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)

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