Mechelen is a small, but historic, Flemish city, squeezed into the gap between the mammoth sea-port of Antwerp, and the ever-swelling capital, Brussels. It's far from overshadowed by these heavyweight destinations, though. In fact, you could say it manages to ring out loud-and-clear above the clamour of both of them.
Not just as a centre of Flemish arts, with fascinating heritage and fabulous architecture (and more 'listed' buildings per square metre than even Bruges) – but also because it is home to the Royal Carillon School of Jef Denyn.
Mechelen's bell-tower (or carillon) may only have been half-finished, but this bell-ringing school remains the oldest and biggest in the world.
Half-finished houses and challenged ambitions are a speciality, here in Mechelen. Its cathedral of St. Rumbold was meant to have been the tallest tower in the world – at 600 Mechlinian feet – when the founding stone was laid in 1200.
Shortage of money, and the decidedly squishy marshlands that the city is built on, put paid to that lofty goal. It was eventually finished – just three-centuries late, and 300 Mechlinian feet under-sized. 'Mechlinian' feet? Well, that's 550-feet in old money, and an indication of how the Mechelaars like to do things their own way. Another is the local language – Mechlinian of course – which is Flemish Dutch, but with peculiarities that often have other Dutch-speakers (of the Brabantic variety) turning their ears up.
The Mechelaars also have a distinct take on parades – the biggest isn't the usual annual affair, instead only coming to town once every 25 years – and on food (Mechelen cuckoo anyone?).
And the nickname of the townspeople – 'Maneblussers', or moon-extinguishers – takes some beating in the long line of quirky names for Belgian townspeople.
But one thing that the Mechelaars do share with the rest of Flanders is a love of beer. And who wouldn't love the fruits of that passion – one of Belgium's most storied and successful brewers, Het Anker, with its famous Lucifer and Golden Carolus beverages.
Let's wind the clock back, and start our tale of Mechelen at the beginning – and a 28-foot long dug-out canoe.The canoe in question is the oldest evidence of those who settled here, and is a few thousand years old. It was hollowed from a single oak trunk, and was used by the first inhabitants to navigate this marshy stretch of the River Dijle, in the 5th century BC. Then Mechelen was just a Celtic settlement of five wooden huts.
And it remained a small village, even as the Romans came, saw and slunk-off, in the 3rd century AD. The German tribes that followed them made a more substantial settlement here, in the 4th century.
That's when the first of the British connections – which thread through Mechelen's history – came into play. The local saint, Rumbold, who converted these pagan German tribes to Christianity in the 6th century, was most likely a wandering Scottish missionary.
He became a saint after his murder at the hands of two men he had denounced. And as a saint, his relics naturally became a draw for hordes of pilgrims; the 'tourists' of the Dark Ages. As the town prospered, it was decided to build a cathedral to house St. Rumbold's remains – and in 1200 it was started.
Like many Flemish towns, Mechelen was also doing well out of the wool trade, and it did even better when the Duke of Brabant, John II, granted City status – and rights as 'first seller' for wool – to Mechelen in 1303. Other 'woolly-towns' in the Brabant, naturally enough, were not pleased – especially Antwerp, which had been 'first seller' until then.
By 1473, Mechelen had become the political capital of one of the biggest powers in Europe –the Duchy of Burgundy, under Charles the Bold. This is when the city's British connections came to the fore again – and when the story of Mechelen's 'Two Margarets' began.
The Two Maggies
The first of Mechelen's Margarets was Margaret of Burgundy. She was one of the most powerful women in northern Europe in the 15th-century, and lived in Mechelen from 1477 until 1503. But she was first called Margaret of York, and was the daughter of Richard Plantagnet, as well as sister to two kings of England – Edward IV and Richard III.
Born in Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, she was known as a tall, slender and clever woman. She proved skilful at the 15th-century 'game of thrones', both for herself and her husband, Charles the Bold – and for her adopted Burgundy.
She helped Burgundy dance the tricky conflict between England and France, and convinced her husband to help her brothers in England, in their numerous times of crisis. Even after the death of Charles, she continued to play the game.
Margaret, now the Dowager Duchess, forged an Anglo-Burgundian alliance that kept the French at bay, and she got her step-daughter Mary to marry Burgundy into a powerful alliance – through Maximilian of Habsburg, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. She also became known as a patron for vivid manuscripts and books, kept in her palatial Gothic house in Mechelen, where she died in1503.
