Bill in Belgium - MECHELEN (side trip from Antwerp)

Mechelen is a pleasant day trip from either Antwerp or Brussels. This compact and charming ecclesiastical town with a population of approximately 75,000 is only about 15 miles from either city. Mechelen is known as Malines in French.


Bill in Belgium - MECHELEN (side trip from Antwerp)

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

A climb up to the top of the Tower of Sint-Rombout (St. Rumbold) is an exhilarating and exhausting experience. The views are simply amazing from this vantage point.

Perhaps the most distinctive annual event in Mechelen is the Procession of Our Lady. Locals turn back the clock by donning colorful medieval costumes for a celebratory parade through the town. This pageantry is scheduled to take place on the last Sunday in May. ${QuickSuggestions} The tourism office at Hallestraat 2-4 is conveniently located right beside the Grote Markt. It has interesting displays, including a 3-D model of the old town and informative interactive displays. You can get free brochures and buy souvenirs here too.

Mechelen has a surprising number of lesser-known museums. There are museums for toys, trains, watches, archaeology, technology and Jewish history. ${BestWay} The best way to get around Mechelen is by foot, since it is such a small town. Cars now park in a garage under the Grote Markt as opposed to parking in the central square itself.

There is good train service from Mechelen to either Brussels or Antwerp. The train station is just south of the ring road corralling the old town center. Near the station is the Brusselpoort, the only remnant of the original twelve town gates, although this was itself rebuilt in the 18th Century.

Mechelen is planning to enhance or recreate the old waterways in order to emulate the style of Bruges, whose beguiling scenery has proven to be very appealing to tourists.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at my journals of ANTWERP, BRUSSELS and GHENT.


Brasserie Brouwerijmuseum Het Anker

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

This venerable brewery is located along the ring road in the northwest part of old Mechelen. It is now a multi-purpose complex with the actual brewery, museum, bar, restaurant and even a hotel.

The brewery dates back to at least 1369, and it specializes in brewing "grand beers" that are quite strong. The buildings have been renovated, including old houses formerly belonging to the local Beguinage. The beer is still brewed here, but the bottling and kegging processes are now performed elsewhere. After a tour of the facilities, visitors can sample some of these Mechelse beers.

A better way to complement your tour is by having a meal at its restaurant. The Brasserie Het Anker has a comfortable dining area with a charming assortment of props you would expect to find in a brewery. Sit by the glass wall that overlooks the back of the brewery and enjoy the ambience. Whet your appetite with a brew like a Mechelschen Bruynen, a bold brown beer from a recipe dating back to the earliest days of the brewery. Note that this brewery is the only one still producing this special beer. The Gouden Carolus is perhaps its most common and popular beer, and it is sold in many other establishments across town.

There are full set meals you can order, or you can do it a la carte. The menu includes meat dishes, pastas and sandwiches. My entree was the Mechelse koekoek, vaguely translating into Mechelen cuckoo. This local specialty with the funny name consisted of a chicken filet cooked in a rich beer-enhanced gravy. It was accompanied by a bundle of asparagus spears wrapped by a strip of bacon. I also ordered a side of potato croquettes, which were a taste sensation. Imagine spoonfuls of creamy mashed potatoes jammed into fried crunchy cocoon-shaped shells and you will get a bowl of these delicious nuggets. You can order the familiar Belgian fries here too, but these croquettes were the best potato items I have ever tasted in all of Belgium. If you are watching your euro, have a beer and some croquettes and you will be a happy camper.

If you want to go for the full experience, stay at the Hotel Carolus that was added to the complex in 1999. There are 22 serviceable rooms that are not too pricey at less than 100 euro a night. The rooms are en-suite and the breakfast buffet is included in your rate.

Brasserie Brouwerijmuseum Het Anker
Guido Gezellelaan 49
Antwerp, Belgium
1528-7147

Sint-Romboutskathedraal (St. Rumbold Cathedral)

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

This Gothic cathedral is famous for its attached tower, which is its signature element. However, it should not overshadow the beauty and significance of the cathedral itself. The structure and its tower create an impressive silhouette overlooking the Grote Markt. There are plenty of interesting details on its attractive exteriors and its bright interiors.

