Dozing off was exactly what I felt like doing after a sleepless Brussels Airlines flight from New York that got me in well past my bedtime. On the train ride I could easily have slept past the Mechelen stop, and I would have plopped right into bed if my hotel room within the thick church walls had been ready at 8 in the morning. But since it wasn’t, I went out exploring the pedestrian-friendly town of 82,000.
Located midway between Brussels and Antwerp in the heart of the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of northern Belgium, Mechelen brims with religious significance. Considered the ecclesiastical capital of Belgium, it is one of eight Catholic dioceses in Belgium and is the country’s archdiocese.
Though a bit off the radar of most American tourists, Mechelen—with its peaceful river, car-free zones, gabled buildings and historic churches—was a delightful place to begin a European trip, the medieval core an easy walk from my church-hotel.
For getting acquainted with Mechelen, it’s fun to wander the cobbled streets and take the floating wooden walkway along the quiet Dyle River. Gabled buildings, in typical Flemish style, add a fairy-tale touch; some date back to the 1500s, while others were built in the 1920s after the originals were flattened by German bombs in World War I. The broad central plaza, called the Grote Markt, is the focal point of activity with its shops and cafes, some housed in 18th century gabled buildings. In season, colorful flower baskets are everywhere, injecting welcome splashes of color.
Bordering the Grote Markt is mighty St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, the symbol of Mechelen and the metropolitan church of the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese. One of eight historic churches worth a visit, it was started just after 1200 and completed in the early 1500s, when Mechelen was a prosperous Flemish cloth trading center. The masterpiece of Gothic architecture is named for St. Rumbold, an Irish evangelist who converted the locals in the seventh century. The town became a pilgrimage center when a shrine was established in his honor. The saint’s remains are hidden behind the door of the high altar. Among the church’s artistic treasures are the elaborately carved oak pulpit and Crucifixion, a powerful painting by renowned Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck. A series of 25 panel paintings relates to the legend of St. Rumbold.
The tower of St. Rumbold’s dominates the Mechelin skyline, its observation deck affording panoramic views of the city and close-up looks at the working clock and two carillons. There’s no elevator, so you have to walk up the 538-step corkscrew staircase.
The richly decorated interior of St. John’s Church is highlighted by Adoration of the Magi, painted in 1619 by the Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens of Antwerp.
To absorb more of Mechelen’s historical flavor, take a walk through the narrow streets of the Beguinage, a collection of diminutive buildings that once housed the beguines, a community of women who led lives of religious devotion without taking formal vows. The neighborhood’s typical Flemish character and unusual architecture have landed it a spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Flemish tapestries are world-famous, and Mechelen is home to De Wit Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry. Tours include the collection of antique and modern tapestries, a weaving demonstration, and workshops where experts restore tapestries for museums and private customers.
Mechelen’s most powerful attraction is a relatively new one. Kazerne Dossin is a Holocaust and human rights museum, memorial and documentation center at the site of former army barracks used as a transit camp for more than 25,000 Jews and Roma people (gypsies) who were deported from Belgium and northern France to Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. Fewer than five percent of them survived the war. Most victims were from other parts of Europe; 80 percent of Belgian Jews escaped deportation and extermination.
The memorial part, which opened in 1995 as the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance, features exhibits in the front section of the 18th century barracks, a complex that has included loft apartments since the 1980s. The faces of victims hauled away on 28 transports from 1942-1944 are displayed on 28 screens, and the names are read out on 28 speakers.
Across the street is the new museum building that opened in December of 2012. A museum visit starts with a movie that depicts human rights abuses in recent history, from apartheid in South Africa and the Rwanda genocide to lynchings of blacks in America and Nazi atrocities. A photo wall extending three levels shows head shots of thousands of Jews and gypsies who were deported from Mechelen, with yellow tinting indicating those who survived. Touch-screen computers provide details on individuals.
Three floors of photo-text exhibits chronicle the life of European Jews and Roma in Germany and Belgium prior to WWII, the successive discriminatory measures imposed, and the conditions in the Dossin barracks and horrors of the extermination camps, including graphic photos of mass graves and executions. There are video interviews with five survivors from Belgium. Belgian resistance and those who hid Jews are discussed as well. A wall on each of the three levels puts human rights issues in a broader context with examples from today. The visit ends on the fourth-floor terrace with views of the old barracks complex.
In between sightseeing, visitors should take time to drink in the Old World atmosphere by lingering over coffee or beer at one of the Grote Markt’s outdoor cafes or on the river by the Fish Market. The favorite local brew is Gouden Carolus (“Golden Charles”), named after Emperor Charles V, who ruled in the 1500s. It’s brewed by Het Anker, the only remaining brewery of the 100 that once flourished in Mechelen. Tours of the brewery include tastings.
A former brewery now is home to the riverfront Grand Lamot Cafe, a short walk from the Grote Market and Martin’s Patershof. Also in the town center you’ll find places that offer another Belgian specialty—chocolate. Neuhaus, Leonidas and Godiva all are represented. A Mechelen specialty is a filled chocolate in the shape of the man in the moon.
Martin’s Patershof is a five-story hotel that appears to have been plopped into the nave of a church. The masonry arches, pillars and columns, along with stained-glass windows, have been carefully preserved and integrated into the lobby and guest rooms. Each of the 59 rooms (about $200 for two, including breakfast) has at least one stained-glass window, a small section of which opens to let in fresh air. No two rooms are identical. Another 20 rooms, without church elements, are located in the former Franciscan monastery that adjoins the church.
The red-brick, neo-Gothic structure, which served as a Catholic church from 1867-1999, opened as a hotel in 2009. Martin’s Hotels (martinshotels.com) specializes in converting historic buildings and counts 10 one-of-a-kind hostelries in Belgium.
The church’s rose window is visible from the lobby, and computer projections of the original stained-glass windows bathe the white lobby floor, creating an ethereal effect. Breakfast in the four-star hotel is served in the former altar area, which is decorated with a panel painting.
–By Randy Mink