Tottering on my high heels, down the cobble-stoned roads of the city through which flows the river Dijle, I had an epiphany. It might be a strong word to use in the context but when you live in heels as I do, ‘epiphany’ just about clicks in place. A pair of Uggs, wedges, sneakers – absolutely anything will do but heels on the cobbles of Mechelen, a small city in the province of Antwerp in Flanders.
Living in Mechelen (Malines in French) for two weeks was my thorough introduction to the Flemish way of life. While my husband pushed off to work early morning, I would finish my daily regime of workouts and head off for a jaunt around town. Always on foot. I did think of renting a bike – inspired by my childhood love for cycling and the national passion for the bike – but never ended up with one.
Everyone seemed to be perched upon their bikes, merrily riding away, hair all about the place, and mufflers trailing in the sharp wind that seemed to be a constant feature in those cold, cold days in January. There were the university students passing by in twos and threes, the little girls trying to balance on their tiny two wheelers and then the fathers and the mothers driving their children in little buggies attached to their bikes. Meanwhile, the little tots tucked into those buggies, sprawl around like maharajas, mind you.
I could almost be forgiven for always putting forth petulant demands for a bike to my husband on every possible holiday and outing. You see, I believe that the best way to see a place is either to do it on foot or take off on a bike.
As I set about walking around the historically significant city of Belgium, I was struck by the abundance of churches and the massive cathedral that sits proud and so very tall in the middle of the Grote Markt (Grand Place). It is inevitable that a church should loom up around every corner you turn.
Soon the churches and sculptures of the Virgin Mary started to seem part of the fabric of the city when I found out that Mechelen remains the religious capital of Belgium. It has been so ever since an evangelist called St-Rombout (Saint Rumbold) – his roots are speculated to be Irish or Scottish – brought Christianity to this city in the 8th century.
Now, it is the seat of Belgium’s Catholic primate (equivalent of the archbishop) along with Brussels. The Belgian archbishopric of Mechelen-Brussels has two active co-cathedrals: St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen and St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral in Brussels (you will read about it in my post on Brussels or Bruxelles as the French call it).
My first venture in Mechelen was to the adjacent hamlet of Nekkerspoel, where under a sky heavy with unspent clouds, I watched the red and yellow and white gables lined up alongside the dark (almost sinister), mossy waters of the canal. It brought back memories of postcards and paintings replete with Dutch houses and canals.
Architecture in Mechelen is multi-faceted. If baroque house fronts flank the canal, quiet lanes reveal houses with tiled facades, fronts carved out in wood, and those with neo-classical and Gothic to Renaissance elements. Some represent a natural blending of various styles. My non-expert eyes simply looked out for the little placard on each of the buildings, stating their period and architectural style.
Every day, I set myself a certain section of the city and just walked through the various alleys and streets. I had a rough idea about Mechelen but I strictly always left my bible of Lonely Planet behind. I did not want to be constantly peering into the book when I could be taking in my surroundings, the people, the alleys, the patisseries and life as it went on around me. Later I discovered that I had seen everything without planning and plotting (If you ever want to really enjoy travelling, set out with plenty of time at hand and no guide book at hand).
Into the Alleys of History
The two Margarets of Mechelen were the first figures to appear on my paths into the history of Mechelen. West of what used to be the animal market and now known as Veemarkt is the Stadsschouwburg. It is the municipal theatre that stands on Keizerstraat and is the former palace of Margaret of York, the sister of King Richard III of England. She was married to Charles the Bold who in 1473 made Mechelen the administrative capital of his Burgundian Low Countries. Margaret carried on as the de-facto dowager leader after his death.
The city came into its own during the reign of Margaret of York’s step-granddaughter, Margaret of Austria. The second Margaret never liked the décor of the palace belonging to her step-grandmother, so she moved across the road to her own palace in 1506.
I fell in love with the beautifully manicured courtyard gardens outside her palace, which has since become the courthouse. It is supposed that her nephew, Charles Quint, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519, must have played in these gardens as a boy.
