Mechelen - Belgium’s Unknown Gem Hidden in Brussels’ Shadow

Dyle River cafes and walkways, Mechelen

Dyle River cafes and walkways, Mechelen

 

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One of the joyful surprises of travel is discovering an engaging new destination one has never heard of, much less visited, prior to the current trip. The surprise occurred on a recent Belgian media tour thanks to the Tourist Office for Flanders and Brussels in cooperation with Tourism Mechelen. The destination is Mechelen, a Brussels suburb located on the Dyle River 15 minutes north of the Belgian capital along the same train line that leads to Antwerp

Mechelen’s location makes it a convenient entry or exit point to or from Belgium’s Brussels Airport, only 10 minutes by train between terminal and Mechelen city center. Most visitors to Belgium, including this one, have previously overlooked Mechelen when bypassing it en route to Antwerp, Bruges or Ghent, but that may soon change thanks to a newly-opened museum in this visit-worthy little town.

Holocaust victims remembered in Kazern Dossin Museum, Mechelen

Holocaust victims remembered in Kazern Dossin Museum, Mechelen

 

Mechelen’s New Holocaust Museum

The unquestioned visitor highlight in Mechelen is the new Kazern Dossin Museum, opened December 1, 2012. The two-building museum includes a former 18th-century military barracks, the source of the name of the complex that housed Holocaust victims on their way to the death camps of World War II. The museum, according to Operations Director Christian Busch, was expected to receive 50,000 visitors in its first year and has already seen more than 85,000 guests in its first 10 months, with more than 120,000 expected by the end this year.

Inside the museum visitors are silent and stunned as they see and hear, via video-recorded testimonies from survivors and archival photos, the story of the 25,484 Holocaust victims who were gathered here in the same facility en route to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. According to Busch, 90 percent of the victims were refugees from other countries brought to Mechelen because of the efficient, centrally-located Belgian railway system, the oldest line in Europe, which passed through the city between France to the south, Holland to the north, and Germany to the east.

Viewing survivors' stories in Kazern Dossin Museum, Mechelen

Viewing survivors' stories in Kazern Dossin Museum, Mechelen

 

“Some victims were here only one or two days,” said Busch. “Once they had 1,000 people gathered they shipped out a convoy. There were 28 convoys.” Busch added that at Kazern Dossin “we want to be a Holocaust museum of a new generation, a museum of the Holocaust but also of human rights.” Special exhibitions in the museum explore modern issues of racism, marginalization of minorities, and human rights in addition to the historical details of the Holocaust.

The 15th-Century St. Rumbold's cathedral, Mechelen

The 15th-Century St. Rumbold's cathedral, Mechelen

 

Cathedral and Palace

Mechelen, originally a 13th-century mill trading town with a present population of 82,000, was once famous as a beer capital with more than 100 breweries.

Many of the oldest existing houses, dating from the 16th-century when Mechelen was under Austrian rule, were cafes along the Dyle riverside. Only one brewery called Het Anker (“The Anchor”) still has a lively drinking and dining facility in town, but the city’s waterfront social atmosphere is still intact thanks to a  new floating river walk through the town, and many clusters of outdoor café tables along the river. The former 19th-century Lamot Brewery is now the renovated Grand Café Lamot, a pleasant, elevated dining spot with glass-walled views of the panoramic riverfront scene below.

The tower of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, dating from the 15th and 16th century, can be climbed for a panoramic 360-degree view of the city. The cathedral has an impressive baroque interior with paintings by Anthony Van Dyke, and houses one of the most famous carillon schools in Europe. Its bells can be heard playing on most early evenings throughout the city center from the cathedral belfry in the town’s Market Square opposite the ornate Town Hall. 

Another imposing site is the central courtyard of the palace of Margaret of Austria, the widowed daughter of the Emperor Maximillian, who served for 30 years as the governor of Mechelen until her death at age 50 in the year 1530. Today her palace houses the city’s law courts.

Guestroom at Martin's Patershof Hotel, Mechelen

Guestroom at Martin's Patershof Hotel, Mechelen

 

Unique Monastery Hotel

A luxury accommodation with good value for its pricing is found in Mechelen’s four-star, 79-room Martin’s Patershof. It is part of the Martin’s Hotels group (www.martinshotels.com) with 10 properties, all in historic buildings in Belgium. The Martin’s Patershof is the former Mechelen Franciscan monastery, for which purpose it served from 1867 to 1999.  Its location is a short cab ride, or 15-minute walk. from the Mechelen central station, and only a few blocks walk from the Dyle riverfront and city center.

The property went through a unique conversion into a modern hotel, opened four years ago. It was built within the walls of the old church and monastery without damaging the original building’s historic framework. It features the original altar still standing in the breakfast room, the large rose window over the entrance, and stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings in many of the converted guest rooms. Beyond the unique design, the hotel has five floors of comfortable guest rooms, outstanding service including a welcoming lobby bar, and standard guest rooms starting at 120 Euros (US$ 165), including a sumptuous champagne breakfast buffet.

There are two outstanding pubs in Mechelen for enjoying the lighter side of the city, tasting outstanding Belgian beers on tap, and meeting the locals. One is O’Fiachs, an authentic Irish pub on the main Market Square next to the Mechelen Tourism information office. Owner Ron Hunter and his daughter Emily and son Hans make visitors feel immediately welcome for acoustic music sessions, soccer match viewings, or just discussing the best beers of Belgium. Another great choice is Taverne de Kleine Keizer (“Tavern of the Little Emperor”), located on the Vrouwestraat, one block south of the Dyle River and city center. Long-time owners Flor and Anny welcome visitors with excellent drinks and freshly-cooked light meals at reasonable prices, while neighborhood patrons provide great tips on the best places to visit in the city.

Ann Van Tuerenhout, an excellent Mechelen city guide, can be contacted through Tourism Mechelen via the city’s web site contact information at http://toerisme.mechelen.be/en/index.html. The tourism information office, easily found in the main Market Square, also organizes group walking tours on Saturdays at 2 p.m.

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