A tale of two women

The legacy of Margaret of York and Margaret of Austria remains strong in Mechelen, says Frank Partridge

"It's like a beach," said the taxi driver as she pulled up outside my hotel in the centre of Mechelen. "Sand everywhere. I'm very sorry." This was new to me. Not the building site, but a cabbie with such a keen sense of civic pride to be concerned about my first impressions of her home town. She had a point, though. To reach the hotel I had to negotiate a gangway over a muddy expanse of bricks, pipes, cables and rubble. A giant crane loomed overhead. Directly outside my room was a piledriver that would start its pummelling for the day at precisely 8.01 the next morning.

"It's like a beach," said the taxi driver as she pulled up outside my hotel in the centre of Mechelen. "Sand everywhere. I'm very sorry." This was new to me. Not the building site, but a cabbie with such a keen sense of civic pride to be concerned about my first impressions of her home town. She had a point, though. To reach the hotel I had to negotiate a gangway over a muddy expanse of bricks, pipes, cables and rubble. A giant crane loomed overhead. Directly outside my room was a piledriver that would start its pummelling for the day at precisely 8.01 the next morning.

But there was method in this mechanical mayhem. This unlovely site represents a stage in Mechelen's regeneration, not its destruction. An old brewery is being transformed into a heritage centre that opens in the autumn as the cornerstone of an ambitious cultural festival that deserves to be an international hit. From mid-September until the week before Christmas, Mechelen - a lesser light of Flemish cities - is aiming to become as feted as Bruges and Ghent. And all because of two women, largely forgotten by history, who ruled the roost here 500 years ago.

Between them, Margaret of York and her step grand-daughter Margaret of Austria saw to it that the Low Countries became the powerbase of the greatest European empire since the Romans. By the time the younger Margaret died in 1530, Mechelen possessed a court hugely influential in politics, philosophy and the arts. Mechelen was also a great religious centre, with many fine churches and monasteries (all of them preserved and open to the public in the afternoon), and the ambition to build the tallest cathedral tower in the world. Today, more than 300 of its buildings are protected as sites of historical importance.

To understand why Mechelen made such an impact in the Middle Ages requires a large map and an even larger family tree showing how the principal European dynasties connect with each other. Suffice it to say that the two Margarets - through their impeccable connections and wily diplomacy - brought together the House of Burgundy and the Spanish Habsburgs, ensuring unity in the Low Countries and peace with France (which was secured at the so-called "Ladies' Treaty of Cambrai".)

So the autumn festival, City In Female Hands, will celebrate women's contribution to European history and art. Alongside the historical retrospective in the converted brewery, a collection of contemporary video art will examine the themes of feminine authority and destiny. Another exhibition will tell the story of a Jewish survivor of the Second World War, who narrowly escaped deportation from Mechelen to the death camps, and converted to Christianity - Emilie Fresco, now 92, still lives in the city.

Mechelen's toy museum will enter into the spirit of things by showcasing dolls and dolls' houses. Even the illuminations along the riverbank will be in the hands of a female artist, and the celebrations will be completed with dance, theatre, poetry, and music ancient and modern. Two concerts will feature compositions taken from Margaret of Austria's private songbook.

Music has long been a Mechelen speciality, in the form of the 49-bell carillon in St Rombout's cathedral and the world-famous school where pupils spend six years learning to play it. Public performances are given every weekend during the summer, when thousands come to hear the remarkably delicate, tinkling arrangements that are somehow produced by a network of wires, several tons of wrought iron, and much expenditure of physical energy by one person. The carillon is as versatile as its player: when the local football team beat Ajax of Amsterdam to win a European tournament in the 1990s, the carilloneur clambered up the 400-odd steps to his platform in the small hours and woke the cattle for miles around with a rousing rendition of "We Are The Champions".

Best, perhaps, to gloss over the fact that until the 20th century, women were forbidden to play the carillon - because it was classified as a sacred instrument.

These days, FC Mechelen languish in the Belgian Third Division - about as low as you can get in the Low Countries - and a less sudden but equally comprehensive decline has afflicted the city since the heyday of the Margarets. A number of prestigious buildings were left unfinished when the medieval drapery industry went into decline, and the St Rombout's cathedral tower project fell victim to the church's loss of wealth and self-confidence after the emergence of Martin Luther, who disapproved of such showiness. Originally intended to be a cloud-bursting 167m high, the tower was abandoned at 97m, so it gives the impression of having had its head sliced off. Today the roof is used for sightseeing - in good conditions you can see for 50km.

Mechelen did make a brief recovery in the late 19th century as a railway centre. Continental Europe's first locomotive steamed here from Brussels, and it became an important maintenance depot for engines and rolling stock. Unfortunately, this made it a target for the Germans' not-very-accurate airship bombers in the First World War. There was so much collateral damage during one raid that much of the main street, Ijzerenleen, was destroyed or had to be pulled down afterwards. When the street was rebuilt, its central canal was filled in, making it unusually wide.

In the 1920s the bombed-out gaps were filled by a number of fine properties in different styles, so Ijzerenleen - after much misfortune - now provides a grand entrance to the main square.

Perhaps inspired by the forthcoming festivities, the whole place suddenly has a bit of a spring in its step. New hotels have appeared, encouraging more visitors to stay overnight and explore the bars and restaurants. This being Belgium, there are plenty of both. A huge underground car park has given the main square back to pedestrians, leaving it clear for Saturday night concerts in summer. Coming soon: a new footbridge across the River Dyle, and the possibility of a waterfront café culture with the reopening of some canals.

Half a millennium after they held court in Mechelen, when the future Emperor Charles V played at their feet and Thomas More and Erasmus came to expound their daring humanist theories, the two Margarets, given the reins of Mechelen for a second time, are making things happen once again. By summer, my minicab driver will have no need to apologise.

Mechelen 2005: City in Female Hands will run from 17 September to 18 December. Full programme details, along with times and entrance prices, from the organisers (00 32 15 50 2005; www.mechelen2005.be) or from the Mechelen Tourist Office, Hallestraat 2-4 (00 32 15 29 76 55; www.mechelen.be/toerisme)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game