The width of the tower is as wide as the 12th Century nave of the cathedral. The tower and church interior merge practically unnoticeably to form an uninterrupted space. The length of the cathedral is 325 feet, barely longer than the height of the tower. The interiors reach the height of 92 feet. After a fire in 1342, an ambulatory and an apse with seven radiating chapels were added to the body of the cathedral, which was finished in 1375.

The 18th Century Rococo pulpit by Michel Vervoort features a fig tree with Adam and Eve, along with a variety of carved images of "good" (pelican) and "bad" (snake) animals. Columns in the nave are marked by statues of the apostles, which were sculpted in 1774. Perhaps the most notable artwork in the cathedral is the 1627 painting of the "Crucifixion" by Van Dyck, located in the south transept.

Admire the fascinating collection of paintings in the back gallery celebrating the life and times of St. Rumbold. Each of the images was restored to a good state of preservation after a long campaign. The intended goal was not to guess at what the full images may have looked like, but to restore what was actually remaining of each work in the series. Therefore many gaps and holes exist, but there is enough imagery to convey the story of St. Rumbold well enough. These are not the finest paintings around, but the whole ensemble acts as a brilliant example of religious storytelling. Visitors will appreciate the overall morals of this epic sage: that good wins over evil, crime does not pay, and other good stuff like that.

Entrance to the cathedral is free, but there is a fee for the tower tour.

St. Rumbold's Cathedral
Sint-Rombout
Mechelen, Belgium

Tower of Sint-Rombout

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

Tower of Sint-Rombout (St. Rumbold) This glorious campanile next to the Sint-Romboutskathedraal is renowned as the most impressive Gothic bell tower in Belgium. The imposing whitish structure is as wide as the nave of the Kathedraal. It is visible even on the highway between Brussels and Antwerp, with a view that features the tower jutting up from the horizontal plain.

The tower reaches a height of 318 feet, although it was intended to reach as high as 550 feet. There are different images showing the possible designs of the completed tower, but there is no real "official" version. Construction on the tower started in 1452 and was halted in 1521 in its truncated state. No one is really sure why construction was stopped, but the usual theories are that the funds dried up and the construction site was not sound enough to support a tower of its intended height. Even though everyone knows the current tower is in essence an unfinished project, it was topped off to have a beautiful and complete appearance. Designed by the Keldermans family of architects, the appropriate proportions and the Gothic emphasis on vertical lines allowed for this fortuitous and aesthetically appealing end result.

Join a tour guide, who will have possession of the key to unlock the various doors and passages of the venerable tower. The interior contains two carillons, which along with the tower are the pride and joy of Mechelen. The first carillon with 49 chimes was created in 1674. The second carillon was added in 1981 with the same number of bells. During my visit we were introduced to a young carillon player from Russia. He was here to practice his own carillon composition, which he was scheduled to perform in a concert the following day. It was interesting to see the musician at work, playing the complex instrument along. This facility also had a few automated devices for playing the carillon at certain appointed times of the day. Look at the massive bells, and stick your head in one if you dare (not while one is ringing!).

Once you have completed the exhausting climb of 508 steps, you will be richly rewarded with spectacular scenery of Mechelen. The town is compact, so you will basically see everything that you want from the lookout platform. It was very windy and drizzly during my visit, but that did not dampen my excitement of being at this elevated perch. Take lots of photos to capture these spectacular panoramic views.

There are carillon recitals on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, with a bonus Monday night special during the summer. Check with the tourism office for the schedule of the guided visits to the cathedral tower, as you cannot go on your own.

St. Rumbold's Cathedral
Sint-Rombout
Mechelen, Belgium

Grote Markt and Stadhuis

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

The Grote Markt is the large central square of Mechelen, but it seems almost like a stage set when compared to the busier plazas in the larger cities of Brussels and Antwerp. This plaza is surrounded by facades from the 16th to 18th Centuries for most but not its entire perimeter. In fact, when you see the tower of St. Rumbold and then the rest of the cathedral lurking over the northwest corner, the eye notices the depth of the buildings beyond rather than the space within. Only when you shift your perspective away from the cathedral backdrop to include the marzipan-like front of the Stadhuis (Town Hall) does it seem like you are within a confines of a grand and wonderful space.

