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Review: Vibrant towns of Mechelen and Utrecht in Flanders

By Paul Hooper

The idea of a holiday in Flanders would normally invoke the thoughts of visits to WW1 battlefields and war graves.

And that is rightly so as the region is honouring those who died in the conflict 100 years ago.

But Flanders is more than just trenches and memorials.

Utrecht - a city for bikers
Utrecht - a city for bikers

It’s an area which is vibrant, beautiful and full of hidden gems, like great hotels, canals, towers, cyclists, great restaurants... oh and chocolate and beer!

And the two towns I visited, Mechelen and Utrecht, are just three hours by Eurostar from London and offer wonderful venues for a long weekend.

First stop was Mechelen, where I checked into the four-star Martn’s Patershof Hotel – a former church – boasting arched ceilings and wonderful pillars.

But it is the first time I have ever stayed in a room with genuine stained-glass windows with all of its original religious icons.

This isn’t a converted church - its a hotel built INSIDE a church. Just amazing.

A few hundred feet away, at the bijou Sava restaurant in the town square, I got to sample the Belgian version of tapas and the first of many cold Belgian beers!

St Rumbold's Tower
St Rumbold's Tower

Tempting though it was to stay for more beers , I then take a 15 minute trip to the utterly breathtaking Wintergarden in Ursulinen – a magnificent and enchanting art-nouveau style structure made by nuns in the 1900s.

The structure has a multi-coloured glass cupola, Empire Corridor, Alpine Rood, La Fontaine refectory, piano gallery and magnificent grand staircase.

And after a leisurely stroll, it’s back to the 100m St Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen, where in a moment of madness I agree to make the 500 – yes 500!- steps to reach the top.

My guide assures me it is well worth the strain, and she was right. Not only did the top offer wonderful views of the town, but waiting for me was a reward of Belgian beer!

What an incentive and what a great beer! I just hope Rumbold is the patron saint of Belgian beer!

After descending a little faster than I climbed, it was off to dine with a difference at Grand Cafe Den Grooten Wolsack, surrounded by bookshelves and each superb course served with a different and top class Belgian beer!

Canals and bicycles in Utrecht
Canals and bicycles in Utrecht

The following day I take a stroll through the town which dates back to the middle 16th century, stopping off at the wonderful Royal Tapestry manufacturers De Wit, whose experts restore valuable tapestries from all over the world.

Then onto the UNESCO world heritage site the Large Beguinage, and on to the Het Anker Brewery which was founded more than 600 years ago and now not only boasts a fabulous pint but also a very pleasant single malt whisky.

If you are taken by malts then it’s also worth popping into De Molenburg Distillery just a few miles away.

There is so much to do, see , drink and eat in this very friendly city, but I have to board a train and head across the border in Holland and to Utrecht and the Grand Hotel Karel V, and grand it is - five stars and worth every one.

Again this is a city in which you never need to sit in a car. There are bikes everywhere - single cyclists, dads with children on the front, mums with babies on the back.

Wintergarden Ursulinen
Wintergarden Ursulinen

And if biking isn’t your thing, the walks along the canal, under bridges, and into breweries, like Oudaen City Castle which sits next to the canal, are breathtaking.

For the energetic you can climb the 465 steps to the Dom Tower or take a trip around the home of architect Gerrit Rietveld home, which is a must.

It may not be the usual holiday or long weekend, but these two fabulous cities offer so much more than larger places, where families can enjoy everything at their own pace and mums and dads get to sample the beer!

For information about visiting Mechelen: www.visitflanders.com

For information about visiting Utrecht: www.holland.com

We travelled by train to Mechelen and Utrecht with www.voyages-sncf.com.

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