Remarkably close to the UK and only 20 minutes or so from Brussels lies the delightful city of Mechelen - a great short break destination as Anna Hyman discovered.
It was perhaps unfortunate that one of the party had a deep ridden fear not only of heights, but also of steep spiral staircases. She blames her fear on a school trip to Paris, climbing the stairs of the tower of Notre Dame, getting giddy and falling down several steps.
In all fairness, in spite of her problems, she did manage to climb 233 of the 538 steps in the 97m high tower of Saint Rumbold’s cathedral in Mechelen. She said she could probably have managed even more, but the thought occurred to her that, bearing in mind her track record, maybe 538 downward spiralling steps were not a good idea.
So, whilst hardier members of the party kept climbing, she stopped on one of the large and room-like landings to admire some of the mechanisms of the tower. (The view from the top evidently was spectacular). She on the other hand had time to rest, learn a little of the tower’s history from various panels, study the workings of its bells, and also examine the human treadmill which was used to bring up building materials.
At its heart a compact, historic centre
Mechelen is a delightful city a mere 20 minutes or so by train from Brussels, and under three hours from London St Pancras.
At its heart is a conveniently compact historic centre with many attractive old-Flemish-style buildings. At street level many of them have become an interesting mix of trendy and traditional shops, cafes and restaurants including a number which act like magnets for dedicated foodys.
Cakes, chocs and cheese
Don’t miss the Banketbakkerij Vanderbeek at Steenweg 36 (www.vanderbeek.be) still going strong since its foundation in 1766, and now run by the seventh generation of the family. Apart from the most wonderful selection of breads, savouries, pastries and cookies they also sell stunningly good chocolates.
And there is the cheese shop, Schockaert Kaas at Yzerenleen 28 (www.schockaert-kaas.be) run for four generations by the same family – a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of cheeses, all in the peak of condition, and oh so tempting.
Discovering the city
When shopping palls, take a walk alongside the River Dijlk, and indeed over it on the cleverly constructed boardwalk which runs over the water, visit the cathedral and climb that fearsome tower, discover the city’s other churches, enjoy pretty green open spaces, or walk through the quaint streets amongst the Beguinage houses. No wonder part of Mechelen has been awarded World Heritage status.
For a brief while in the 16th century whilst under the regency of Margaret of Austria, her imposing statue stands near the cathedral, it was the capital of the Netherlands. It was to become famous for becoming an archbishopric, as well as for its fine wood carvings, beer, lace and tapestry manufacture, as well as for its 49-bell carillon. In summer regular concerts are held, attracting large audiences – a pleasant way of spending an evening, especially with a glass of good Flemish beer to hand.
Centuries ago brewing the family beer was part of a woman’s work, and it was chiefly thanks to the women who joined the community of Beguines in Mechelen that the city’s beer tradition grew. In 1471 these women, who also cared for the local sick, were granted the right not to pay any form of taxation on the beer that they brewed for use in their hospital.
Some of the old Beguinage houses can still be seen in the streets close to the Het Anker brewery and indeed the original Beguinage hospital actually forms part of it. Don’t miss out on a guided brewery tour. Alongside the brewery, which dates back to 1872, is an hotel and also an excellent brasserie.
You only have to go to a bar in Flanders to see how tastes in beer have developed over the centuries and the Het Anker beers are no exception – they brew a wide range of beers including those under their famous Gouden Carolus label. www.hetanker.be
And whisky too
Whisky aficianados have not been left out either. Using their Gouden Caolus Tripel beer as one of the distilling ingredients Het Anker also produces an excellent Gouden Carolus Single Malt.
An easy 15 minute drive away from Mechelen is the De Molenberg Distillery where visitors can learn more about the distillation process, sample and buy this amber nectar, along with several special edition whiskys. www.stokerijdemolenberg.be
All about tapestries
Back in Mechelen, and housed in the beautiful old Refuge of the Abbey of Tongerlo the Royal Manufacturers De Wit offers a glimpse into the history of tapestries since medieval times. It also specialises in their cleaning, conservation and restoration. It is a fascinating tour and the skill of the original weavers who produced the intricate and glorious tapestries can only be marvelled over.
Tours for individuals, which last about two hours and include a short weaving demonstration, are held every Saturday morning, start in the pretty Refuge garden. Be warned however, the tour takes place throughout the old building and there are quite a few steep stairs to be climbed. www.dewit.be
A convent school and Art Nouveau
Lovers of Art Nouveau meanwhile should take a bus or make the 30 minutes’ drive from Mechelen to the Wintergarden Ursulinen.
The Ursulinen nuns who had their convent at Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver ran a boarding school ‘for the education of young ladies’. It grew in fame attracting students from many parts of Europe.
The convent building itself is impressive and the tour takes in the Ursula and Alps Rooms, the Empire Hallway, the Grand Staircase, the Refectory, a staggeringly long Piano Gallery, the magnificent convent church, an Oratory and a museum.
But more impressive still is the Art Nouveau Winter Garden built as a reception area for the school’s visitors.
Nobody knows who designed this most beautiful of buildings, but whoever it was, was a genius. The domed glass ceiling is a riot of colour and creation, where morning gives way to day and
then to evening with a wealth of stained glass images of plants, birds and animals. It is stunning and quite exquisite. www.visitwintertuin.be
Stunning is also the word for the view from the top of St Rumbold’s Tower. It truly is worth the effort of climbing those 538 steps, but if you really can’t face them don’t worry, there is still much to see, do and appreciate at ground level in this gem of a city known as Mechelen.
Travel by train: Voyages-sncf.com - London St Pancras to Mechelen, and for full information on all SNCF services including discovering Europe by train: www.voyages-sncf.com
Stay at: The centrally located 4-star Martin’s Patershof Hotel on Karmelietenstraat, a quiet street approximately three minutes’ walk from the River Dijlk and about six minutes from the city centre.
In 2006 the Martin’s Hotel Group obtained permission to change the already deconsecrated former Friar Minor church into a hotel. It has been beautifully and sensitively converted, complete with arched ceilings, pillars, and stained glass windows softened by the use of luxurious drapes.
The en-suite rooms are comfortable and well-equipped. Friendly and really helpful reception staff too. www.martinshotels.com/nl/hotel/martins-patershof
Highly recommended places to eat:
Sample the tasty Belgian equivalent of tapas, at Sava in the Grote Markt.
A good variety of dishes and they have an English menu.
A good choice of wine and beer, relaxed atmosphere and friendly service too.
Try the excellent beer, wine and food pairings under the guidance of biersommelier Sofie Vanrafelghem and wijnsommelier Philip Cooreman, at Grand Café Den Grooten Wolsack.
It's in the Wollermarkt close by St Rumbold’s cathedral. An imaginative and well cooked meal, beautifully served, nice ambience.
Enjoy tasty Flemish dishes, many cooked with home brewed beer, at Het Anker Brewery on Guido Gezellelaan.
Superb beers and hearty dishes served in a rustic, relaxed setting. www.hetanker.be
Relaxed dining at Cosma Foodhouse, a small restaurant on Befferstraat.
We opted for a couple of meat dishes accompanied by bowls of imaginatively cooked fresh Mediterranean-style vegetables and salads.
Nice wines and good service. www.cosma.be