The Stadhuis is on the east side of the square, and its main facade consists of three diverse units. This site has been the Stadhuis only since 1913, although the buildings have had other purposes previously. The Grand Council Building on the left is the grandiose facade, a Late Gothic confection designed by Rombout Keldermans in 1529 but not completed until around 1900. The middle section was intended to be the town belfry, but since it is not even the highest point of this ensemble it is easy to see that it was never completed. It has a Gothic portal and is crowned by turrets to lend it a finished look. To the right is the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) built from 1320 to 1326 and rebuilt after the fire of 1342. Its lower section matches the appearance of the belfry base from the same period, but the red brick gable top was an addition from the 17th Century. The interiors and the chambers of the Stadhuis are ornate as you can imagine, with attractive works of paintings, tapestries and stained glass throughout the halls and walls.

Other buildings on the Grote Markt reveal how their roles and locations have shifted over the ages. The Gothic mansion on the northwest corner originally served as the Stadhuis but has been restored as the main post office. The Schepenhuis (Aldermen’s House) is located on the southwest corner of the plaza. Dating from about 1400, this edifice was the seat of the Great Council but is now the library and city archives.

Cars are no longer allowed to park within the Grote Markt. There is now an underground parking garage here. This creates a less congested and more convivial atmosphere here for locals and visitors alike. A popular Christmas Market takes place in the square every December.

"Op-Sinjoorke", the funny looking sculpture of a doll bouncing atop a blanket, is located at the southeast corner of the Grote Markt. It is based on a wood doll dating from 1647 that is the mascot of Mechelen and is carried about in a cloth blanket during town parades. The face of the doll has a scowl, accounting for its previous nicknames as a fool and a disloyal drunk.

Grote Markt

Antwerp, Belgium, 2000

Other churches and buildings in Mechelen

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

The compact town of Mechelen is filled with many interesting churches and old palaces. They are all conveniently located near the center of town and you will encounter many of these attractive structures as you wander around town.

The Begijnhofkerk, or Church of the Beguinages, is a hidden gem with colorful Baroque interiors that have pastel walls reminiscent of Caribbean colors. Constructed from 1629 to 1647, the church has a fancy high altar designed by Jan van der Steen. The exterior of the church is sadly surrounded by rickety looking scaffolding for now, but go inside for an uplifting experience. A great portion of the two former Beguinages in the area have been converted to lovely residences. The little streets in this area are so picturesque with many fine details that display the collective pride of the local residents.

Sint-Janskerk (St. John Church) from the 15th Century has a somewhat plain exterior while housing Baroque furnishings. The main attraction of this church is a triptych by Rubens, "The Adoration of the Magi". Painted in 1619, the model for the face of the Virgin Mary was Isabella Brant, the first wife of Rubens. This impressive work is noted for its contrasts of light and dark. The interiors feature many finely carved wooden elements, like the 17th Century pulpit and the choir. Sint-Katelijnekerk (St. Katherine Church) is located a few blocks northwest of Sint-Rumbold. Its period of construction covers the 13th to the 15th Centuries. This church bears the local Scheldt and Dender Gothic styles prominently used in this region of Flanders.

Sint-Pieter-an-Pauluskerk was the former monastic church of the Jesuits, as its Baroque facade may indicate. This church dates back to 1670. Next to it is a theater that was the Paleis van Margareta van York, a palace in the Late Gothic style built in 1480. Look across the street to find the Paleis van Margareta van Ostenrijk, a complex that was a palace and then served as the seat of the Great Council and as the Palace of Justice. Much of this project was designed by the prolific Rombout Keldermans in 1503, notably the structures around the charming arcaded courtyard and parts of its main facade. The design is one of the earliest examples of Flemish Renaissance architecture.