My fascination with Tudor history was brought into play when I found out that the unfortunate queen, Anne Boleyn, too would have spent time in the same gardens as Quint during 1513-1514. During her upbringing at court, Margaret of Austria is known to have affectionately referred to Anne as “la Petite Boleyn”.
Margaret of Austria was a patroness of the arts. During her reign, Mechelen transformed into a cultural centre with great humanists such as the Renaissance great Desiderius Erasmus(Erasmus of Rotterdam) attending her court. Science and literature thrived at the court of the queen who was a poet, a well-read individual and a dab hand at playing several musical instruments. Her library was liberally stocked and she had well-known painters of the time at court. Following her death in 1530, Quint moved the capital from Mechelen to Brussels.
The city’s pride in the two Margarets is reflected in its local blonde beer, Margriet, brewed at the Brouwerij Het Anker or Het Anker Brewery. It happens to be the only functional Flemish brewery left in Mechelen. Founded in 1471 by a community of beguines, it was renamed Het Anker (The Anchor) by its new owner who took it over in 1872. It is renowned for its “Emperor Beer” which came to be known as “Gouden Carolus,” after Charles Quint. A brewery tour can be availed only on Saturdays.
I stumbled upon the brewery quite by chance – it is tucked away discreetly in the old-city lanes that make up the begijnhof (by now you must have an idea of the begijnhof – if not, do refer to my story on Bruges) in Mechelen. The most charming flower and leaf-strung alleys mark the UNESCO-listed begijnhofs here.
There are in fact two begijnhofs in Mechelen – the Klein Begijnhof and the Grote Begijnhof. To an outsider like me, it is tough to make out the two beginhofs but the town has crept up around the houses, which grew into communities from a collection of huts.
One of the stunning houses in Mechelen is that of Hiëronymus van Busleyden. He was of the company of humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More. The Gothic-style house dates to the period between 1503 and 1508. After Hiëronymus’ death, the house became a pawn house from 1610 till the time of WW I. It was in 1938 that it became functional as a museum and hosts famously the original legendary puppet, Opsignoorke. To my disappointment, the museum was closed for refurbishment till 2015.
The building that at once captures the attention at the Grote Markt, apart from Mechelen’s famous cathedral, is the Stadhuis. It has served as the town hall since 1914 and has three parts – the Palace of the Ground Council, the belfry and the Cloth Hall. When you stand in front of it, just go from left to right and you can see the three distinct parts.
The exuberant palace, built in 1526 by a scion of the important architect and sculptor family of the Keldermans called Rombout II Keldermans, remained incomplete. Financial problems led to the building being unfinished for nearly 400 years. Sometime between the years 1900 and 1911, it was constructed completely, according to the original 16th-century plans, by an artist duo. The palace in all its neo-Gothic glory is known to have a 16th century tapestry depicting the Battle of Tunis.
The palace now houses the the Council Chamber where every month the Town Council meets. During World War I, Mechelen carpenters made the Renaissance-styled woodwork on it in order to avoid deportation to Germany. Meanwhile the medieval belfry, which is flanked by the palace and the cloth hall, is a Gothic building from the 14th century with a blending of baroque architectural elements from the 17th century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The oldest part of the building is the Cloth Hall, built in the 14th century to trade in textile products. It remained incomplete because the cloth trade could not raise the necessary funds. In 1342, a fire raged through town and the hall underwent restoration. Its alterations included 17th century Baroque elements.
A disturbing part of Mechelen’s history is Fort Breendonck. The signage — that reads ‘HALT! Those who cross this line will be shot’ in three languages — sets the tone for the infamous Nazi concentration camp from the WW II period. The low-slung concrete fort, built in 1906 as an outlying defence post for Antwerp, is eerie enough with the memories it holds.
