I once read a glorious book called Our Lady of the Sewers by Paul RIchardson. It’s a joyful journey through Spain in search of the more eccentric religious traditions of a nation famed for its Catholic identity. In doing so, it shines a light on contemporary Spanish society, and tells the tale of strange and unusual religious happenings across the country, including the obscure Virgin of the book’s title.
I regularly found myself thinking, “only in Spain”, but then I discovered Mechelen’s ‘Holy Toilet’. In 1985, Pope John Paul II visited Mechelen and, according to a plastic plaque commemorating the fact, “the Holy Father surprised the residents of Moreelstraat 6 with a visit to the toilet.” This only starts to get weird when you learn that pilgrims come from across the world to visit the toilet, the water of which is said to have healing powers.
The plaque remained tight lipped on how the (literal) toilet water accomplishes this feat, but I sincerely hope people aren’t drinking the stuff. If that wasn’t enough to make you want to visit Mechelen, it also has a well preserved history, cultural attractions, and a reputation for good food and a lively nightlife. Yet, it remains a tourism backwater, a fact I find almost as bizarre as the Holy Toilet.
Mechelen, it turns out, is a place that is impossible to visit without feeling a sense of awe. It has a history that dates back to the Roman period, and a historic centre stuffed full of magnificent medieval buildings, reminders of the former wealth of the city. Its ancient churches hide artistic gems by Van Dyck and Rubens, and, at 10am on a Sunday morning, cafe tables in the Grote Markt were filled with people drinking beer.
Belgian beer is some of the finest, not to say strongest, on earth, but you really have to be a beer fan to be swigging it at 10am in the morning. We settled down at a table in the shadow of a row of picturesque gabled medieval buildings in the Grote Markt and ordered coffee. It was hard to ignore the large group of older men inside the cafe who appeared to still be drinking and playing cards from the night before.
It was a scene that seemed to say, “welcome to Flanders, we do things differently here”. Bookended by the 13th century St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the 14th century Town Hall, and lined with medieval houses, the Grote Markt itself is a ridiculously attractive spot. The Cathedral’s unfinished belfry shares a designation as an UNESCO World Heritage Site with 55 other belfries across Belgium and France.
It seems odd that a town with such a storied history only shares its UNESCO designation with 55 other places, and for an unfinished belfry to boot. Mechelen’s medieval buildings, especially its churches, pay testimony to a remarkable history. One of the pivotal periods of which was the rule of Margaret of Austria in the early 16th century, when Mechelen was capital of the Low Countries.
It was a shame that the glorious Renaissance palace that Margaret built in Mechelen was closed due to covid restrictions. It’s supposed to be one of the town’s architectural gems, in which Margaret held a magnificent court and ruled over the Low Countries for her father, Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. This was a time when Mechelen was at the heart of Western European dynastic politics.
It couldn’t last of course. Not long after Margaret’s death, Mechelen lost its role as capital of the Low Countries to none other than Brussels. An event that saw Mechelen sink into relative obscurity, and paved the way for its nearby competitor to begin its centuries-long rise to become the, albeit unofficial, capital of the European Union.