Our local town, Mechelen, in the Flemish speaking region of Belgium, lies between the cities of Brussels and Antwerp.
The river Dilje flows through the town and, in summer, is a great place to sit and sample the many local beers.
The architecture of the central square, the Grote Markt, is very attractive, much of it dating from the 16th century, though there are later ornate Rococo houses, all overshadowed by the great tower of St Rumbold’s Cathedral. St Rumbold was an Irish missionary, possibly from Iona, who spread Christianity here, 1500 years ago.
The Town Hall is especially flamboyant
Flemish Christmas traditions begin with the feastday of Sint Niklaas (Santa Claus), St. Nicholas, on 6th December and chocolate shops are busy on the days leading up to it, selling speculoos and chocolate biscuits of St Niklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet, Black Peter. Men dressed up as these characters pass through the villages collecting donations for charity. There are various theories about these two characters – pagan lore, medieval tradition – but it is a fun and popular time with sweets and cakes at the centre of the festivity and starts the ball rolling for the month ahead.
Belgium is rightly known the world over for its wonderful chocolates, but speculoos, spiced sweet biscuits, are traditionally baked in the form of St Nicholas at this time ; speculoos biscuits and spreads, even ice creams, are now available year round, lots of calories I’m sure but delicious.
The cheese and ham shops are busy in preparation for St Nicholas’ Day
Christmas crockery is out on display
The displays at the flower shops, and even the stalls at the lively Saturday market, are always tasteful, often single colour arrangements… like their gardens – showing Belgian restraint.
Toys too are distributed to children, though increasingly this is moving to the 25th December.
We are lucky to have several wonderful Flemish towns within half an hour of the house – Antwerp, Brussels, Leuven.. but Mechelen has its own special charm .. not least because it hasn’t been “discovered” by the crowds who invade Bruges, and every visit is a pleasure … no more so than on St Nicholas’ Day.
(All photography mine; feel free to use any of Jardin’s images but please credit and link back)