TRAVEL: Belgium's untouched gem Mechelen is a chic and stress-free city break

By Adele Forrest | 28/06/2018

TRAVEL: Belgium's untouched gem Mechelen is a chic and stress-free city break

MECHELEN is a city famous for its craftsmanship including tapestry, furniture and beer — which is handy as these are a few of my favourite things.

Situated in the heart of Flanders, midway between Brussels and Antwerp, the pocket-size Belgian city is chic, clean, and full of charm.

It’s easily accessible for a weekend break — after finishing work on a Friday evening I whizzed down the M1 to East Midlands Airport for the 7.35pm flight to Brussels with bmi (www.flybmi.com).

Two facts I enjoyed learning about the airline — all passengers get 23kg of luggage as standard and once onboard, alcohol and snacks are complimentary. So, no frantic rummaging around in your hand luggage at the check-in desk, and the airport’s meet-and-greet service allowed me to park right outside the front door. 

The stress-free start was topped off by the comfy and spacious window seat on the plane in a single aisle row, which felt like the closest I’d ever get to feeling like I was in a business class.

bmi flies from East Midlands to Brussels twice daily (excluding Saturdays) with fares from £72 one-way.

There were some breathtaking sights to enjoy on the smooth one-hour flight (it was the perfect time to catch the setting sun) and, once on the ground, a 15-minute taxi ride delivered us into the heart of Mechelen.

If you prefer, a 20-minute train ride from the airport costs around ten euros.

My home for the weekend was the Hotel Mercure Ve (www.hotelve.com/en/), a four-star modern complex that pays homage to its roots as a former fish smokehouse and cigar factory.

There was a warm, summer’s evening glow surrounding the hotel as we arrived. Young professionals were enjoying alfresco drinks and tapas in the cosy courtyard of bars (above). The area had an artisan vibe that was laid-back and welcoming.

After a very sound sleep and hearty breakfast, we began our day with a walking tour. Our guide, Ann, met us at the hotel and we didn’t have to go far for her first few stops as the hotel’s surrounding area is steeped in history.

Mechelen is synonymous with the Burgundian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th century after it came under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy, marking the beginning of a prosperous period.

I spent a lot of my time looking up, open-mouthed, as there are no fewer than 336 listed buildings and monuments, including eight Gothic and baroque churches.

Keeping watch over the city is Belgium’s highest Gothic tower, the magnificent St Rumbold’s Tower (a metropolitan church — a level higher than a cathedral). It spectacularly revealed itself as we strolled through the Saturday market, where locals were grazing on fish and wine.

Visitors with a head for heights can climb its 538 steps to find themselves more than 97 metres above the city, or if like me, you prefer to stay grounded, its beautiful cathedral (below) is free to enjoy.

There aren’t many cities that can boast a city palace-and-museum-in-one, but the newly opened Museum Hof van Busleyden is just that (www.hofvanbusleyden.be

The residence (below) has undergone a 23 million Euro refurbishment after a nine-year closure, so its reopening this month is the talk of the town.

Its curators are rewriting the rule book and have created a space that is contemporary, family-friendly and interactive, while still remaining true to its history. The museum has a wide-range of genuine masterpieces, including the sublime and very rare, 16th-century Enclosed Gardens, which have been meticulously restored and all seven will be on display by December for the first time ever.

Give at least half-a-day over to exploring this gem and spend the other half at the Kazerne Dossin Memorial Museum (entry to both sites starts at four euros).

The holocaust and human rights museum examines the persecution of Jews and gypsies in Belgium and is situated opposite the barracks where more than 25,000 people were deported to concentration camps in Poland under Hitler’s rule.

There’s hard-hitting real-life footage from the period and the 25,836 deportees watch over the exhibition on the enormous photo wall as part of the ‘Give them a face’ project. 

I couldn’t visit Belgium without sampling the beer and where better? At one point, Mechelen was home to more than 100 breweries.

Now, there’s just one, Het Anker (www.hetanker.be/en), which also boasts a whiskey distillery.

We enjoyed a tour and lunch in its restaurant, where we familiarised ourselves with its Gouden Carolus brew. Het Anker was the first to make a heavy special beer when others were still making pils, and some of the restaurant’s dishes incorporate its creations. Booking is recommended for both as it proved a great group activity. 

Our jolly party then hopped on an hourly canal boat ride from outside our hotel for a relaxing meander. Fizz continued to pop, which meant we missed the majority of the recorded commentary — but it was still pleasant all the same.

We rounded our trip off in style at one of the best restaurants in town, Cosma Foodhouse (www.cosma.be/). Book early as this laid-back Ibiza-cool eatery is the place to be, and won’t break the bank. Portions are generous and the tapas-style starters are great for sharing. The discreet outdoor white terrace was the ideal setting for enjoying a chilled bottle of white under the stars.

Undiscovered and underrated, Mechelen has so much for couples, families or anyone to enjoy, which will leave you feeling soothed, educated and refreshed.