The second Margaret, who eventually became Archduchess Margaret of Austria, was born from that arranged marriage between Mary and Maximilian of Habsburg.
She was elected as ruler of the Low Countries in 1506 – the only woman ever to manage this – and she built a new palace in Mechelen, the Hof van Savoye.
This is widely thought to be the first Renaissance-style building in northern Europe. She ruled the Low Countries for her nephew until 1515 – helping develop the region's cloth-trade, which bought it so much wealth – and then ruled the area again, from 1519-30.
Like Margaret of Burgundy, she too became known as a patron of arts, music, and manuscripts, commissioning works like the 'Très Riches Heures' – considered the finest French Gothic manuscript illumination in existence.
Her palace was a centre of Renaissance culture, with a famous library, and she was visited by philosophers of the time, like Erasmus. She too died in Mechelen, in 1530.
After the time of the 'Two Margarets', Mechelen's fortunes dwindled.
The capital of the Low Countries was moved to Brussels, and in 1572 the city was burned to the ground by the Spanish, during the Eighty Years' War. It became less famous as a city of power, and more as a city of exquisite crafts.
Getting There & Getting About
Sitting as close to Brussels as it does, those wanting get fly in to Mechelen normally choose the National Airport at Brussels. This has excellent connections to regional airports in the UK, including Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, as well as Heathrow. From there you can either take the train, or hire a car to Mechelen, 24 kilometres/15 miles north.
If you decide to come into Mechelen by rail, you'll find the journey a simple, and welcoming, one. As the very first place in Europe to have a railway, Mechelen has always been well-connected, with Brussels and Antwerp just 25 minutes away.
And when you step out of the station, you'll find a stone pillar, the 'De Mijlpaal', which marks the place where the first passenger-train ride on the European mainland slid to a halt.
As a small city, which has piled its attractions high in the city centre, Mechelen is one of those Belgian cities where walking is both easy and a pleasure.
It's also a great city to cycle around, though there are only a few bus routes, mainly connecting the centre to the suburbs and surrounding villages.
Like most Belgian cities and towns, Mechelen provides for the budget traveller with hostels, but the two main ones here are kept out of the centre, on the ring-road. You will find communal sleeping rooms, family and double-rooms, all at good rates, in clean and modern hostels.
Many visitors to Mechelen, though – wowed no doubt by its quaint architectural delights – are keen to stay nearer the city centre, which is one of the prettiest in Belgium. And Mechelen's hotels don't disappoint.
You will find accomodation around the 'Vismarkt' (fish-market), now a trendy part of town, and centrally located close to attractions like St. Rumbold's cathedral. These area's are all well-served by bars and restaurants. There are also several bigger modern hotel chains on the city's outskirts – functional and cheaper, if not as convenient or beautiful.
Being something of a student-town, Mechelen can also offer a personal touch, with good rates, at its many B&B's. Camping is an option, as it is for many Belgian cities.
The 'Nekker Provincial Sports and Recreation Centre' has a pitch, located next to the river, as well as cabins and a youth hostel.
There is also a camping section in the elegant surroundings of 'Abdijsite Roosendael', a former abbey which also provides wonderful hotel accommodation, a mile or two out-of-town.
For The Love Of Beer
Mechelen's got history,when it comes to beer. It made a name for itself among the beer-drinking elite even in the 16th-century. No less a person than Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was said to enjoy a tipple of the 'Mechelsen Bruynen' back in the day.
In his own words, 'the daughter of the grain is superior to the blood of the grape'.
The city's most famous brewery, 'Het Anker', can trace its pedigree (a little tenuously maybe) to those times. In 1596, nuns from a Mechelen convent set up the 'Hospice de Beaune', to treat those ill or near-death.
Naturally enough they turned to a spot of on-site brewing to both treat and comfort their patients (beer being so much better for them than the local water at the time).
Het Anker's founder, Louis van Breedam, bought the building from the nuns in 1865.
He apparently chose the name in honour of Mechelen's first maltster, Jan In Den Anker – and for the role his beers would play in 'anchoring the soul' (Het Anker means 'the anchor'). Amen to that. These days Het Anker is better known for a more diabolical beverage – the Lucifer, a well-liked and powerful pale ale – as well as the set of ales linked back to Charles V ('Gouden Carolus') and the city beer 'Maneblusser'.
