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Mechelen: Stronghold of arts and crafts – From carillon bells to whisky infused beer

not part of Mechelen Muurt but still worth a view are the many other paintings that can be found in the streets of Mechelen©Alena Bieling

In cities such as Brussels, there is always something going on. This is one of those cities’ many advantages, but it can also become quite a struggle sometimes. One of the best getaways from all the hustle and bustle is to plan a day trip to Mechelen and to dive into the city’s rich arts and crafts scene.

Mechelen is a small and picturesque city between Brussels and Antwerp and just a 15 minutes train ride away from either of its neighbors (9,40 euros for a return ticket or 5,80 euros for a weekend ticket). Press consultant at the city’s tourist office Visit Mechelen Veerle Lenaerts: ‘Even though Mechelen offers everything you can expect from a big city – many unique shops, but also a lot of the typical brands such as H&M or Zara, many cafés, restaurants, and bars – the city’s streets are usually very quiet and peaceful.’

Moreover, Mechelen is famous for its arts and crafts culture. If you are interested in experiencing very unique places that are specialized in their own way of producing a specific kind of arts or craft, Mechelen is the right place to be.

The quiet streets of Mechelen are a perfect get-away from daily routine ©Sanne Moonemans

Carillons
Mechelen is known all over the world for its carillon tradition. The carillon is a bell-shaped musical instrument that was invented in Flanders in the 15th Century and has been declared a UNESCO cultural heritage. Even though carillon tradition has faded in most parts of Flanders over the centuries, Mechelen has kept hold to it. The city houses the world-renown Royal Carillon School, the first institute in the world that has dedicated itself to the study of carillon. The school offers guided tours with the carillonneur only.

Mechelen features six carillons in total, amongst others in the St. Rumbold’s Tower. Even though constructions on this 97-metre high building never finished, St Rumbold’s Tower became the symbol of Mechelen and was also named a UNESCO world heritage site. In the early times, the bells inside the tower were used as emergency alarms, later to indicate the time. Nowadays, the bells are still playing every quarter of an hour.

‘We love it,’ say Sally and Rose from Scotland. ‘The view from the top of the tower is breathtaking and the tower is so old, it feels ancient. Also, when climbing up the stairs, you never know what’s on each floor and you can discover a lot about the building and its past.’ The tower also hosts carillon concerts in the summer as well the Queen Fabiola international carillon competition, which will be held the next time in July 2019.

Where? Onder-Den-Toren 12
When? Mon-Fri, Sun: 1 p.m. – 6 p.m.; Sat: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Price? 8 euros (adults) – 3 euros (under 26). The enclosed cathedral is free for visits.

Be aware: the tower has 538 steps and no elevator.

Tapestry
Mechelen is also famous for its very unique tapestry manufactory De Wit. The manufactory sells its own tapestry collection. Moreover, it puts a lot of effort into conserving and restoring tapestry from museums or private customers. Not only the inside of the manufactory is unique, but it is also located in a stunning 15th century refuge house of the Abbey of Tongerlo which is worth a visit.

Watch the weavers at work at de Witt. Milo Profi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Where? Schoutetstraat 7
When? Guided visits (ca 1,5h) Sat: 10.30 a.m.
Price? 8 euros (adults) – free (under 12)

Beer
Beguinages were small towns within a town during the times of the crusades. Women, who had to leave their home and didn’t want to enter a convent, often lived together in these towns. The women inside the Beguinages had to work for their living by, for example, lace-making – or by brewing beer. In this way, women became very important for the history of breweries in Mechelen. Two of these Beguinages, a smaller one and a large Beguinage, can still be found inside Mechelen, and they are worth a stroll through their small and quiet streets.

Inside the Large Beguinage, you will find the Brewery Het Anker, one of the oldest breweries in Belgium (1471). Famous for their Gouden Carolus beers, as well as their whisky, Het Anker also hosts an on-site brasserie and a hotel.

Where? Inside the Large Beguinage: Guido Gezellelaan 49
When? Guided visits Tue-Sun; reception & shop: Mon-Fri, (Sat,Sun) 7 (8) a.m. – 9 p.m. (Sun: 6 p.m.)
Price? 8 euros including two beer tastings

Eight kilometers outside of Mechelen, Het Anker also offers tours to its whisky distillery. If you visited Het Anker and you can’t get enough of it, there are also many points of sale in Brussels and other cities where you can buy the brewery’s whisky and beer.

Mechelen Muurt
Every two years, the city of Mechelen nominates a city artist. In the years 2013-2015, this artist was Gijs Vanhee who started the initiative Mechelen Muurt. Ten artists participated in this initiative and transformed streets all over Mechelen into pieces of arts. Maïthé Chini, student at Thomas More Mechelen: ‘I really like it when art is accessible to everyone. Coming to Mechelen, I was really pleasantly surprised by all these paintings.’ There is a Mechelen Muurt walk which takes you along all ten pieces of art. You can download the map here.

left: Dzia – De Pelikaan, right: Mechelen Muurt initiator Gijs Vanhee – the gift ©Alena Bieling

Mechelen is a rather small city. Any of these attractions (except for Het Anker distillery) is therefore in walking distance from one of the two train stations in Mechelen. You could of course aim at visiting all of them on the same day, but to explore each of them in depth and to give them the time they deserve, you should plan to come to Mechelen more often. Remember, it’s only a 15 minutes train ride and tickets are cheap at the weekend.

Text: Alena Bieling, Pictures: ©Alena Bieling, Sanne Moonemans, and Milo Profi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article was first published on Brussels Express