November 5th was a nice Saturday and we were looking for a nearby place to visit. We didn't feel like a long ride. Mechelen was our default pick - we knew little about the boring and friendly place that served us beer on our way by train to Amsterdam. Lonely Planet promised some interesting sites and we decided to take a chance.
It turned out to be a place suitable for half a day strolling. A nice walk brought us within 20 minutes from the train station to the city center. The bus from Leuven was cheap (1.6 euro) and took 30 minutes, but was bumpy and nausea generating so we decided we'll return by train.
The road signs were again lousy, but things were solved as usual. We asked a nice local and very-well make-upped young woman. We got the expected detailed and friendly answer. Wondering towards the main square, we passed over the Dilje river (the same one as in Leuven). No, it was not impressive or beautiful, but it was clean, tranquil and the passage built on the water made it a special attraction. The city was built in such a way that you cannot walk on the river's shore - so a wooden long passage was built over the river itself allowing to walk in a level lower than the houses.
The huge 'Church of Our Lady Across The River Dijle' (yes...yes... a short name indeed) was closed, so we had to skip the Rubens picture located there. This is the kind of cases in which we were happy to stay out and enjoy the sun. Walking towards the city center we passed through an Oxfam shop and got a really nice ladies green felt coat. We enjoyed a piece of toffee in a coffee shop and walked through a street with glimmering (really, some excessive gold ornaments justify this adjective) Baroque facades, which brought us to the cathedral and the main square (Grote Market - the big market).
As we were approaching the center the worst possible thing happened - the Saturday market was being closed...everywhere there were trucks impeding certain angles of photography...not one frame without a piece of truck stuck somewhere...bummer!
We were angry...surprise...and had sandwich, beer and coffee in a place in from of the cathedral.
Sandwiches are definitely the national food here. There are certain stuffing you will always find: ham, ham with cheese, crabs salad, curry chicken, spanish/andalus chicken, tuna salad, salmon salad and american (minced meat with mayonnaise). Anything named 'salad' means - 50% mayonnaise + something. Fresh vegetables (tomatoto, carrot and lettuce) are added to the always fresh baguette and sometimes even an egg.
2.3-3.5 Euro and you're satisfied for some time.
The place was wired. Crosses and coffee pics on the walls, chandeliers made of forks and a familiar hoarse voice singing at the background. It took as seconds to realize it's Russian. It turns out that the owner is Flemish and his wife Ukrainian (no, she's not a blonde from a catalog in case you wondered). The fresh waffle smells were a nice addition to the ambiance while crunching in front of the cathedral.
When we went out, the trucks that were 'grazing' disappeared and finally one of us could get wild taking pics.
The size of the cathedral is a clear echo of Mechelen's glory days as Flandria's capital (15th century) and later as religions capital.
The city like all the low-countries swung between the Burgundy, France, Germany, Netherlands (according to their location) and of course Spain. As part of this yo-yo movements, northern churches in Flandria were damaged by the iconoclastic ire of the protestants (e.g. in Leuven little original decorations remained).
At the entrance to the cathedral, on the right side, the huge 'Crucifixion' by Anthony Van Dyck welcomes you. It is a unique experience to see an art work in the place where it was meant to be originally and in a still-in-use (religious and cultura) building.
The cathedral is well maintained and is very neat including a very detailed engraved pulpit. The low mid-day winter sun flowed through the windows and gave everything a warm and inviting palette.
The Grote Market is beautiful and wide. The city hall on one hand and colourful medieval Flemish houses around the square. Above the houses, just in front of the city hall, the cathedral raises imposingly. An impressing sight!
The local museum was closed. We passed by the Carillon school which trains the players of the famous low-lands bell towers. We passed by 2 palaces one turned into a theater and another one to which the local princess moved when she got tired of the design of the other one. Nearby there was a wedding in a catholic church. The women awaiting outside were announcing the marriage by a very middle eastern 'kululu' cry. When returning to the grote market, we saw a 12-14 years child laying in the middle of the square playing dead (well, we knew he was playing only later) and later another one doing the same.
Mechelen, definitely an exceptional place.
Then came the time for the quest for the holly grail. A loo. We ended up in an old brewery made exhibition center and veggi restaurant laying on the river in front of the oldest city's bar. The pub had a cow doll at the entrance which had a rain coat covering her.... Later on in the city we ran into several re-dag canals (covered over the years and exposed in the past century) with clear instruction 'NOT TO FEED THE DUCKS!'....but...but....there were no ducks around.
Our last stop was the old neighborhood (Begijnhof, which deserves an individual post to explain the concept). It was a deception - very few not so old houses in the very inner allies. The only interesting point there was the church which had God's the world ruler image on top of its tympanum and not his Jewish son as commonly done.
We headed to the famous local Het Hanker family brewery. The old neglected rusting industrial building at the end of the alley proved that we were late...30 years late (you aren't surprised about us, right?) and the place is dead. The last traditional brewery in Mechelen seemed not to be with us anymore. However, our natural stubbornness and the lust for a good beer made us go around the building and find the famous brasserie and brewery shop open.
A great Christmas beer, free toilets and an amazing variety of great local beers were the perfect end for a great day in Mechelen. We found a small unexpected jewel just 1.6 Euro away from Leuven.
We will have to return at 2013 when they open the barrels of their famous whiskey.