Lots of places claim to extend a “warm” welcome for visitors but the Flemish city of Mechelen really does just that.
From the 13th to the 15th of October, Mechelen hosts what is called a “Warm Welcome Weekend” during which visitors can discover the new autumn/winter collection in its pleasant shopping streets. Merchants will spoil customers a with drinks and snacks, discounts, animation and fashion shows in the street. And the good news is that it is all for free!
Actually, besides the general euphoria related to the event, Mechelen is a very nice to visit, and it is only 25km from the centre of Brussels, easy to reach by car or train.
There’s certainly no shortage of things to see and do here and on the top of the “must do” list there has to be a visit to Rumbold’s Tower. The tower is one of the three main buildings of the city, which also boast the UNESCO World Heritage label (the other two are the Belfry of the Town Hall and the Large Beguinage).
After climbing the steps up to the top -97 metres of height- you are greeted with a wonderful view, that extends from the port of Antwerp to the north and, to the south, to the Atomium near Brussels. The tower also has two original carillons you can observe and six different rooms that you can visit.
Another excellent way to see the city, although from a much lower level, is by taking a boat trip on the river Dyle which runs directly through the city. It is relatively short in duration (about 45 minutes), but it certainly offers a lot of history and intrigue, old and new. You will pass the fish market – now mostly cafes and bars – the Large Bridge, the Botanical Garden and Fullers’ Mill. You will also spot the highway N1,which is the old road linking Brussels and Antwerp but is now far less busy since the construction of the E19 motorway.
If you prefer to try something different and more challenging, then you should try a stand-up paddle session, which also takes place on the Dyle. Everyone is given full instructions and taken through a safety drill, plus life jacket and wet suit before venturing out on the river.
If you are travelling with children, then you should try to find some time for another fascinating initiative: “Mechelen sends you on your way”, which criss-crosses the city on a self-guided tour. Children can take over here with the walking guide, jam-packed with fun facts for kids.
The centre boasts eight historic churches, each with its own distinctive style, plus a fine toy museum which contains one of the largest toy collections! On a more sombre note, Mechelen also hosts the Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights.
After all that exploring, climbing and paddle boarding you may have worked up an appetite and a good place to sate you hunger locally is Café Belge, an informal brasserie right at the heart of Mechelen, which aims to promote only the “best of Belgium.”
And it does this very well, with items such as grilled Belgian steak, stewed beef with Grimbergen beer and, of course, Belgian waffles all featured on the menu. But that’s not all: there’s Belgian coffee (baileys and whipped cream); “Sangria Belge” (white sangria with cava) and even an “aperitif Belge” (vermouth). And, since it’s the peak season, you really should try also the mussels, provided by a special supplier.
There’s a small but nice selection of good wines and great beers, including some from Belgium served on draught, but if you fancy just a drink and a snack that’s also possible from the delightful – heated – terrace, with a great view on the city.
Besides the Warm Welcome Week, Mechelen also hosts the Dodonaeus Digital Arts Festival (October 13 – 15): three days of audiovisual art and concerts on 4 unique locations in the city centre celebrating the 500th anniversary of Rembert Dodoens, the famous 16th century physician and scientist.
Dodonaeus is a nice festival in different locations: Polydodo, for instance, is an audiovisual spectacle in Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral where Australian jazz singer Kristen Cornwell, organ player Wannes Vanderhoeven and electronic musician Gottland rework the polyphonic madrigals by 16th century composer De Monte, while VJ’s Blub and Subtiv bring Dodoens old drawings to life with a mapping and laser show.
You can also take an nocturnal climb in the majestic Rumbold’s Tower, where audiovisual installations on every floor will highlight aspects of the cosmographic work of Dodoens. At the top you’ll get a fantastic view on the city centre by night.
A special festival guest is the New York avant-garde artist Charlemagne Palestine who will perform live on the carillon of the Tower (a free event will be held on the 14th of October from 6 to 7pm).
Also, during the same weekend, the Cultural Centre of Mechelen invites cutting edge electronic music performers into this late 16th century church to play in tune with Rembertus Dodonaeus’ writings.
Rembert Dodoens or Rembertus Dodonaeus was a respected physician and scientist who made it into the court of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II in Vienna, and whose writing, like his famous “Cruydeboeck”, was, after the Bible, among the most translated and edited works of his time.
Mechelen is a very compact city (to walk from the boat to the Tower takes a mere 5 minutes); nonetheless, it somehow combines the laid-back feel of Gent with the architectural appeal of Bruges.
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