Explore an undiscovered corner of Belgian beauty in Mechelen
I'll never tire of being a Mechelen man.
Not, you understand, the famous tyre firm symbol – although we share the same squat, stout stature – but rather a new-found lifelong fan of the similarly named travel destination.
So scenic is this largely undiscovered small city, beautiful Belgian embodiment of the good life, its water-side streets could come straight from a Disney-Pixar storyboard.
Where to go:
Top attraction, literally, is scaled by 538 spiral steps and well worth the Vertigo-defying climb, to St Rumbold’s Tower.
UNESCO world heritage site recognised, this lofty perch allows identification of iconic landmarks as far afield as Brussels Atomium, the ascent and descent is via six chambers, affording an opportunity to enjoy the a-peel of belfry’s clanking carillon.
The cathedral below stands testament to the fact this Burgundian Netherlands capital was central to the country’s Christianity – eight gothic and baroque churches among 336 listed buildings and monuments – Anthony van Dyck’s Christ on the Cross painting and Lucas Faydherbe’s high alter among many noteworthy artefacts.
In its shadows, Reuzenopsinjoor Park houses a larger than life statue, resonating with the Main Square original, depicting a man catapulted into the air as punishment for choosing demon drink over his spouse.
The newly-opened Museum Hofvan Busleyden is the latest, and arguably greatest, go-to for culture vultures. The renovated renaissance palace houses Hieronymus to Busleyden, Erasmus to Thomas More treasure trove.
Discover the story behind local legend Margareta, not a pizza, but spicy noblewoman who bore three sons to the Prince of Orange. And marvel at the majesty of Besloten Hofjes, the 16th century pictorial pastoral cabinets that, during a triumph of pain-staking restoration, revealed a rolled up note from 1806 bearing a secret message to today’s “future reader”.
And why not experience the enthused enjoyment of Hanswijk Cavalcade, staged only four times each century.
Have a walk down Haverwerf, River Dijle unloading and trading post past for oats that made these waters the undisputed exclusive grain capital. It is a trio of brightly coloured bridge-side buildings that attract most attention. And photo opportunities. Corner house Het Paradijske features earthly paradise reliefs depicting trees of good and evil, middle sees De Duiveltjes, whose pillars are propped by synonymous devils, while Sint-Jozef celebrates baby Jesus.
Within view is a statue celebrating Ludwig van Beethoven’s family roots while a well-trodden path leads to beautiful botanical gardens.
Leaving best ‘til last, tourism being a thirsty business, drop anchor at the only remaining brewery among hundreds that once hop-erated here, since aptly named Karel de Stoute decreed in 1471 Krankenhuis tipples should be tax-free.
Now much more than just a brewhouse, Het Anker combines a brasserie, hotel and distillery into a bacchanalian one-stop shop – a source of special self-deprecatory Maneblussers concoction, celebrating Moon Extinguishers who mistook cloudy light for towering inferno – it would be rude not to frequent.
Where to stay:
To say fish market’s Hotel Mercure Mechelen Vé is the “plaice” to be would be a cringeworthy cliche ... but that won’t stop me! The former smokehouse and cigar factory is today the historic home to 56 family-friendly bedrooms.
Marketed as a “mid-scale hotel for business trips or leisure,” it boasts a wellness suite, complete with swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna, as well as an on-site restaurant and lounge. And, whatever Flemish is for “location, location, location,” this bolthole has got it in spades, based at the beating authentic heart of the community.
Where to dine:
Cosmopolitan diners need look no further than Cosma Foodhouse – husband and wife owner’s London-influenced labour of love – a combined concept incorporating catering, brasserie and shop. Success on a plate comes in the shape of home-made Mediterranean herbed dishes with wines, served to 36 places and a further 17 on the south-facing courtyard. In this renovated bakery, they duly deliver such quality cuisine, enjoyable to the palate while easy on pocket and purse.
Travel facts - the hotel:
- Hotel Mercure Mechelen Vé room rates include superior double £87, deluxe £105 and junior suite £132 per night.
How to get there:
bmi flies from East Midlands to Brussels twice daily (excluding Saturdays) with fares from just £72 one way, inclusive of 23kg hold luggage, allocated seating, complimentary in-flight drinks and snacks - visit the http://www.flybmi.com website.