Weekendje weg: Mechelen, Belgium
was in Mechelen for the weekend for one of those spontaneous trips you book in the middle of a difficult week. Some personal issues have been bogging me down for months and I thought a weekend away from child and work would do me good.
Mechelen is sandwiched between Antwerp and Brussels, a city once so rich that it was the capital of the Lowlands (collectively known as BENELUX, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) during the Middle Ages.
It’s a small town really, and one where you go to when you tire of old favourites like Ghent, or when you don’t want to join the tourist madness in Brugge. With it’s proximity to where we live in Rotterdam (1.5 hours drive), and Zeeland (1 hour drive) where we deposited the kid at grandma’s, Mechelen is the perfect choice for overworked couples dying to get away from parental duties.
Sauntering in Mechelen
There was absolutely nothing planned for this trip, no pre-booked restaurants, list of things to do, or things to see. As I’ve always done before becoming a parent, I come to an unfamiliar city and see how it goes. It’s called “sauntering” in English or “slenteren” in Dutch but perhaps the most apt definition would be the Scottish word “stravaiging“.
We arrived on Friday afternoon. After checking in at our spacious room at Novotel Mechelen Centrum we looked for a restaurant right away as many Belgium restaurants closes lunch service before 3pm.
Across the hotel is the Restaurant Lam’eau, or what we thought was the Grand Cafe Lamot, both housed in the same glass building. What was supposed to be a quick lunch became a fine dining meal of the freshest raw salmon and king crab salad, pork belly on a bed of white asparagus and new potatoes and a dessert of chocolate lava cake, paired with the local beer Gouden Carolus tripel, grappa and Muscat.
To shake off the effects of alcohol, we went for a walk. It was a chilly day for May and the dark clouds above Mechelen were threatening to burst, just the right atmosphere to clear our heads.
From Restaurant Lam’eau we crossed the bridge over to the Vismarkt and headed to the Grote Markt where, except for the typical Flemish architecture (Instagrammable), nothing interested us much. Leaving the square, we followed Ijzerenleen passing familiar shops, specialty stores, ateliers and antiquariate.
The window display of Filipino rum Don Papa at Huis Windels liquor store was an invitation for me to come inside. A sweet, heavy aroma of tobacco and spirit greeted us, along with Wouter the shop keeper, who delighted us with his critique of the whiskey industry, the best alternative to Macallan and a sampling of one of his favourite brand. Rarely would you find such enthusiastic shop clerk these days, someone who won’t force his merchandise on you yet treats you as he would a patron who spends €100 on a bottle of Japanese whiskey.
We continued to Onder-Den-Toren. Across the Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral we found Antiquariaat Garcia, where you could browse through really old book, sketches, photographs and paintings of unknown Belgian artists. I overheard the owner Isabelle Garcia telling a pair of Scandinavian clients how her mother had gotten tired of her father’s book collection and decided to sell them, eventually starting the bookshop.
Stepping inside Antiquariaat Garcia is like time-travelling back to a distant past, during the time of Breugel-like Japanese paintings, handwritten books and the Maneblussers (the people who try to extinguish the moon above the Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral). It’s a world shielded from the bustling modern life outside its doors.
From Onder-Den-Toren, we turned left to Minderbroedersgang, an idyllic square surrounded by some of Mechelen’s historical buildings. Through a gated wall, we peeked through the garden of De Cellekens (The Cells), a former beguinage (a less informal type of convent), and admired Mariette Teugels’ dancing naked women.
Mechelen’s Cultural Centre is also located in Minderbroedersgang, an institution, school, theater and exhibit location for they city’s talented young artists, performers and designers.
Some more walking, some tipsy photos at Jef Denynplein and we found our way back to the Vismarkt. Still full from our late lunch, we skipped dinner and went back to the hotel for siesta.
While Mechelen’s architecture is barely different from its neighbouring cities, the atmosphere is very laid back. It doesn’t try to rush you with choices of buildings to visit or things to do. It’s still basking in its glorious and bitter past, patiently waiting for visitors to discover it at their own pace. And while we saw several groups of tourists, it seems like Mechelen is still spared from the deluge of Chinese buses.
At 9pm we were ready for some more beer. At the Vismarkt we choose this trendy bar called Pinxtos where we sat beside two opinionated Belgians and exchanged views on religious extremists, Brussels, IT and bitcoins. We left when the bar closed at 11pm, the perfect time to end the night for these two adults who normally goes to bed at 8pm.
Saturday morning found us back in the Grote Markt at 8am, searching for a place to eat.
There are several bakeries at the Grote Markt where you could have sit-down breakfast, including a hip place called Le Quotidien. But we weren’t in the mood for the same organic plant-based brunch every food blogger is eating nowadays so we searched further and ended up at a place with a silly name called Croque ‘n Roll.
“Kroket for breakfast, why not?” I said, thinking of the Dutch fried snacks.
It turns out that croque is a Belgian slang for a sandwich toast. We ordered Meatloaf and Lenny Kravitz. I personally like Meatloaf better but they’re not exactly the kind of breakfast we had in mind, and not really cheaper than hotel’s breakfast.
Follow the wooden path
After our superstar breakfast, we decided to stroll down the Dijlepad, a wooden path built on the Dijle (Dyle) river that runs along the inner part of the city.
The Dijlepad starts at Havenwerf (conveniently located at the back of Novotel Mechelen Centrum) extending all the way to the Botanical Garden (Kruidtuin), providing you a glimpse of the lesser-explored face of Mechelen – the back of century-old houses, modern buildings hidden from the street views, old warehouses and secret doors leading to damp alleyways.
If we had more time, we would have had lunch in one of the benches at the Botanical Garden. The park was so quiet you wouldn’t guess that you’re in the middle of a city. But it was time for check out so we took the busy street Bruul back to our hotel.
At a leisurely pace, and with several photo moments in between, it took us about two hours to walk the length of the Dijlepad and back, a compact way to see Mechelen if you’re only visiting for a day trip.
Mechelen is not much different from other Belgian or Dutch cities that I’ve already visited. There are the usual gable houses, domes and cathedrals, small and big square, monumental town halls, museums, war memorials, breweries. That’s why I didn’t climb the Saint Rumbold’s Tower for a panoramic view or visited the Town Hall or the Anker Brewery. This is after all just another Flemish city and I’ve more or less have seen and done these things before.
What make Mechelen unique to me was my conversations with the shop keeper at Huiswindel and the Belgian guys at Pinxtos, the seemingly endless minutes we spent browsing through dusty books at Antiquariaat Garcia and learning a new word in a silly restaurant. This is how I’ll remember Mechelen. And this is how I own my travel stories, by not living them according to other people’s experiences, or lists.
We have could stayed in Mechelen for lunch. Instead we drove to Brussels, about 30 minutes away, for a little retail therapy for me. Or at least what I had hoped for. It became an eating and art therapy instead.
However short, our weekend trip to Mechelen was exactly what my husband and I needed, a chance to enjoy once again who we were before we became parents – two adventure-crazy individuals who love great food and good alcohol, meaningful conversations, and leisure walks in strange places.
Photos by Robin Kuijs.