Mechelen is one of Flanders art cities and a hidden gem located midway between Brussels and Antwerp.
We travelled there by train from Leuven, taking just 30 minutes, with Brussels even closer at 15 minutes for easy onward connections to Eurostar or flights from Brussels airport.
The perfect two day itinerary
We’d arranged to stay at Porta Superia, a boutique, six bedroom B & B located in an elegant art-deco townhouse. Run by owners Kurt and Michael, they describe the accommodation as a ‘cocoon of happiness’ and stepping indoors, it really was.
We were shown to our luxurious room on the second floor named ‘Mr & Mrs Harvey’ which was an absolute delight.
After settling in, we strolled beneath the ‘De Brusselse Poort’ also known as the Porta Superia gate from which the accommodation takes its name, which led us to the beautiful pedestrianised Grote Markt (main square). This is dominated at one end by St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and by the Town Hall on the other. Surrounding the square are picture-perfect historic buildings many with traditional step-gabled Belgian roofs.
The Town Hall was originally used as a cloth hall in the 14th century and was supposed to have a belfry but this was never completed. During the 14th century the cloth trade declined and the city ran out of money and were unable to afford the tower. Instead, the unfinished belfry was used as a prison.
The gothic Schepenhuis (Aldermen’s House) is located on the edge of the square and this is where the city’s aldermen held their meetings during the Middle Ages. It is one of the oldest town halls in Flanders and now the home of the Mechelen tourist office.
Standing in front of this building is a statue of Margaret of Austria or ‘Our Margaret’ as the locals like to call her. She is held in high esteem because of the positive impact she had on the city being Governess of the Low Countries and moving to Mechelen in 1507.
It was then time for some lunch so we headed to LIEF, an attractive cafe that seemed popular with lunchtime diners. We selected salad bowls, one a butternut squash and goat cheese and the other a Mexican salad, both of which tasted fresh and flavoursome without being too heavy at midday. Service was friendly and our ginger and lemon kombuchas and cappuccinos very good too.
After lunch, we wandered along to the Museum Hof van Busleyden to take a look at its Hidden Gems exhibition which runs from November 2022 to 25th June 2023. The exhibition includes works by Rubén’s, Jordaens and Faydherbe with many of these hidden gems on loan from museums, private and heritage collections.
The exhibits are all being exhibited to the public for the first time and demonstrate the very best of what Mechelen has produced throughout the centuries. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to marvel at these works so I would recommend adding a visit to your itinerary if you plan to visit Mechelen during the coming months.
Children can be kept entertained as they are invited to carry small cases around with them and follow marks on the floor. They then search for clues using a collection of items stored in their cases. We tried these out ourselves on three different pieces of artwork and found it to be a fun and educational way of keeping children engaged whilst visiting the museum.
Before leaving, we picked up a walking map from the information desk that links the city to the exhibition to discover even more hidden gems as it guides visitors around the picturesque streets of the beguinages and the city’s UNESCO world heritage sites.
It was then time for some exercise as we decided to climb up the 538 steps to the top of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral Tower which is 97 m high (standard admission €8). Although there were a huge number of steps it didn’t seem too hard as the climb was broken up by pauses at various chambers on different levels.
These included the Crane Chamber which was used for hoisting the bells and carillon upstairs. A glass floor where the trap doors would have been for items to have been lifted from the church floor provided us with good views of the nave below. Next, we moved into The Forge where repairs to the clock work and carillon would have taken place. Also to be found at this level were the clock weights dangling from the ceiling.
Continuing further, we reached the Old Bell Chamber containing two carillons, Mechelen being the only Belgian Belfort to have two. The original one became difficult to play as it has bells from different periods and sounded out of tune so it was replaced by a newer model.
Above the Old Bell Chamber are a series of 49 bells ranging between 16 and 8,000 kilos. Here we viewed the clock mechanisms and automatic carillon chimes which are made up of a large drum with spikes triggering individual notes at different times much like an old style music box. We timed our visit well as it chimed 3.45 p.m whilst we were there.
