THE BELLS ARE RINGING
Mechelen, I was told, is the home of carillons. So I had expected to hear peals of bells ringing out over this ancient town from time to time. But what I had not expected to hear were the notes of a modern pop song being rung on the bells – somehow it didn’t seem quite in keeping with the elegant and noble buildings I was admiring, after all, Mechelen’s proud boast is that it has more listed buildings than Bruges.
Bells have rung out over Mechelen for centuries. Early carillons were either played by hand or connected to a clock and set to play just as it was about to sound the hour. Following the invention of a manual keyboard it became possible to increase the number of bells sounded. In 1583, the tone was improved by the use of a pedal board with bass stops, thus creating a much richer sound. Mechelen hasn’t looked back since; its most famous carillon rings out from the tower of St Rombout’s Cathedral – the two sets of 49 bells and seven-bell unit total some 80 tonnes. To maintain the tradition, the city even has a school for bell-ringers.
Restaurant abound in this Mechelen Street
Mechelen was once the capital of the Low Countries, but it dates back well before those days – evidence shows that it began as a lakeside community in prehistoric times. However, Mechelen’s rise to fame and fortune began under the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th and 16th centuries, after Charles the Bold established his Court of Accounts here. But even greater glory was to come thanks to Margaret of Austria, aunt of Emperor Charles V. Margaret, a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, brought the great minds of the time to her court: men such as Erasmus, Durer and Thomas More, and alongside them musicians, historians and painters. She built a number of mansions, including her palace on the Keizerstraat. Margaret’s statue stands in the Grote Markt.
In time the court moved to Brussels and Mechelen’s importance waned. However, it was still important in religious fields, becoming an archbishopric in 1559. A severe setback was suffered in 1572, when the Spanish fired the city and slaughtered many of its residents. Luckily the skills of its weavers, lacemakers and carillon exponents survived.
Belgium is famous for tapestries and the craft of tapestry weaving lives on to this day at the De Wit Royal Tapestry Factory. Do not leave Mechelen without taking a tour of the factory to watch the skilful manufacture and restoration of tapestries.
Mechelen’s reputation for the production of exquisite lace spread far and wide. Unfortunately handmade lace cannot compete in price with machine-made lace, but luckily the bobbin lacemaking tradition is once again being taught; you can recognise it in the shops from its expensive price tag – but it is beautiful.
Stopping to look at various restaurant menus, one dish intrigued me: Mechelen Cuckoo. It is actually chicken, a rather large one with cute feathered legs. Visitors to the animal park at Planckendael might see one strutting round, scratching in the dust.
Art lovers should not miss St Janskerk and the opportunity to see the beautiful triptych by Rubens of the Adoration of the Magi. It is said that Ruben’s first wife posed for the face of the Virgin. Other places to visit include some excellent museums – notably the Busleyden (the town museum) and the delightful Speelgoedmuseum (toy museum) featuring children’s toys of bygone days.
Sightseeing is fun but there is no denying it is tiring, so what better way of having a rest than to find a pavement café, order a glass or two of the local golden brew from the Het Anker Brewery, sit back and admire the fabulous building façades whilst listening to the silvery notes of the bells.