Men in Red - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen - ©Jan Smets
Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson

  • Job: Freelance travel writer and author of Flanders: The Bradt Travel Guide
  • Favorite destination: Belgium
  • Likes:Travel writer, editor, broadcaster, photographer

The Hanswijk Cavalcade is staged every 25 years so nobody can witness this historical religious procession more than a few times in their life. Read how Emma experienced it to plan your trip to Mechelen for 2038.

August 2013

Ticket for the Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen

A three-headed fire-breathing dragon does duel with a knight, long-limbed giants sway to the music, and a fish-encircled blue whale swims past spouting water at the crowd – this isn’t a Hieronymus Bosch painting, it’s Mechelen’s Hanswijkcalvalcade, and it comes along just three times in a lifetime.

Three-headed dragon - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
Like many of Flanders historical processions, its roots are religious. Over a thousand years ago, in AD988, a ship carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary ran aground near the village of Hanswijk – on the outskirts of Mechelen. Unable to free it, the ship’s men decided Mary clearly wanted to stay in the town and a basilica was built to house her.
The Virgin Mary - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
Fast-forward 250 years and plague was ravishing the city. The fearful citizens decided to bring the statue inside the city gates and shut out the diseased citizens, but after singing a few bars of ‘Show thyself a Mother’ the gates miraculously opened. After everyone had forgiven each other, it was decided to bear the statue through the city. They didn’t get their act together until 1738 – some 450 years later – but ever since then a double jubilee, celebrating the building of the basilica and miraculous Mary, has been held every quarter of a century.
countdown - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
As I exit Mechelen train station, great rivers of spectators sweep down the main shopping street, Bruul, to the Grote Markt. Celebratory flags flap in the wind, people hang out of windows chatting, and a hum of excitement emanates from the crowds stubbornly drinking beer beneath the rain-laden sky. A digital clock stands outside the Stadhuis counting down the minutes until the festivities begin.
poo collector - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
We take our seats and the drums start, still hidden but echoing across the cobblestones. And then the drummers appear, followed by flag throwers and men mounted on horses. A roar of laughter ripples through the stands when a man with a green wheelie bin follows behind, shoveling up the horse poo. He takes a theatrical bow and trundles on, leaving the stage clear for the next acts.
The call of Abraham - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
In quick succession, we whizz through world history: Adam and Eve, Egyptians, toddler-shepherds bearing crooks, the three Wise Men, Jesus, Abraham and the Burgundians; all interspersed with brass bands, ballet dancers, African drummers, jugglers, and puppeteers.
The statue's arrival by boat - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
Almighty flotillas play out the events of the statue’s arrival by boat, the building of the basilica and, finally, the arrival of the Virgin Mary statue herself –gleaming gold and held aloft by blue-robed bearers. The spectators cheer and clap.
Hanswijk Procession - acrobats - Mechelen
The switch to the Mechelen Ommegang  – a procession of the city’s UNESCO-listed giants ¬– is marked by the arrival of acrobats, who climb the seating scaffolding and swing likes apes above the heads’ of the dignitaries and flirt with the VIP hostesses.
Dancing Giants - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen
Then comes Giant, Giantess and their children Janneke, Claeske and Mieke, who teeter across the cobbles flanked by dancing children; the Ros Beiaard horse mounted by four Syrian brothers, who ride on its back brandishing swords and beaming at the crowds; and a swirl of unicorns, whales, dragons and knights. But just like a good dream, the three-hour spectacle is over too quickly and we head to the bars just as the first drops of rain begin to fall.


Selfie Emma Thomson - Hanswijk Procession - Mechelen

The Hanswijk Cavalcade took place on Sunday 25 August and Sunday 1 September 2013 and is the climax of the Hanswijk jubilee celebrations, which are organised in Mechelen throughout the year, from October 2012 to October 2013. The full program is listed on this website.

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