Exquisite architecture, chocolate to die for, and the kind of beer that can floor an army, the town between Antwerp and Brussels is living proof there’s more to Flanders than Bruges and Ghent.
It’s not easy to know where to begin when you first walk out onto the Grote Markt. In many ways, this could be a hundred places in Europe- the proud central market square around which business has been done for centuries. But look a little closer and there are some characteristics that define this particular location.
Mechelen may not scream as loud as comparative Belgian cities such as Ghent and Bruges when it comes to the tourist traps, but in many ways it’s equally well-preserved, not least in the charming lanes of the Beguinage UNESCO World Heritage Site (the best residential district you can’t afford to live in). It also offers just as much of a sensory adventure as either of those two big hitters, and, perhaps best of all, it’s 15 minutes from Brussels by train, which is more than likely your jumping off point whether arriving by train from London or plane from elsewhere.
Charming streets can only get you so far, of course. Well, they got us pretty far, but aesthetics are definitely not everything no matter how many memory cards you use up snapping the many hidden courtyards and Flemish nuances these streets are riddled with. Thankfully, Mechelen isn’t short on substance, either. Its cathedral, St. Rumbold’s, is considered the finest in the country, with an incomplete tower offering panoramic views across town and field into vistas that are, in reality, many miles away from this 13th Century goliath. Taking three hundred years to complete, it doesn’t take long to understand why construction was so painstakingly slow- the detailing is incredible.
Similar efforts are made to preserve the priceless tapestries on display to visitors at Royal Manufacturers De Wit. Housed in the 15th Century Abbey of Tongerlo, the building itself is remarkable, but inside you’ll find works that date back to the 1100s, depicting medieval battles, culture, life, and death. Similarly ancient visions are on display at The Mad Art Collection, too, a permanent 16th Century exhibition located in a house in keeping with the old magnificence of Belgium itself. All themed on the subject of madness, trying to figure out what all the symbolism means- much is related to reprehensible behaviour and what was then the necessary punishment- is a fun way to spend an hour or so.
Far more sobering is Kazerne Dossin, a new-ish museum built on the site of an old ‘waiting room of death’. During World War II more than 25,000 jews and gypsies were kept here before succumbing to the nightmares of the Nazi regime, and it now commemorates the importance of human rights, and condemns racism, exclusion and prejudice. Quite the moving moment to end on, in case it weren’t already clear enough, the answer to the question ‘Why visit… Mechelen’ is, quite simple, its staggering history. We’ll come to the exceptional beers (this is the home of the famous Het Anker Brewery) and chocolate (just head to Grote Markt and look out for neighbouring shops Vanderveek and GODIVA) another time.. we’re far too thirsty and hungry for all that now.