Folktales, Legends and Traditions
A short, fat and moustachioed man is the traditional mascot of Mechelen. I was introduced to the tale of Opsignoorke by a Flemish woman called Nmeake. She relished telling me the legend behind the ancient puppet which is carried along in special feasts and tossed into the air here. How important is he to the locals? You will have a fair idea when you spot the bronze statue of Opsignoorke with his arms and legs akimbo, being flipped into the air atop a cloth, right in front of the stadhuis.
“If I had mentioned ‘El Pelele’ to a Spanish, the reference would instantly get through,” said Nmeake. A painting from one of the romantic masters, Francisco de Goya from 1792 depicts the above-mentioned El Pelele who is said to be the Spanish counterpart of the Flemish Opsinjoorke. In fact ‘signoor’ is said to have descended from the Spanish word, ‘señor’.
Yet I could not put a finger on why a 17th century puppet should be tossed into the air. As I wondered aloud, pat came an amused smile and a reply from Nmeake. “Because he symbolizes the drunk, lecherous man who abuses his wife. So being thrown into the air was the punishment for his sins,” she pointed out. There is also a dig aimed at the people of Antwerp here who are nicknamed ‘signoor’ by the residents of Mechelen.
In 1775, during a feast when Sotscop or the Foul Bridegroom, as the puppet was known then, was being thrown up high in the air, he fell on the street. A certain Jacobus de Leeuw from Antwerp is accused of picking up the doll and stealing it. He was mugged and beaten up, so when he made it back to Antwerpen, he wrote a letter of complaint to the Mechelen city administration. Sotscop has since come to be known as Op-signoorke, after the signor of Antwerpen.
How could I leave Mechelen without my own Opsignoorke? I have mine sitting on a little chest, which implies that he was locked into it once upon a time.
If traditions add a certain je na sais quoi to a place, Mechelen’s lies in its long association with tapestry. Dating back to medieval times, the tapestries made here are famed to rival those from Brussels. It took me to the pages from The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier that bring to life the beauty and power of tapestries woven in medieval Belgium. Flemish weavers once upon a time were approached from all over Europe to weave tapestries with wool and silk, which often covered walls in the old days.
(A tapestry is woven following the picture, which was spread below the weaving frame. The twist to tapestry weaving is in the fact that only when the tapestry was finished and removed from the frame, only then could the weaver behold his handiwork. Just like lace making, tapestry making too is a dying art.)
The Tongerlo Refuge in the city is home to the De Wit Royal Manufacturers who restore tapestries from palaces and museums from around the world. Inside the Tongerlo is a collection of antique and modern tapestries. There are tapestry tours on Saturdays for the inquisitive. The building itself is a brick-spired affair dating back to 1484. In days of yore, when abbots travelled from wealthy monasteries to meet the archbishop, they stayed in a ‘refuge’ which served as their city residences.
As far as old customs go, I was wooed by the long-standing one of bell-ringing at the main landmark of Sint-Romboutskathedraal (Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral). Spend time around the cathedral that is dedicated to St Rumbold and you hears its bells go. There is an old set and a new set of carillon (a musical instrument with 23 cast bronze, cup-shaped bells — serially played to produce a melody, or sounded together to play a chord) in its tower.
The art of bell-ringing is taken seriously in this part of town. There is a bell-ringing school even, housed in an old house next to Hof van Busleyden museum. Students come from all over the world to study here for six years.
The cathedral itself is a work of art. There are stunning triptychs (panel paintings, divided into three sections/ panels which are hinged together, to be be folded shut or displayed) of which the pride of place goes to Antoon Van Dyck’s ‘Crucifixion’. I could not take my eyes off the statue of Sanctus Rumoldus or Saint Rumbold that stands above the high altar.
The cathedral’s 15th century tower soars into the air at 97 metres. It was deemed to be higher in the plans (about 170 metres), but lack of funds led to an incomplete tower – the reason behind its flat-topped silhouette. If you climb the 514 stairs of the World Heritage monument, it is said that you follow in the footsteps of Louis XV, Napoleon, King Albert I and King Baudouin with Queen Fabiola.
