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.

Nick Vanhaute

Nick Vanhaute

Guard of the St. Rumbolds Tower and watchmaker (1972)

Can you describe what you do?

I am the curator of the St. Rumbold’s Tower, although most people call me the ‘tower guard’. Every Mechlinian has a soft spot for their tower, so this position is very often still associated with a sort of amazement in the community. In the old days, the tower guard had to keep watch while the city slept at night, but today my job is more like that of an ambassador. I do my daily maintenance round in the tower to make sure everything works properly (like the 16th century clock mechanism). But mainly, I am there as a contact and a guide for the visitors, external partners and temporary workers who need to find their way around the rather complex layout of the building.

Traditionally, it was a watchmaker that was appointed tower guard, and by sheer coincidence this is also the case with me. However, I must say I am just a small part of a very big team of colleagues at Visit Mechelen, who help run the daily operation of the tower and its carillons. Apart from the historical carillon, we also have a completely separate newer set of bells that was installed in 1980. This double carillon setup is unique in the world!

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 pleasant city with a historical, Burgundian atmosphere. In my opinion, what sets us apart is the remarkable number of local speciality shops in the centre: we still have an authentic chemist, an instrument shop, and a dedicated store for vinyl records (which are totally back in style now, apparently).

The city centre is packed with culture, with some more obvious places like the exposition space ‘De Garage’ and theatre ‘De Maan’. But once you start looking around, you’ll find great cultural spots one after the other, like a trail throughout the inner city.

What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

The cultural aspects of Mechelen range from historical to modern, and our strength lies in perfectly combining of the two and ensuring they work well alongside each other. I think one of our main attraction points is the Lamot building, which uniquely combines commercial congress facilities with a local heritage centre. This formula seemed quite risky at first, but nowhere else has it been adapted so successfully.

For example, take the eight historical churches in the city. Together, they form a chain of art patrimony, and they are all publicly accessible. Most of them have been beautifully restored, and the visitor is engaged in the restoration process in a really creative manner, like the timed site visits open to the public.

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

I was able to expand on my skills as a watchmaker, thanks to my work in the St. Rumbold’s Tower. The past and the present meet here in a truly unique way. Ascend the 365 steps of the tower, and you end up in a place that already existed 300 years ago. The sounds you hear coming from the carillon are authentic, and the installation is preserved as much as possible, only using modern technology in order to make the presentation more historically accurate. It is a complex equilibrium and our tower is a leading example. Working here has made me an expert in dealing with this combination of past and present, and I have been asked to apply these skills elsewhere, like the Belfort in Ghent.

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

In a city with a rich heritage of carillons and mechanical clocks, there is a severe lack of publicly displayed time indicators. A lot of the tower clocks and dials on public buildings have all disappeared.

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

Of course, I will take them up the St. Rumbold’s tower, and they’re lucky to get the extended tour with all the stories and details! It is really easy to spend a weekend or even a week in Mechelen, and we can offer something for everybody: for kids you have Technopolis, the Toy Museum and for everyone interested in history and culture, we have lots of historical and culinary walks, the Dossin museum, an afternoon visit to the tower… too much for one day really. And in the evening we have plenty of places where you can enjoy a nice drink and amazing food.

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

A lot of Mechlinians will tell you the story of the ‘Manenblussers’. But few people are familiar with the fact that the tower actually burned down in the year 1499. At that time, it was still under construction, but a number of clocks got lost in the fire.

Another true local legend was the carillon player Jef Denyn, a true virtuoso on the instrument. He always had a way of playing the historical clocks in Mechelen that made them produce mysterious overtones that you won’t hear with any other carillon in the world. This is probably due to the many different manufacturers of the individual clocks. He could truly make the bells sing!