My day trip to Mechelen didn’t start on a perfect footing.

The plan was that I would get a guidebook from the tourist office at the Grote Markt, plan my tour of the city while having a toasted sandwich and a coffee, and go off to explore. After much driving around I arrived at the Grote Markt underground carpark. Up the stairs I found myself bang in the middle of the Saturday morning open air market.

A fine sunny Saturday morning in Mechelen

The tourist office was round the corner off the town hall, and they offered a “Streetwise in Mechelen” booklet that was to prove extremely useful and informative – in Dutch, or English, or German, or Spanish. I toyed with the idea of asking for a French version, just to be cheeky, but I declined, not being in the mood of being reproved by the stern-looking lady at the desk. You see, in Flanders they go out of their way to emphasize the fact that their language is Nederlands and not Frans.

Anyway. I bought the English version, of course. Next item on the programme. Breakfast. Brilliant weather, perfect temperature, a beautiful square lined with tables served by café/restaurants. I picked exactly the same spot where I had had a coffee and a waffle with Roberta and a very young Gianluca in 2006 (an hour later we had had to drive back home in heavy driving rain…).

“Sir?”

“A croque monsieur and a coffee please.” A croque monsieur in Belgium means toasted sandwich.

“I’m sorry, sir, but the kitchen hasn’t opened yet. You may try some other place further along if you wish to have a snack…”

But no one at all was consuming anything except coffee, beer or some other drink in a large square lined with restaurants and cafes. Apparently the Flemish do not eat anything for breakfast. Luckily, there was a mouth-watering smell of grilled chicken issuing forth from several kiosks, typical of Belgian open-air markets. Now I have always wondered about this Belgian tradition. What do you do if you buy a hot, delicious grilled chicken or half chicken, except eat it? It’s not the type of food you can store (I think), so how come, at 10 in the morning, are there many dozens of these grilled delicacies for sale? I asked for a single portion, which I was given inside a paper bag. The girl even asked if I wanted gravy with my chicken-leg-in-a-paperbag! I declined politely, and asked for some paper napkins. She tore some paper off a roll and handed it to me, her look implying that I must have gone mad.

So that’s how, at 10 in the morning, I ended up eating delicious grilled chicken leg out of a paperbag, while sitting on a stainless steel bollard in the Grote Markt in Mechelen. How ironic. So many dozens of tables, none of which were being served any food, and in the same market square other dozens of grilled chicken being sold, with no place where said grilled chicken could be comfortably consumed.

One finger-licking chicken-leg later, I was ready to resume my place at the café table, and at long last plan my tour of Mechelen over a cup of morning coffee.

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Mechelen once used to be the capital of the then Low Countries, made up more or less of present-day Holland and Flanders. It houses the seat of the archbishop of Belgium. Like all self-respecting European cities, it has its fair share of impressive cathedrals, churches and monuments, but the landmark that dominates and symbolises the city is the huge St. Rumbold’s tower, which is visible from quite far away outside the city. It looks unfinished, as if cropped off, and for good reason. It had been planned to rise to a height of 162 metres, but the money ran out, and the builders had to be happy with just 98.28 metres. Not only does it dominate the Mechelen skyline, it also emanates bell chimes for what seems all the time. At least it did this Saturday morning, but it was a heavenly background aural decoration, much different from the savage barrage you hear from some churches on a certain Mediterranean island…

I was fascinated by a funny story I read, related to this tower. It was a foggy winter night, with the light from the moon turning orange as it forced its tortuous way through the murky air. A drunkard, looking up at the tower and seeing the orange mist thought it was on fire, and raised the alarm. Now one can well understand that St. Rumbold’s tower was (and still is) the pride of the Mechelen population. In a few minutes, the Mechlians organised themselves, frantically forwarding pails of water from hand to hand up the tower to put out the fire, only to find out it was a false alarm when the moon peeped through a clearing in the fog. The Mechlians tried to suppress this hilarious story, but it soon reached their neighbouring rivals, much to the latters’ mirth, which is why, to this day, Mechlians are also known by the nickname “Maneblussers” – moon extinguishers.

Two other main features of Mechelen, apart from its churches and magnificent buildings, are the beguinage and the river Dijle.

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The beguinage, a feature common to various towns in Belgium, used to be the living quarters for a large surplus of women without means in the times of the Crusades, when many men used to go to Palestine to kill Muslims, before ending up being killed themselves. These women used to take a vow of chastity, promise to be subservient to the authorities who ran the beguinage, in return for subsistence, housing and protection. The beguinage consists of very well-kept winding streets with residential houses, which are still in use, obviously nowadays by ordinary families, and afforded strict protection as a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a peaceful walk inside these neighbourhoods, quite reminiscent of Mdina in Malta, but with houses built in brick instead of stone as in Mdina.

De Grootbrug - the large bridge, Mechelen's oldest bridge

A walkway was constructed along part of the Dijle river bank. This river was an important fishing route, and the catches used to be landed next to the Groot Brug (the main bridge). Now it’s simply a lovely promenade, lined by restaurants and museums. It was pleasantly sunny today, with many locals and tourists drinking or dining al fresco. I sat at a table, ordered a dark Leffe beer, and at long last, for the first time since a good while during a difficult summer, in the sunshine next to the Dijle river bank I made peace with the universe…

Back in good old Hoeilaart where I lived at the time, a salmon steak with salad and chips in our freshly trimmed garden was the perfect ending to a lovely day.

[Note: This is a ‘golden oldie’ blog post from 2008. A whole set of pictures, most of which were taken on this day in Mechelen, may be viewed by clicking here.]

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