I’ll be honest. Other than seeing the name on a map (just south of Antwerp), I had never heard of Mechelen. What I had heard about was a luxury hotel set in a converted Franciscan church. I love to stay at renovated religious buildings (El Monasterio in San Juan, Tomtom Suites in Istanbul) and was excited to discover Martin’s Patershof. Its location—where was it again?—was secondary.
“Are we really staying here?” asked Jeremy as we rounded the narrow street and gazed upward to the stately brick church. I’m not sure which one of us was more excited as we entered the stylish lobby.
We dropped off our luggage in the rooms and had a quick aperitif in the outdoor patio before a (skeptical) outing into the center of town.
Our large connecting rooms were well-designed, atmospheric, and stylish. They were in the newer part of the building. Some of the rooms in the older part have original stained glass windows.
As we rounded the corner from the quiet side street of the hotel, we forded a little bridge over a canal. We stood overlooking the houses and restaurants lining both sides of the waterway, and admired the harmonious mix of architecture—from medieval to art nouveau to modern. Wait a minute. This was getting kind of charming.
We meandered a little ways through cobblestoned streets and a modern sculpture courtyard to the main square. Dare I say it, even the kids were blown away by the imposing edifice, St. Rumbolt Cathedral, that dominates the large fairy-tale medieval square.
While we decided not to climb the 538 (!) steps up to the top of the belfry—we had just climbed up the Bruges belfry that morning and I might have been a wee bit sore—we explored the echo-y interior, admiring the many ornate alcoves owned and decorated by various guilds.
It was a lovely evening and the square’s cafés were starting to fill up with couples and families sipping their aperitifs but I wanted to try our luck off the square. Just as we agreed on a hankering for Italian (and I’m not making this up), we stumbled across, L’Artista, a bright and airy restaurant serving up traditional pizza and pasta dishes. Mechelen, you are flirting with me.
After dinner, we meandered through some side streets, crossing over the canal, and debating ice cream options when we saw something I never thought I’d see floating under a medieval bridge in the middle of a Flemish town.
Stand up paddleboards!
What would you do? That’s right. You would get back to the hotel and before you can say “why don’t we just Google SUP Mechelen? There can’t be a million entries,” you’d be on the phone with Benny of Benny’s SUP School and reserving five boards for the following morning.
The next day…
Martin’s Sunday brunch in the converted choir room is a sumptuous affair. The buffet is extensive, with luscious pastries, cooked foods, smoked salmon, champagne, and real Belgian hot chocolate –that is, you melt real Belgian chocolate into piping hot milk. Yeah, I know. You’re not the only one who wants to come back as a Belgian child.
Spiritually and gastronomically fulfilled, we headed out for our morning paddle. The fifteen-minute walk to our meeting place on the banks of the canal gave us the chance to see a little more of the town, including a great looking shopping street I would have been tempted to explore if we hadn’t had an appointment to keep.
Although Benny was not available that day, his adorable and easy-going girlfriend was there as promised, measured us for life jackets and paddles, and off we went. I will say that I was glad we had some previous experience and were able to get up and out with no issues (i.e., without falling into the canal). Although I’m told the waterways are quite clean, they are almost black in color and not too inviting. We passed some houseboats, paddled under modern and ancient bridges (some of them so low we had to sit and duck on our boards to get through), and waved to curious onlookers.
There is just something surreal about stand up paddle boarding through an ancient canal. And really, what better way to cap off a night sleeping in the spiritual coolness of Martin’s Patershof.
Thank you to Martin’s Hotels for agreeing to host us for a night! Martin’s Hotels is a Belgian hotel chain with nine distinctive hotels in six cities throughout Belgium, including Bruges and Waterloo.