The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Catherine Windels

Catherine Windels

Owner of Huis Windels (1972)

Can you describe what you do?

I am the fifth generation owner of ‘Huis Windels’, Belgium’s oldest tobacco shop. We started selling and producing cigars in 1875. Over all these years, a lot has changed due to the legislation of tobacco products. About 25 years ago, we stopped our own production line and focused on the shop and the expansion of the assortment. I took over the business from my parents in 2003, and that was the year that we started selling spirits. This proved to be such a success we decided to completely renovate the store in 2015. Nowadays, the customer’s experience is crucial. We truly try to give the cigar aficionados, spirit lovers and pipe smokers a taste of the stories behind all those organic quality products. We organise several tastings a month, where brand ambassadors talk about their products. I feel fortunate to work with two young people who are extremely passionate about their job.

How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?

Mechelen is a small and beautiful city with a dynamic energy. Here, you can find several family-owned shops and stunning museums. In the summer, the vibe is fantastic, lively and intimate at the same time.

How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Mechelen has seen a lot of positive changes, and our shop has definitely felt this and has adjusted accordingly. Before, when Mechelen was still a “dull and grey” city, there was less demand for specialty products. Now the energy around us pushes us to outdo ourselves as well.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

The mobility in Mechelen could be improved. I understand that too much traffic in the centre is undesirable, but a total ban on cars means the death of every shop in town. We must strike a fair balance in this delicate matter. Secondly, small local businesses are the real strength of the city, not the big superstores you can find anywhere. Property owners must realise that the high rental prices are not attractive for young entrepreneurs. Finally, a shopping night on Friday would be a positive thing for local business.

To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Mechelen?

We would start with a coffee at one of the many coffee bars, followed by a visit to the majestic cathedral, where we would climb to the top for a stunning view of the city. After a lunch on a terrace, I would take my visitors to the ‘Hof van Busleyden’ museum. Then we would walk through the beguinage to visit the brewery ‘Het Anker’ where we can taste their locally brewed beers. Rounding off with a shopping spree in the centre, we would finally go to sleep in a cosy hotel or B&B.

Can you talk to us about a local legend, a neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

Back in the 1980s, when I was still a kid, we sold chew tobacco. Farmers and miners chewed it so they avoided the risk of fire but could still enjoy tobacco.The tobacco was spun like wool in big round balls. My mother used a liquorice root liquid to give it extra flavour. I still recall the lovely smell it produced when we put the tobacco in a brown bag to sell it.