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.

Pat Donnez

Pat Donnez

Radio producer, author, performer and poet (1958)

Can you describe what you do?

I try my hand at many different jobs and hobbies, but everything I do is somehow connected. There is a literary side to the work I do for the radio, and in my writings, I often adopt a colloquial language. Everything I do is complimentary to my other work, and still I have the feeling I haven’t worked a day in my life. If I’m being honest, it is because I am passionate about everything I do.

I was born in Mechelen, but I grew up in the neighbouring village of Hofstade. As an adult, I returned to the city centre, and I have been living here for about 25 years now.

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?

Although the reports of Mechelen as a former hellhole have been greatly exaggerated, I can’t deny that the efforts of our mayor and especially the effort put in by the residents of the city could be described as a Copernican Revolution. This place has changed beyond recognition.

I think Mechelen is a state of mind. It goes beyond the idea of a city with houses and streets, inhabited by people. In my opinion, it has become a symbol of cheerful despair, and of resurrection against all odds. Whenever you encounter something in life that seems impossible, just come to Mechelen and see how it has been transformed, and you will think everything is possible.

The people of Mechelen are true champions at complaining. Back when times were bad, we had every reason to do so. However, even now that times have changed for the better, we still complain! But now, it has become a lot more fun to do so, it has turned into a joyful sport.

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

From 2009 until 2011, I was the first city artist of Mechelen, and my first poem was about my love-hate relationship with this place. At its worst, it can be an insignificant, boring, uninspired and oversized village that aspires to be a metropole. At its best, it is without a doubt the most beautiful city in Europe.

But, it is important to add that both judgements can only be made by residents of Mechelen. No one else has the right to speak of us like this.

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

We could do with a lot more ambition, as a city and as individuals. I know we are only a middle-sized city, but you can become great even in your smallness. We have to dare to rise above ourselves. I’m not talking about throwing 10.000 TON of sand on the Grote Markt to organise a beach volley competition just to keep the inhabitants from getting bored.

We are definitely too ambitious when it comes to those kind of things. We must remember our past as a sovereign city state, a period of independence that is reflected in our wayward character. We have to find a way to tap into that feeling so we can truly transcend our provinciality. That is the kind of ambition I’m talking about.

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

We would start at the Vismarkt at any of the local pubs, De Wei or De Gouden Vis, Pintxos or De Cirque. Ideally, we would just stay there the whole weekend, but for the sake of this article, we could take off through the maze of little medieval streets in the centre, just to impress my guests. Any of the historical buildings around the route will easily win them over.

To add a sense of danger to our trip, I would take them to the haunted ‘swamp hotel’, an abandoned unfinished building from the ’60s in Vrijbroekpark. Depending on who you ask, the plan was to build a hotel of 8 to 18 stories. Megalomanic! The construction site was abandoned when suddenly they realised swamp ground was not an ideal place to build a hotel.

The second day, we would head towards St. John’s Church. Here you can find Rubens’ painting ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which is the most beautiful work of art we possess, in my opinion. I am an atheist, but the radiant glow of that painting is undeniable. And finally, we would visit the original site of the Dossin Kazerne, which is now the location of a housing complex. A disconcerting place of remembrance, but it is a part of our history we cannot ignore.

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

The neighbourhood Nekkerspoel is named after the local folklore of the ‘Nekker’, a kind of swamp monster that would pull lost Mechlinians into the swamp. There are people who claim that actually it were just drunk people looking for an excuse. But I can vouch that the Nekker spirits exist, I have already seen them. Never mind the fact that I was staggeringly drunk at that moment myself.