Burning off those Belgian sweet treats
If you’re planning a visit to the delightful city of Mechelen in the heart of Flanders, you may have already heard of St Rumbold’s Cathedral, with its magnificent imposing Gothic belfry gracefully dominating Mechelen’s skyline.
Ohh yes, and great news, you can even climb to the top of the tower.
Ascending to the top of St Rumbold’s Tower was one of the highlights of our visit to the Belgian city of Mechelen. While I’m very happy to say that now, if you’d asked me while climbing through the steep, narrow staircases, I may not have been so enthusiastic.
But hey, I lived to tell the tale.
Mechelen is a perfectly sized city for a European mini-break. It is easily navigated on foot, with many historical sights and museums within strolling distance of Mechelen’s picturesque Grote Markt. You may want to turn this visit into a road trip like us and visit Ghent and Leuven.
Without further ado, let’s climb that belfry.
Where is Mechelen?
How to get to Mechelen
- By Train
Start creating your own Mechelen adventure by train and discover the cultural delights of this picturesque city at a relaxed pace. Explore the sites amongst the charming city streets.
In under 2 hours and 45 minutes from the UK, you can hop on the Eurostar to Brussels, change onto a Belgium National Rail train to Mechelen, and your Flemish fun begins.
- By Car
If you’re venturing from the UK, jump on Le Shuttle and tour Belgium under your own steam.
Alternatively, it’s so easy to visit Flanders on a road trip. Rental Cars search multiple well-known car hire brands and find the best deals that suit you.
A little history of St Rumbolds’s CathedralMechelen’s Gothic showpiece
Construction of St Rumbold’s Cathedral began in the early 1200s, although the cathedral was not consecrated until 1312. A fire in Mechelen in 1342 hampered the second phase of the cathedral structure; however, work would later continue.
By 1451 the vaults, nave and choir were complete. The following year, work began erecting St Rumbold’s Tower, and the first brick was laid on 22nd May. By 1481 the tower reached the Bell Chamber, located roughly halfway up the belfry.
In 1492 a landmark was reached, and the first bells were installed within the tower. Construction continued on St Rumbold’s Tower until 1520, when the belfry had reached 97.5 metres.
Building should have recommenced on the tower as the planned height, including the spire, was due to be 167 metres high. This would have meant the tower would have been taller than the Dom in Cologne, Germany.
The delightful flat-top tower that now stands in the heart of Mechelen remains to be Belgium’s highest Gothic tower. With all its stonework, wooden flooring, brass bells and two carillons, the belfry weighs over 42,000 tons.
Many belfries across Belgium, Germany and France were used as watchtowers. From this vantage point, an alarm would be sounded to the city folk below if a fire or uninvited guests were approaching. In Münster, Germany, this ancient practice still survives. The ‘all clear’ horn is sounded by the Tower Keeper every 30 minutes from 9pm until midnight.
To discover the mystery behind Mechelen’s Maneblussers, take a peek below.
Ascending St Rumbold’s TowerThe summit awaits
St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and Tower stands proud in the Grote Markt, the city square and is magnificent inside and out. Take a seat in the church after you’ve finished your climb, and you’ll appreciate it even more.
It isn’t just the locals of Mechelen who love their tower; in 1999, St. Rumbold’s Belfry was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the significant Belfries in Belgium and France.
Only 538 steps to goThe five floors are welcoming you
The initial 160 stairs take you to the Crane Chamber, the crane on this first floor was used to hoist up heavy materials to the floors above. Incredibly it wasn’t until after the First World War that this was replaced with an electric crane. Previously it was undertaken by the local workforce.
From within the centre of the Crane Chamber, you’ll also be able to see the cathedral organ below. If you’re ok with heights, peer over the wooden barrier through the glass floor, and you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the organ and stained-glass windows.
Maneblussers, the Moon Extinguishers
I always love a little bit of folklore, and still today, the people of Mechelen proudly hold the nickname Maneblussers, the Moon Extinguishers.
The delightful tale shared amongst visitors is that on one night in January 1687, a slightly inebriated local stumbled out of an inn in Grote Markt.
As he glanced at St Rumbold's tower piercing into the hazy skies, he noticed the tower was ablaze. He raised the alarm, and the city came out in force to extinguish the fire with hand-to-hand buckets of water.
Before the chain of buckets reached the top of the tower, the moon slipped away, and the reddish glow disappeared along with it. The loyal citizens of Mechelen were trying to extinguish the moon.
We reach the Bell & Carillon ChamberOnwards to the Ash Cellar
We head up a further 117 stairs and reach the Bell Chamber and the Old Carillon Chamber. St Rumbold’s Tower houses 49 bells, six of which are Bass Bells.
The largest of the bass bells is called the Salvator and was cast in 1498 and weighs 8,800 kg. Before the bells were automatically rung, this one bell would have required six bell ringers.
The bells were made of bronze, so, therefore, they would occasionally crack and need to be recast. The five other bass bells are the Karel cast in 1524 at 6,000 kg, and the Rumoldus, dating from 1491 at 4,235 kg. The most recent is the 3,000 kg Sint-Jan-Berchmans cast in 1947 and is rung on Mechelen’s Liberation Day on 4th September.
The remaining two are Magdalena, recast in 1498 after the tower fire, weighing 2,145 kg. The Libertus also recast in 1498 at 1,850 kg.
The higher-tone bells hang in a bell cage one storey above. There are steps within this chamber to obtain a better view of the bells.
Within this floor is the Old Carillon Chamber, and every 7 ½ minutes, the historical carillon plays a tune known as the Mechelen Half. Mechelen is renowned worldwide for its Carillon School, founded in 1922 and still operates today.
The impressive copper drum which controls the chiming of the old carillon bell has 16,000 tiny holes within it, and all have been filed by hand. Thousands of pins are placed in the holes to define the tune that is played by the 40 bells, precision work.
As the drum rotates, the pins pass under the levers with a wire mechanism to the bells.
If you’re heading off on a Belgium adventure, then grab a copy of this DK Eyewitness book. I love planning road trips and these guides are so helpful.
I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into discovering more of the back roads.
St Rumbold’s Skywalk beckonsYes, the rain has held off
The last 48 steps, and we finally make it to the top of the belfry to the Skywalk. The 360-degree views from the top of St Rumbold’s Tower are incredible and are certainly worth the climb.
Take your time to stroll around the glass platform and try to pick out the local landmarks near and far. Unfortunately, it’s now time to head back down the twisting stairwell; in no time at all, you’ll be back on ground level.
Where to stay in MechelenWill it be a church or a brewery?
During our stay in Mechelen, we were hosted by Hotel Martin’s Patershof.
Hotel Martin’s Patershof is a beautifully restored church hotel located along the quiet street, Karmelietenstraat and was an incredibly peaceful day and night.
This beautiful hotel was a former 19th-century neo-Gothic convent and was converted into a Martin’s Hotel in 2009.
The Hotel Martin’s Patershof is only a five-minute stroll to the Fish Market and 10 minutes to the Grote Markt in Mechelen, so perfect for a weekend getaway.
Another accommodation option is to stay at Hotel Brouwerij Het Anker, Belgium’s first brewery hotel.
No sooner will you have stepped out of your bedroom door, and you’ll be the first in line for your Het Anker Brewery tour.
The brewery’s location is quite unique as it is in the heart of the ancient Beguinage. The brewery hotel is within easy strolling distance of Mechelen’s main sights. It is only 10-minute stroll to the Grote Markt.
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