Midway between Antwerp and Brussels, MECHELEN is the home of the Primate of Belgium and the country’s ecclesiastical capital. It flourished during medieval times, but subsequently hit the buffers, with the Baedeker of 1900 witheringly describing the town as a “dull place totally destitute of the brisk traffic which enlivens most of the principal Belgian towns”. Things finally picked up in the 1980s with a well-conceived municipal plan to attract new investment and gee up Mechelen’s several tourist attractions. The result is the pleasant and appealing town of today, but nonetheless, considering its proximity to Antwerp and Brussels, Mechelen has a surprisingly provincial atmosphere – no bad thing. The key sights – primarily a cache of medieval churches, including a splendid cathedral, and a pair of superb Rubens paintings – are easily seen on a day-trip from either of its neighbours, but overnight and you’ll have the time to give the place the attention it deserves. One blot on Mechelen’s history was its use by the Germans as a transit camp for Jews in World War II: there’s a Deportation Museum in town and a short train ride or drive away is Fort Breendonk, a one-time Gestapo interrogation centre.
The centre of town is, as ever, the Grote Markt, an especially handsome and expansive affair offering a superb view of the cathedral. It’s flanked on its eastern side by the Stadhuis, whose bizarre and incoherent appearance was partly the responsibility of Margaret of Austria. In 1526, she had the left-hand side of the original building demolished and replaced by what you see today, an ornate arcaded loggia fronting a fluted, angular edifice, to a design by Rombout Keldermans. The plan was to demolish and rebuild the rest of the building in stages, but after her death in 1530 the work was abandoned, leaving Keldermans’ extravagance firmly glued to the plain stonework and the simple gables of the fourteenth-century section on the right.
Mechelen’s Christian heritage dates back to St Rombout, an Irish evangelist who converted the locals in the seventh century. Little is known about Rombout, but legend asserts he was the son of a powerful chieftain, who gave up his worldly possessions to preach to the heathen – not that it did him much good: after publicly criticizing a stonemason for adultery, the ungrateful wretch chopped him up with his axe and chucked the body into the river. In the way of such things, Rombout’s remains were retrieved and showed no signs of decay, easily enough justification for the construction of a shrine in his honour. Rombout proved a popular saint and pilgrims flocked here, ensuring Mechelen a steady revenue. By the thirteenth century, Mechelen had become one of the more powerful cities of medieval Flanders and entered a brief golden age when, in 1473, the Burgundian prince, Charles the Bold, decided to base his administration here. Impetuous and intemperate, Charles used the wealth of the Flemish towns to fund a series of campaigns that ended with his death on the battlefield in 1477. His widow, Margaret of York, and his son’s regent, the redoubtable Margaret of Austria, stayed in Mechelen and formed one of the most famous courts of the day. Artists and scholars were drawn here from all over Flanders, attracted by the Renaissance pomp and ceremony, with enormous feasts in fancy clothes in fancy buildings. For the men, two particular peccadilloes were pointed shoes (whose length – up to about 60cm – reflected social status) and bright, two-colour hoses. This glamorous facade camouflaged serious political intent. Surrounded by wealthy, independent merchants and powerful, well-organized guilds, the dukes and duchesses of Burgundy realized they had to impress and overawe as a condition of their survival.
Margaret of Austria died in 1530, the capital moved to Brussels and Mechelen was never quite the same, though many of its older buildings did survive the industrial boom of the nineteenth century to emerge intact today.