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Burgundian Mechelen: From Rubens and Van Dyck to the horrors of the Holocaust

Mechelen’s Groote Markt and center of the city ©Visit Mechelen

Mechelen is not only famous for its carillon bells and its whisky infused beer. The city is also worth a visit for everyone who is interested in its rich history from the Burgundian times to its unfortunate role in the Second World War.

The Burgundian Renaissance marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. It was an immensely creative period in Flemish history, full of prosperity and fast and radical changes. During that time, Mechelen was the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands.

Nowadays, Mechelen is still marked by those Burgundian times and most of its architectural heritage can be admired by strolling through the city center. If you want to explore Mechelen’s Burgundian highlights in a more organized ways, a booklet comprising several loops of different lengths, as well as interesting anecdotes, is available for 3,50 EUR at the city’s tourism office Visit Mechelen (Vleeshouwersstraat 6). Small tip: even if you don’t want to buy anything, the tourism office is still worth a visit since it’s located in one of Flanders’ oldest town halls, the Schepenhuis.

Hof van Busleyden
The recently reopened museum Hof van Busleyden is located in a remarkable Renaissance palace in Mechelen and features various exhibitions about the city’s Burgundian past and the ideas of famous figures such as Margaret of Austria, Thomas More, and Erasmus. Moreover, the museum’s interactive display aims at providing a meeting place in which ideas about the past, the present, and the future can be exchanged just in the way they were communicated during Burgundian times. Rooms are designed in very interesting ways, for example displaying Margaret of Austria’s famous choir book while playing actual 16th century polyphonic music. Standing in different corners of this room, you can listen to the different voices (bass, soprano, tenor, etc.).

The historic Town Hall of Mechelen ©Alena Bieling

Where? Frederik de Merodestraat 65
When? Mon, Tue, Fri, Sat, Sun: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Thu: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Prices? 5 – 11 euros

8 historical churches
Mechelen also hosts eight historical churches that are all in walking distance and free to visit. Many of them have been restored in all their glory.

  1. Begijnhofkerk: 17th Century baroque church, UNESCO heritage, hosting an intact collection of paintings
  2. Sint-Janskerk: Gothic church with Baroque interior, hosting an important collection of art including Rubens’s famous baroque triptych ‘the adoration of the three wise men’ (closed on Wednesdays)
  3. Sint-Katelijnekerk: 14th Century gothic church with wooden barrel vaulted (closed on Wednesdays)
  4. Sint-Romboutskathedraal: Gothic and Mechelen’s largest church. The inside is breathtaking, including artwork by Van Dyck and a stunning altar designed by Lucas Faydherbe.
  5. Sint-Pieter-En-Paulkeerk: Baroque church, richly decorated interior (closed on Wednesdays)
  6. Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Van Hanswijkbasiliek: One of the few basilicas in Belgium. Baroque with dome, labyrinth, and treasure chamber, designed by Lucas Faydherbe
  7. Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Over-De-Dijlekerk: Gothic church with modern stained-glass windows and hosting another triptych by Rubens entitled ‘the miraculous draught of fishes’ (closed on Wednesdays)
  8. Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Van Leliëndaalkerk: 17th Century baroque church, architect: Lucas Fadherbe. The gatehouse right next to the church has been transformed into the Brasserie De Margriet which terrace is a quiet (slightly expensive) spot in the middle of Mechelen’s busy shopping street de Bruul.

Art Noveau
The Winter Garden of the Ursuline nuns lies a 20 minutes car ride outside of Mechelen. However, it is worth being included into this list. The garden has a morning and an evening side, and it features a stunning colorful stained-glass cupola. Visit Mechelen press consultant Veerle Lenaerts said, “The garden is truly an amazing place and my number one tip for Mechelen. The architect of the building is unknown, which makes the place undiscovered and very unique.”

©Karin Van Hees

Where? Bosstraat 9, 2861 Sint-Katelijne-Waver
When? March-October: every Sunday at 2.30 p.m.; November-March: every third Sunday of the month
Prices? 10 euros

World War II and Human Rights
World War II was a dark chapter in Mechelen’s history. The city was very important to Germany, mainly due to its central location and train connection. Between 1942 and 1944, the Nazis used the Dossin barracks as a Sammellager (transit camp) for the deportation of 26,000 Jews, Roma, and Sinti to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only five percent of the deported survived.

Facing the former barracks, a new museum was built called Kazerne Dossin. The museum tells stories of discrimination and mass-violence, as well as of hope and resistance: “We pause to think about past and present human rights violations.” What is remarkable about Kazerne Dossin is its online image bank which includes many portraits of deportees from the Kazerne. The images can also be seen on the portrait wall in the museum.

The Kazerne Dossin’s image bank ©ChristopheKetelsBelga

Where? Goswin de Stassartstraat 153
When? Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri (Sat, Sun): 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Prices? 4 – 16 euros

Fort Breendonk
The National Memorial of Breendonk is one of the best conserved concentration camps in Europe. A 20 minutes car ride from Mechelen away, the fortress is still worth a visit. Belgian journalism student Maïthé Chini, “It’s very good that they turned the fort into a museum instead of ignoring its horrible past. I went there with school when I was younger, and it really helped to transform something we had only an abstract idea of into something you can see. The torture chamber is terrible, but it makes everything that happened very real.”

Fort Breendonk serves multiple purposes. It is a place of remembrance, a symbol, and an educational and cultural centre, a place of openness and encounter, supporting all those who have fought for freedom. As such, it also serves the cause to defend and respect human rights.

Where? Brandstraat 57, 2830 Willebroek
When? daily 9.30 a.m. – 5.30 p.m. (last admittance: 4.30 p.m.)
Prices? 8 – 11 euros

Text: Alena Bieling, pictures: ©Visit Mechelen, Alena Bieling, ChristopheKetelsBelga, Karin Van Hees

This article was first published on Brussels Express