Boasting stunning streets, artistic treasures, exceptional beers and incredible chocolates, you wouldn’t think one of Belgium’s most historic corners is less than 15 minutes by train from the hustle and bustle of Brussels Eurostar terminal. Did someone say weekend away?
Sitting in the serene grounds of the Royal Manufacturers De Wit, you couldn’t feel more removed from the mayhem of city life. Housed in a 15th Century refuge, the Abbey of Tongerlo, that these perfectly manicured rows of hedges and flowerbeds lay tucked away down a narrow alley- pretty as that alley is- kind of summarises the attitude of this particular town.
Mechelen is a quiet, tranquil little city that doesn’t need to shout because it has been heard for so long already. Perhaps not as widely known as its historic peers like Ghent or Bruges, you can’t help but be thankful considering the pace of life and lack of crowds here.
Atmospherically, it’s world away from the two metropoles sitting around 25KM either side, too- Brussels and Antwerp. It doesn’t rush nor want you to rush about its charming streets, but instead invites relaxed investigation. Whether that’s in the legendary pubs that so often define our stereotype of Belgium itself, steeped in history and shrouded in dark woods, or more sobering situations found elsewhere.
The images portrayed on the delicately preserved tapestries that comprise the priceless de Wit collection are a case in point. Some date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, a contrast to the contemporary commissions that visitors see upstairs in the still-functioning workshops when they embark on one of the guided tours. It doesn’t take long for the mind to boggle at the very thought of whatever processes and pains are involved in saving such works from the ravages of time.
Close by, the streets around Beguinage suggest equal effort has been paid to making sure things at least look- if not act- as they always have. Unsurprisingly, this fine, living example of Flemish history- a residential area you’d be lucky to call home smack bang in the heart of this stunning place- is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, and deserves ever letter of that title. The best walk back from a tapestry museum you could ask for, it’s worth whiling away a few moments or more meandering through these narrow lanes, if only to catch site of a courtyard or two- some are more than enviable.
If the de Wit experience is relatively niche- albeit in our eyes also essential- then St. Rumbold’s Cathedral is pretty much a universal must whilst in town. Considered the most important in the whole of Belgium, it’s difficult to know what’s more impressive- the view from the Skywalk at the summit, which stretches to nearby cities, or the fact construction on this spanned three centuries, and yet it remains technically incomplete according to the original plans.
Getting to the top is no mean feat, it has to be said, even if you’re a go-getter who hasn’t had one too many sleepless nights in the last few nights. Panic not, though, it’s easy to stay replenished and refilled when getting to grips with Mechelen’s apparent penchant for steep steps. So treasured is the Cathedral and its tower that in 1687 someone staggered from one of the nearby inns to find the church on fire, and went about raising volunteers to douse the structure. In the end, it turned out the suspected flames were just the moon’s rays seen through thick mist, lending the people of this town an unusual nickname- Moon Extinguishers (Maneblussers).
It’s difficult to know what to think about that, but when it comes to food and drink a definite priority should be getting hands on some of the moon-shaped chocolate inspired by that bizarre tale of drunken overeagerness. Unless you don’t like chocolate, in which case this is probably the wrong town for you, given we lost count of the number of shops peddling delicious wares in this part of town. Vanderveek and GODIVA (both 36-38 Steenweg) are said to be amongst the best, and there are no disagreements here.
Sugar can only get you so far, obviously, but such is life. Thankfully, finding yourself in this predicament in this particular location isn’t the worst thing in the world thanks to the nearby Het Anker Brewery. Well, actually, it’s part brewery, part brasserie, and part hotel, and by all accounts does at least two of those things very well. So whilst we actually stayed at the wonderfully gothic and highly recommendable Martin’s Paterhof Hotel, once a church complete with stained glass windows and stone alcoves in the bedrooms, we did manage to fit in lunch and drinks at the brewery.
Always trying- and succeeding- in turning beer into an art form (even the local cheese, Mecheler, is made from the good stuff) Het Anker is more like a place to worship at the alter of hops as oppose to a simple bottle and keg factory with adjoining eatery. The menu itself boasts an innovative visual aid to ensure you always choose the right tipple for the moment- from bock to tripel- without having to go through the trauma of speaking to someone and revealing your relative naivety when it comes to Belgium’s pride. Matched with some fantastic, traditional dishes (or, more accurately, the dishes are matched to the brews) and that aforementioned pace of life looks unlikely to break into a sweat any time soon.
Now, when was that train home?
Travel to Mechelen via train from London, departing St. Pancras to Brussels via Eurostar for onward connections. Visit Voyages SNCF to plan your journey.