There is a little story that is of significance attached to the cathedral – related to the identity of the people of Mechelen. They are called the Maneblussers or moon extinguishers because in 1687, a drunken man was walking home when he saw St. Rumbold’s tower on fire. The alarm-bell was sounded everywhere and rescue-works were organised. When the extinguishers reached the top of the tower, they found out that there wasn’t any fire to douse. Apparently the moon projected a reddish glow on the tower which was wrapped in fog.
The customs are various. Some overtly religious as befits a religious city like Mechelen.
It was during one of my walks in Mechelen’s small Kruidtuin or botanical garden that I spotted a massive, fascinating dome rising in a stately manner. I traced my way to it. It was OLV-Hanswijkbasiliek with its dome-crowned three-wing basilica. The circular interior has a Paradise Lost pulpit and intricately carved confessionals from 1690. Its treasure however is the Hanswijk Madonna statuette which is renowned for its ‘miraculous’ powers and is the centre point of Mechelen’s religious pageant.
The story is that in 988 a ship sailed up the Dijle with a wooden image of the Virgin Mary on board. Off Hanswijk, the ship ran aground. To get it afloat, the image was even put ashore. It worked and the ship stayed afloat. The speculation was that it was a sign of the Virgin Mary wanting to stay there. In the year 1272, the people of Mechelen, troubled by pestilence, carried her through town. The pestilence disappeared. It led to the solemn adherence of the custom to carry her through town every year.
A special moment during my walks was stumbling upon works by Flemish Baroque master Pieter Paul Rubens at Sint-Janskerk. The 15th-century Gothic church in white sandstone is the proud owner of the ‘two Johns’ (Baptist and Evangelist) and Rubens’ The Adoration of the Magi.
It is so interesting to note that as sober as most protestant Dutch churches are, the Belgian Catholic churches are as ornate in contrast. The difference springs from history. It has everything to do with the independence war in The Lowlands in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The war that lasted 80 years started with the “Beeldenstorm” or statue storm. Tempers frayed because of the strict religious rules of the Spanish rulers. They clashed with the reformed ideas of the commoners and parts of the nobility. In the August of 1566, in the south of Flanders, infuriated by the restrictions imposed by religion and the massive wealth amassed by the Catholic churches, angry mobs started vandalising statues, paintings and decorations. The rebellion swept across The Lowlands, especially in Ghent and Antwerpen.
Post the revolution, however, the people mostly chose Catholicism. Belgium eventually came under Hapsburg rule, though it was transferred to the Austrian branch. Churches were restored to their old glory and wealth. You can see it today when you walk into any church in Belgium.
What made me love Mechelen so is that I had so much to do every day. The Visit Flanders website lists no less than 336 listed buildings and monuments including 8 Gothic and Baroque churches from the 14th to the 17th century in Mechelen. I even got to see the Flemish masters’ famous works of art in Mechelen. It was most surreal.
And as I had been introduced to the idea by my husband’s Danish colleague, Jorgen, if you have never had the experience of sleeping inside a church, grab the chance in Mechelen. There is a stylish hotel here called Martins Patershof (www.martins-hotels.com) that was once part of an 1867 Franciscan monastery. It retains the original religious mosaics and stained-glass windows with the breakfast room flaunting a renovated altar.
There was never a day that I felt mind numbing ennui seep in. A cup of cappuccino at Le Pain Quotidien to tide the cold with a gingerbread man or two and waffles at a small kiosk. Ogling pastries and tarts at sumptuously laid out bakery windows. Dinners at Chinese restaurants like The Golden Bowl where the proprietor never smiled (her life depended, it seemed, upon a grim visage), Italian eateries such as La Loggia ristorante and an Indian restaurant called Spice of India to cap it all. The convivial Maneblussers make sure that the traveller has more than a good memory or two to take away.