Finally we reached the Sky Platform encircling the top from where we enjoyed panoramic views over the city. It’s definitely worth the climb, not only for the stunning views but also to explore the interesting features on each level. Don’t forget to allow time to explore the cathedral itself as it is very impressive.
I was amused to learn how the nickname ‘Moon Extinguishers’ came about for the inhabitants of Mechelen. This refers to a historical event that happened one January night back in 1687. There was a full moon and low mist hanging over the cathedral. When local people noticed a strange light they thought that the cathedral tower was on fire and after alarm bells were sounded everyone rushed to the scene.
As buckets of water were being passed from hand to hand, the moon moved from the mist and the inhabitants realised the tower wasn’t on fire after all. Despite trying to keep quiet about this event, the ‘moon extinguisher’ nickname has lived forever!
For dinner on our first evening we chose the relaxed vibe of De Vleeshalle, a former meat market where butchers used to come to sell their produce. This historic hall has been transformed into a culinary hotspot where 12 stall holders and a pop up food stall offer a selection of dishes catering for all tastes and budgets. We enjoyed dining there and the opportunity to select differing types of cuisine worked well and offered excellent value for money.
After a delicious breakfast at Porta Superia with eggs straight from chickens in the B & B’s own garden we set off tor a morning tour of Het Anker Brewery. This is one of Belgium’s oldest with its history dating back to 1471 (2 hour tour including two beers and beer glass €13).
Our tour began upstairs in the ‘Ingredients Room’ with the four key ingredients used for brewing beer – grain, hops, yeast, and water. Additionally, herbs and spices are sometimes added to create alternate flavours. Het Anker’s famous Gouden Carolus beer is named after Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who spent much of his formative years in Mechelen. He later settled in Spain where he arranged for Mechelen’s beer to be shipped out to him.
Our next stop was to the Brewing Hall with its large shiny copper brewing kettles. The complete brewing process was explained here which takes up to seven weeks. It begins with the mash tun where the malts are combined with water and heated to 72 degrees before being passed through a wort filter to remove the grain fibre.
At this stage the hops are added, with fermentation taking seven days in large copper kettles. The beer is then filtered with a small amount of yeast and sugar added into the bottle and after being stored in a warm room for three weeks, the ales are ready for despatching worldwide.
The tour ends with generous tastings of two of their beers together with a tot of their Gooden Carolus single malt whisky. Visitors are also presented with a boxed beer glass to take home as a souvenir making the tour both interesting and excellent value for money.
The brewery has a gift shop, bar and brewery restaurant. We decided to have lunch there and enjoyed chicken caesar salad and a burger with fries accompanied by another of their beers. Portions are generous and if you don’t have time for a brewery tour, you can still pop into the bar or restaurant to sample their beers.
After a large lunch and three glasses of beer we needed a walk and what better way than to follow the guidebook ‘Walking in the Footsteps of Margareta’. There are three route lengths to choose from dependent on time and interest.
Our walk was filled with interesting sights taking us back more than 500 years when Mechelen was the capital of the Netherlands and Margaret of Austria was in charge. A few of the many highlights included Haverwerf, neighbourhood where oats were unloaded and where barges used to moor to offer their goods for sale.
The route continues along the historic Dijle wooden walkway which leads all the way to the botanical gardens where we explored more of the old city quarters.
Further on we came to the city’s world famous Carillon School founded in 1922 and to where students travel from all over the world to learn the art of carillon playing.Visitors to the city can actually follow a carillon themed walk entitled ‘The Heavy Metal route: a passion for the carillon‘. More details can be found here.
That evening we enjoyed dinner in the Vismarkt district at Emiel, a fine dining restaurant with an emphasis on fish. The four course €65 menu was a gastronomic delight and the perfect way to conclude our visit to Mechelen.
As you can see from the above, Mechelen may not yet be very well known but it’s certainly a lovely place to spend a few days. If this blog post has inspired you to visit Mechelen then their winter campaign offers anyone booking a two night stay via the Visit Mechelen website between 1st December and 31st January 2023 a €100 Mechelen voucher to spend during their stay. More details can be found here.
During our stay we were guests of Visit Mechelen and as always, all views and opinions are my own.
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