That's where Het Anker really made their name – with the 'Gouden Carolus', or 'Golden Charles', and its wonderfully rich 'pudding-in-a-glass' taste, which they started brewing in 1963.
Dark, sweet and packed with heady mix of fig, burnt raisin and caramel flavours, Gouden Carolus can be taken hard (the Classic at 8.5% ABV), harder (the more spicy Tripel, 9% ABV), or very hard (the Cuvée van de Keizer, 11% ABV), there's also a Gouden Carolus 'Hopsinjoor', 'Ambrio' and a Christmas and Easter version.
The beer has even been used as the feed-stock (unhopped) for a very special whisky – the Gouden Carolus Single Malt. You can try these, and many other beers, at 't Ankertje aan de Dijle', the brewer's brown cafe on the river, housed in a pretty 18th-century building in the 'Vismarkt'.
And as a town trading on its old world charm, you'll find many other pubs and cafés, where character and great beer sit easy with one another. Be sure to check our own thoroughly selected Beer Tourism Destinations.
Food & Gastronomy
As a small-city escape for many of the big-city type (usually from nearby Brussels and Antwerp) Mechelen has a fine-cuisine reputation. There are a number of excellent eateries and classy restaurants, bespoke-fit for these well-heeled visitors.
The famous town square, the 'Grote Markt', is where you'll find many of the best – alongside the usual scattering of brand-name standards - serving in-season Flemish specialities, alongside a fine selection of beery beverages). Things piscine - river fish and freshwater shellfish – feature high on the menu of most.
Those menu often also boast a superb selection of fresh vegetables, to complement traditional Flemish fare. Mechelen is well-known for its fertile soil, helping nurture many fine-and-tender vegetables. Asparagus, cauliflower and (of course) 'witloof', the Belgian endive, are all prized here. It is even said that the asparagus grown around Mechelen are the best in the world.
And the largest co-operative vegetable market in Europe, the 'Mechelse Veilingen', is based in the village of Sint-Katelijne-Waver, just north of town. Try as you might, though, you can't avoid also the (dubious-sounding) pleasure of the 'Mechelen-cuckoo' – a dish that conjures up a vision of taking the Flanders 'eat all, eat well' motif a little too far. But put your fears to rest.
The famous dish of 'Mechelse koekoek' doesn't consist of a broiled 'herald of spring', but instead of a fillets of a specially-bred chicken (with cuckoo-coloured feathers). Often served with a stock laced with the local beer, Gouden Carolus, it manages to combine succulence with the chicken's firm-textured meat.
Shopping & Markets
Mechelen isn't a town that's big on mammoth shopping centres and international brands. Especially in the city centre, the shopping is kept small, discreet and traditional. Cheese shops, patisseries, and bakers are all here, with their traditional Flemish ambience, together with shops selling lace-work, fine antiques, vintage-clothing and books.
There is a weekly market at the 'Grote Markt', every Saturday, where you can sample works from local craftsmen, fresh fruit and vegetables, and cloth and clothing.
On Sundays it's the turn for the bric-a-brac and second-hand, as Mechelen's flea-market unfurls its stalls, at the Veemarkt. And if you want to get serious about getting the best-quality, freshest seasonable veg around, try the Mechelse Veilingen, in Sint-Katelijne-Waver – well worth an amble around. Check our Shopping travelguide category for more information.
Sightseeing & Culture
Mechelen has 336 listed buildings. Anyway you look at it, that's a lot of sight-seeing. The epicentre of all that gorgeousness, however, is the 'Grote Markt', over which towers the epic St Rumbold's Cathedral. This is the town's famous half-built wonder, all the more staggering once you've glanced up its two-toned tower, to where the flags flutter.
When you recall that they actually wanted something twice the size, you'll become all-the-more-convinced of the wonderful insanity of the Mechelaars.
That tinge of madness is also shown in the nickname for the townspeople – the 'Maneblussers', or moon-extinguishers – which has its origin in that looming tower. Apparently one moon-struck night, the racing clouds and moon combined to produce flickering brilliance in the tower's windows, and the townspeople rushed to help, buckets in hand.
No doubt their contents were poured over whichever unfortunate souls had spent too long staring at cathedral windows, in the middle of the night. It's well-worth going inside the cathedral, as although many of its treasures were stripped during the Spanish Fury of 1576, some fine works of art survive.
There's some vibrant stained glass work, a fine Baroque altar, sculptures and paintings by Anthony van Dyck. And if you're fit enough to climb its 514 steps, you'll get a spectacular view (though remember, one only half-as good as the one intended).
