I spun around, probably quite theatrically.
I stepped to the side, trying desperately to avoid the kamikaze forces engulfing me.
Little by little, I Frogger-hopped my way across Mechelen’s Grote Markt, mentally chiding myself for making such an amateur mistake as attempting to walk across the city’s main square. I was bike-less, which apparently makes travelling across the square some sort of suicide mission.
Flummoxed, I spied the tourist office and made for the safe-haven. Once inside, the lady behind the desk made no hesitation in remarking that I must be from a long way away.
‘Australia!’ she exclaimed, with me not having the heart to tell her that I lived a mere hundred kilometres away these days, and not fifteen thousand. ‘What are you doing in Mechelen, then?’
I was just about to ask myself the same thing.
I had seen Mechelen from a distance many times. You see, the international train between The Hague and Brussels stops there, and for a few minutes you are treated to a wonderful view of the Flemish city from your seat. Until last week, I had visited every stop on that train line – The Hague, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Roosendaal, Antwerp and Brussels – but not Mechelen. So when the sun was out on Wednesday, I decided to do something about this anomaly. I went to Mechelen.
The thing was, I knew zero things about Mechelen. The day before my adventure I downloaded the Use-It map of the city (these maps are brilliant and I’ve used them in a whole bunch of European cities) and studied it. It looked nice, with a big church, some pretty buildings and even a couple of béguinages; old thirteenth-century enclosed communities which have recently been chucked on the World Heritage List.
I decided to check those out, climb the cathedral tower and visit the renowned Holocaust Museum. It was a solid plan, except for one thing I never expected. The tourist office lady was even pretty embarrassed when she told me.
‘Here in Mechelen, museums and the cathedral tower are closed on Wednesdays.’
Huh? Wednesdays? Who does that? (Ahem, Belgians of course.) I understand Mondays, maybe Sundays, but Wednesdays? My face must have looked totally unimpressed because the very helpful lady even offered up a ‘sorry’, something you never hear from customer service staff in the Low Countries.
Despite this, the lady (I have mentioned her so many times now that I feel the need to give her a name) mapped out how I should spend my day. This included many nerdy cool things, like the aforementioned béguinages, and some just plain cool things like a world famous brewery that I had never heard of.
Naturally, being in Belgium and all, and often deeming the best thing about Belgium to be its beer, I headed for the brewery. And whaddaya know, I was actually killing two birds with one stone as the brewery – Het Anker – was in the middle of one of the béguinages.
And the brewery has an interesting little story. In 1471, the women of Mechelen’s béguinages were given the right to brew their own beer by Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. There had been a reason for this. Good old Charlie had visited Mechelen a couple of years back and almost a thousand béguines, who were usually pretty reclusive, had turned up to welcome him. Somebody must have gotten into his ear that the ladies had some priorities, and despite their total loyalty to God they could really do with a good beer. Charlie agreed wholeheartedly and threw in a sweetner; he wouldn’t even tax them for it.
Well, the ladies reacted pretty well to this news and converted a whole section of their béguinage to their new brewery, and kept it up for the next four hundred years. It was bought out and modernised in the nineteenth century, when it adopted the name Het Anker and (The Anchor) and later began brewing its signature ale, Gouden Carolus.
I’ve become a bit blasé when it comes to brewery visits these days, but this one sounded pretty interesting. And I was totally unprepared for having to walk through the brewery itself to get to its brasserie, unlike at Guinness, Heineken or Carlsberg, for example. At the big, famous breweries your visit is generally in a custom-built tourist-friendly centre away from the factory itself and you have to sit through the required ‘these are hops, this is barley’-type charade before you finally get to taste some of the stuff. Not at Het Anker. As I poked around, I expected somebody to yell at me to nick off but alas nobody did.
Satisfied, I then ordered a taster of three signature brews – Maneblusser, Gouden Carolus Tripel and Lucifer. At almost ten per cent apiece, I pretty much danced back to the Grote Markt and felt quite invincible this time against the killer cyclists. I even stood my ground and took some pretty pictures.
I liked the feel of Mechelen. To me, it feels a bit like Ghent was a few years ago, when people went there to get away from the tourists in Bruges. Now Ghent’s been given a scrub and seems to be well and truly discovered. The scrubbing brushes have since moved on to Mechelen. The area around the cathedral looks to have been recently re-paved and they’re doing the same to the main shopping drag.
Despite the council dollars and a bit of rejuvenation, I think I spied about six other tourists during my day in Mechelen. It’s busy with locals near the Grote Markt but quiet and undisturbed in the béguinages. In fact, if you can successfully dodge the bikes you can eat well and relatively cheaply right on the main square. It’s still the type of place where your SLR camera will earn you a stare from locals, despite being less than half an hour away from both Brussels and Antwerp. It’s got ‘day trip’ written all over it.
For now though, the people of Mechelen can feel pretty smug. They haven’t had their main square taken over by tacky tourist restaurants and horse-and-carriage rides. They can cycle right through it, entering and exiting from one of the myriad streets that run into it (I counted nine) and freaking out the seven tourists along the way.