16 May 2018

Scratching the Cobblestone Surface in Mechelen

We’re just back from a quick scouting expedition to the deceptively handsome historic town of Mechelen, Belgium, an hour’s flight north of our Geneva home. 

Outwardly civilized and friendly, its streets lined with ornate buildings from the 16th, 17thand 18thcenturies, Mechelen’s center can lull you into reveries of men and women in powdered wigs and buckled shoes sharing witty pleasantries in the trilled tones that decorate the Flemish Dutch language.

But beware. Modern-day danger lurks. A moment’s inattention while crossing the cobblestones can leave you tattooed with bicycle tire treads up your backside. Most of Flanders is chessboard flat, which is just fine for Mechelen’s countless cyclists criss-crossing in every direction. You’ll see little kids you wouldn’t think could walk yet riding behind Mum and Dad, businessmen in tailored suits peddling to meetings, school girls in fluttering dresses, and grandmas who you wouldn’t think could still walk.

A prettily jingling bike bell might be the last sound you ever hear.

But bike traffic is only one of the city’s dangers. 

If you eat enough of the famous Belgian fries dipped in gobs of mayonnaise (which is the only thing that makes them “Belgian”), your cardiologist may well write his resignation letter on your latest ekg.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to risk a visit to Mechelen.

One example: asparagus. The city, about 20 km. north of Brussels and south of Antwerp, is in the heart of Flanders, where local asparagus, especially white asparagus, is popular. 

It was the height of the season when we were there, so the chalkboard daily-specials menus in front of Mechelen restaurants were scribbled with a list of asparagus options. At my terrace table on Grote Markt (Big Market) square, I chose one with smoked salmon. 

My waiter explained that they prepare the asparagus by first briefly boiling it, then dunking it immediately in cold water to preserve texture (between crunchy and mushy), then simmering the spears in LOTS of butter. Perfect texture, full of flavor. I seasoned mine only with a Mechelen pilsner.

Another assault on your health in Mechelen are the church bells. Every few blocks, an old church suddenly looms. Some of them ring their bells (or electronic organs with the “bells” stop open full throttle) every hour or more day and night. Our hotel was near the imposing Gothic tower of Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral, which looks less like a stairway to heaven than an upscale condo for bats, one of which almost flew in our window one night.

The cathedral carillon music set list included “Ode to Joy” and “Little Drummer Boy” (in mid-May). Another nearby church graced us with the practice sessions of its carillon keyboardist playing scales and favorite phrases from hymnbook hits. A hot mike mistake or hubris?

Such are the weighty matters you can contemplate while strolling the lanes of old Mechelen. But don’t get too lost in your thoughts 

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