Churches in Antwerp
Variety
Antwerp, Belgium

DeWit Royal Manufacturers

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

This institution of Mechelen has been renowned as the “Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry” since 1889. Museums and private institutions from around the world employ the services of DeWit, whose goal is not only to preserve the delicate artworks, but to maintain the overall traditions of Flemish tapestry-making as well. The workshop is involved in conservation, weaving and the purchase and selling of tapestries.

DeWit is headquartered in the former Tongerlo Abbey refuge which dates back to 1484 although the complex has been heavily restored. This is a unique and historic location in its own respect, so it is a natural fit for a company that emphasizes restoration to be based here. The Flemish style of the abbey features red brick and light stone, and it is complemented by the manicured green space of the courtyard.

The staircases are old and winding, so hold onto the handrail when you are climbing up or down. You will see some grand rooms with its walls literally covered by prized tapestries. These are old treasures that are quite sensitive to light and touch, so the rooms are kept in the dark when not in use. The tour guide will explain the difference between the shiny silk and duller wool threads which are used within a typical tapestry. You will see distinct markings that represent a regional school or style of tapestry art. Some tapestries have borders while some are borderless. Some were meant to be hung directly from walls, while some were designed to be fitted within a presentation frame as in a painting.

Witness an artisan pushing through a few threads upon a real tapestry loom. Everything here is done by hand, not by mass-production machinery. Numbered cartoons are patterns, similar to “paint by number” devices, are an aid for filling in the various colors within a tapestry. Massive wall tapestries can be worked upon by several artisans simultaneously on special large looms.

The workshop features walls stuffed with bundles of yarn, which are no longer used but create a colorful background. Photographs depict the most sophisticated preservation and restoration techniques. Depending on the condition and situation of a tapestry, the workshop will use techniques like aerosol suction, the integration-conservation method and the lining method with a specially constructed table.

The attic houses a collection of modern tapestries and reproductions. These will surprise you, as the threads can be more rugged and produce tapestries that have a lot of texture. There is a certain demand for contemporary works, but DeWit also weaves tapestries that are duplicates of old or damaged works. While traditional techniques are emphasized, they are not afraid to embrace modern tools like CAD (computer aided design). There have been many developments in this craft over the last five centuries, but there are plenty of time-honored traditions still followed to this day.

Individuals can visit the factory on Saturday mornings at 1030pm. Groups can book visits in advance on Mondays and Wednesdays.

DeWit Royal Manufacturers
Schoutetstraat 7
Antwerp, Belgium

Jef Denyn Royal Carillon School

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by billmoy on April 22, 2004

Mechelen is famous for its beautiful Tower of St. Rumbold and its world-famous carillon. It became famous in the late 1800’s with the emergence of Jef Denyn as perhaps the greatest carillon player in the world. He founded a carillon school in 1922 that today still bears his name as the most famous of its type in the world. The school attracts talented students from around the world, and it seems the locals informally adopt each of these young musicians as one of their own. Once they have completed the program, the musicians have been known to play around the world at various carillons, including the one at St. Rumbold. In a sense the new carillonneurs become cultural ambassadors of Mechelen and of Flanders.

The "Het Schipke" is a historic white house that supports the school. The entrance hall contains a small carillon keyboard. Jo Haazen, the current director of the institution, is an impeccably dressed gentleman who promptly plays an inspirational tune reminiscent of a college football fight song. The school is proud of its six-year study program, which includes for its students access to practice keyboards, a school carillon, a library and archive, and a collection of historic bells and accompanying items.

The "Hof van Busleyden" contains the carillon and school museum along with a municipal museum. This old red brick mansion dating from 1507 features its own belfry and a gated courtyard. Currently the complex is undergoing some renovation. The main display room of the museum features old and historic bells, artworks, photographs, documents, programs, carillon keyboards, and a colorful range of gifts to the school from around the world. Glass cases contain old letters from notable admirers, including John D. Rockefeller, who was one of the institution’s earliest supporters and donors.

The Jef Denyn Royal Carillon School has helped to organize the prestigious Queen Fabiola International Carillon Competition, along with carillon composition contests. It has certainly done its part to promote the art of the carillon.

Jef Denyn Royal Carillon School
Frederik de Merodestraat 63
Antwerp, Belgium

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