Back outside, and the 'Grote Markt' itself is a wonder to behold – a beautiful balance of Renaissance and Gothic-fronted houses. On one corner is the Schepenhuis (Aldermen's House) the oldest stone town-hall in Flanders (built in 1288) and now an art museum. On the eastern edge is the three-sided splendour of the successor Town Halls, which look like a purpose-built 'compare and contrast' exercise in medieval architecture.
On the left is the fussy ornate late Gothic stylings of the Grand Council Building, all spires and intricate stonework. On the right is the 14th-century Cloth Hall, with simple curves and red-bricked upper walls. In between is the fairy-castle candidate of the main Town Hall, with its Gothic gate and twin-spiked turrets, poised to reach for the sky.
In fact, they should have – but this is another of Mechelen's half-finished buildings. The original plan saw a belfry spire climbing 250-feet high. In the event, the bells had to live with being in a tower of just 20-feet.
The carillon it now houses consists of 98 bells in total, 49 of which are the original set installed in the 17th-century. These are the most treasured instrument of the city's Jef Denyn carillon school, and are used to weave intricate and beautiful music during the city's summer concerts.
There are many other treasures – the 15th-century Gothic Palace of Margaret of York, which is now the City Theatre; the 16th-century Renaissance Palace of Margaret of Austria, with its elegant courtyard garden (now a Law Court).
Mechelen also boasts two of Belgium's most picturesque beguinages, the Klein Begijnhof and the Groot Begijnhof, which housed communities of religious women since Medieval times. The squat towers of the Brusselpoort are worth a visit too. The last of the city's 12 gateways, this impressive fortification is now home to Mechelen's History Museum.
You can also learn about Mechelen's heritage in fine crafts, at the 'De Wit Royal Manufacturers'. This is both a museum, and a working centre for restoring tapestries – a skill Mechelen is renowned for. It also has its own prestigious collection of tapestries on show.
Activities & Entertainment
Mechelen has an angle on keeping the kids entertained too – there's a Toy Museum at the nearby hamlet of Nekkerspoel, which lets its visitors play (as well as look) at its array of bygone playthings.
And the Planckendael Animal Park is nothing less than a full-scale animal safari park, which could easily swallow up a day (though hopefully not the kids) with its lions and tigers and bears (and bonobos).
MICE, B2B & Conferencing
Being a beautiful town that's completely studded with attractions – without being burdened by big-city overcrowding – Mechelen features pretty highly on the Meetings, Incentives, Conference and Exhibition (MICE) circuit. It is especially attractive to those looking for an alternative to the many identikit conference centres of Brussels or Antwerp. With a diverse array of hotels, converted river-side buildings and out-of-town châteaux, Mechelen has most angles covered.
Lamot Conference & Heritage Centre is one of the more fascinating venues – especially if you're interested in making your meet beer-themed. It sits in what was once the old Lamot Brewery, one of the largest in Flanders, and has a wide range of facilities – for everything from conferences and meetings, to events and even parties. There is an in-house restaurant-cafeteria (Grand Café Lamot) and many of its historic meeting and reception rooms look out over the canal.
There are many, many more venues – and the local Mechelen MICE office is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city. It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Mechelen will even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.
Festivals & Events
Mechelen's most famous event is also its least common – the Ommegang Parade, with its Hanswijk cavalcade of giant wooden sculptures and puppets. It was once mainly a religious procession, displaying the relics of St Rumbold around the town. But these days, it is its collection of 'giants' that are the stars. They were introduced into the 'circumambulation' a couple of centuries ago, characters from myths and legend.
They range from Ros Beiaard, an enormous horse ridden by four brothers, to the gigantic camels of the Kemeltjes, from the Wheel of Fortune and the Ship of War, to the famous Opsignoorke, a giant doll repeatedly thrown into the air, and caught, by her attendants. It's a spectacle not to be missed.
But sadly, it often is – as it only happens one August out of every 25. 1988 and 2013 are the two most recent years.
The night-life here is fun, small-scale and personal. Less banging night-clubs, more blues-and-jazz in the local bars. Try the Vismarkt, for the best in the local muso-scene, or the bars and clubs of the surrounding streets of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwestraat, Korenmarkt, and Begijnenstraat.
If you want to shake your night to an edgier, more youthful vibe, try the area around the station, which the town's students have made their own.
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