, the residents are so proud of where they live that they don’t tend to bother with curtains, knowing that people will be admiring them and peeking through the windows.
Het Anker Brouwerij
The beguine community brewed their own beer here for nearly 400 years before Het Anker was bought for commercial use in 1872. The star product is award-winning Golden Carolus Classic, but popular variants include the Ambrio (made to a 14th century recipe) and the Christmas edition, reintroduced in 2002. However, the newest product from the brewery isn’t even a beer at all – it’s a single malt whisky, called Golden Carolus Tripel.
Whilst we explored the Het Anker grounds, Florie explained that the beguines used beer for medicinal purposes, because of the nutrients it provided; the brewery was therefore close to the crankenhuys (hospital). Modern beer fans might not be able to get away with using their favourite tipple as medicine, but they can indulge their enthusiasm by taking a tour of the brewery.
Vismarkt and the Dyle Towpath
When it comes to eating out, the best place to browse tempting menus is the Vismarkt, which used to house the local fish market. Whilst fish still makes an appearance at many of the trendy restaurants, you’ll also find everything from pasta to steak on offer. I chose delicious meatballs and frites at one of the riverside restaurants, Cirque, and was really impressed.
Having toasted lunch with a glass of Golden Carolus Classic (what else?!), I was shown how to walk on water – well, pretty much – by strolling along the wooden towpath that sits on top of the Dyle river. This is a great way to see the city from a different angle and take a breather from the busy streets filled with cyclists.
St. Rumbold’s Tower
As long as you’re not afraid of heights, you should definitely attempt the challenge of climbing Mechelen’s iconic tower. There are 513 steps to get through, but thankfully you can stop off at regular intervals to catch your breath and to find out more about the inner workings of the famous carillon, which consists of 98 bells. I also loved spotting antique graffiti carved by other climbers over the centuries.
Once you’ve watched the bells chime (they do this every eight minutes, so you won’t have to wait long), power on through to the sky walk at the very top of the tower, as I did. There’s no spire here as it was never completed, but instead you’re rewarded with panoramic view that stretches all the way to the edge of Brussels if the weather is in your favour! As a post-climb treat, pop into the Sava restaurant with a Sense-sations voucher booklet from the Tourist Office and you can enjoy a well-deserved free slice of beer-infused apple pie whilst admiring views across the Grote Markt.
This incredible museum needed a blog post of its own. There’s just no simple way to sum up an attraction that deals with human rights, the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism all in one cleverly designed space. It sits opposite the Dossin barracks, where over 25,000 people (Jews and Roma) were held before being transported unknowingly to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The train tracks that used to run past the barracks have been replaced by a ring road and the city itself has undergone great transformations since the 1940s, but the story of those sent to the death camps won’t be forgotten. I’ll be taking you through the museum in much more detail in my next post.
There’s much more to Flanders than the battlefields and the buzzing city of Brussels, and Mechelen is proof of that. You should definitely add this destination to your list!
Visiting Note: The easiest way to reach the city is by train. There are two train stations, but Mechelen-Nekkerspoel is closest to the Grote Markt, and it’s an easy walk to reach the main attractions.
Disclaimer: This trip was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders and input from Tourism Mechelen. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please see www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.