Gayle Pierce grew up in Tallaght in Dublin and has been living in Mechelen since June 2015. She met her Flemish husband on a work trip to Mechelen, in an Irish bar watching Ireland beat Wales in the 2014 Six Nations. She works as a marketing communications specialist in the European head office of a US firm. Mechelen is one of Belgium's lesser-known cities and Pierce says it is best described as cosy, or "gezellig, as they say in Flemish". Mechelen is halfway between Brussels and Antwerp in the Flanders region of Belgium.
Where is the first place you bring people to when they visit Mechelen?
Normally, the first place I bring visitors to gain an unparalleled view of the city and surrounding landscape is to the beautiful St Rumbold’s Cathedral. Climb to the top and on a clear day you are rewarded with stunning views all the way to Brussels in the south and Antwerp harbour to the north. With 259 winding steps, interspersed with a number of educational stop-off points, you are privy to the internal workings of a 97 metre-tall bell tower. It is also home to a world-famous Carillon school, (the carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cast bronze bells) so make sure to listen out for the likes of Coldplay and Abba being played on the tower bells as you wander through the atmospheric streets of Mechelen.
The top three things to do there, that don't cost money, are . . .
The city really comes to life during the summer months with pop-up bars, a children's beach on the Grand Market and the largest free outdoor music festival in Belgium. Visit the bustling markets on Saturday mornings where you can join the locals at the market oyster bar with a glass of champagne. Take a stroll down the charming boardwalk which follows the canal and wander through the picturesque streets of Mechelen's beguinage, a Unesco world heritage site and a staple in many Flemish towns. The tourist office, located in the oldest stone-built city hall in Flanders, is worth a visit in itself.
Where do you recommend for a great meal that gives a flavour of Mechelen?
Eating out in Belgium is noticeably more expensive than in Dublin, but worth it in terms of quality. For an authentic experience, look no further than the ‘frituur’ on the Korenmarkt, the equivalent of an Irish chipper. The Belgians take their fries very seriously, being the disputed country of origin, thus never say “French fries” to a Belgian or you will be in for a longwinded history lesson. Of course, a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without a waffle, smothered in vanilla ice cream and Belgian chocolate sauce.
Where is the best place to get a sense of Mechelen’s place in history?
In terms of recent history, a visit to Kazerne Dossin, the Jewish deportation museum, is an intense and unforgettable experience. The museum strives to commemorate the 25,000 Belgian Jews and gypsies who were deported from Mechelen by train to the concentration camps.
What should visitors save room in their suitcase for after a visit to Mechelen?
Don’t leave the city without a visit to the local brewery, Het Anker. While there, stock up on the Mechelen local brew, Gouden Carolus (Triple), an award-winning, deliciously smooth, honey-toned beer. For those with a sweet tooth, be sure to visit the numerous Belgian chocolate shops around the city so you can bring a bite-sized piece of this charming country home with you.
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