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US$1 equals Bf44.4
Why on earth hadn’t I thought of it before? Bruges is one of those places that stops you in your tracks, a perfectly preserved medieval city where every street and building murmurs “photo opportunity.” Unless their job takes them there, relatively few Americans think of relocating to Belgium. Yet the strong dollar has brought many hitherto “expensive’’ European countries within reach. The big surprise was that property was so affordable, which I’ll detail later on, but here are a few examples: 2-bedroom Bruges apartments can be bought for as little as 2,250,000 Belgian francs ($50,625), and 3-bedroom townhouses start at Bf2,995,000 ($67,388). In the city’s leafy suburban outskirts, 3 and 4-bedroom villa properties are available from Bf5,400,000 ($121,502) and Bf6,550,000 ($147,377). Only five miles from the North Sea coastline, and 60 miles from Brussels, Dutch-speaking Bruges is a favorite Flanders stopover on the ‘Museums and Old Masters’ circuit. Known to its Flemish inhabitants as Brugge, it’s a gothic masterpiece, a city of cobbled squares, and innumerable looking-glass canals spanned by arched stone bridges. In the coldest winters, the canals freeze. Locals skate over these icy white ribbons like characters from a 19th-century Christmas card.
Meander anywhere in this fairy tale city and you encounter romance turned to stone: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Michelangelo’s marble Madonna, a belfry whose 47-bell carillon has been ringing out the quarter-hours for the past seven centuries. Street names are like something from a medieval chapbook—I’ll bet you haven’t got a Blinde Ezelstraat (Blind Donkey Street) in your hometown.
Chocolate and old lace
As well as art treasures, lace shops, and more chocolatiers than are good for anyone’s cholesterol levels, there’s far too much to take in on a day-trip. We stayed four days, letting the city work its sorcery. I got immense pleasure from walking the canals and admiring the gabled mansions of 16th-century wool merchants, but you don’t have to wear out your shoe leather. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride or drift along the canals by boat, soaking up the atmosphere of the High Middle Ages, and you’ll see various testaments to bygone times, like a little row of almshouses, and the cloistered enclosure of a beguinage (a 13th century house of seclusion where genteel laywomen once lived). Head eastwards to the medieval walls and you’ll even see windmills.
Herrings for breakfast? Early risers can follow their noses to the Vismarkt, Bruges’ fish market which gets underway at the unearthly hour of 6a.m. We stayed nearby, on Hallestraat, a traffic-free street only a step away from the main Marketplace and belfry tower. With excellent kitchen facilities, the cozy (but unpronounceable) Koffieboontje flats and studios adjoin a small hotel and restaurant of the same name. Various sized apartments sleep up to six people. In the low season, a 3-night weekend stay in a studio for two costs a total of Bf5400 ($121) with each extra night charged at Bf1,350 ($30). For other self-catering options and hotels contact the local tourist office.
• Flats Koffieboontje, Hallestraat 4, B-8000 Brugge; tel. (32-50) 338-027, fax (32-50) 343-904
• Bruges/Brugge Tourist Office, Burg 12,
B-8000 Brugge; tel. (32-50) 448-686, fax (32-50)
448-600, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jazz band serenades
For long-term rentals, Bruges would certainly be worth considering for anyone who might be relocating to Brussels for work. The commute would be worth it just for the pleasure of living in such a beautiful city—and it has a far more intimate feel than Brussels. Or why not come if you simply fancy a change of scenery? It’s only an hour from the capital by train (tickets from Brussels to Bruges cost $9), and Paris and Amsterdam are both within a 3-hour journey. The dimly lit streets are safe to walk about at night, and although Bruges is provincial, it’s no cultural backwater. There’s a thriving cafe society and in summertime, student jazz bands serenade visitors from the waterways. We attended a performance of the Barber of Seville at Bruges’ magnificent Baroque Theater, the Stadsschouwburg. Tickets were a steal—$20 for the best seats in the house. Along with some excellent delicatessens, a few good supermarkets are within a five-minute walk of the Grote Markt, Bruges’ central square, where Wednesday-morning markets are held. You’ll find the Profi store on Langestraat and Nopri on Norrdzandstraat. Prices are very reasonable: freshly baked croissants Bf21 ($0.48), Bordeaux white wine Bf83 ($1.90), punnet of cherry tomatoes Bf79 ($1.80), 6 brioches Bf44 ($1.01), steak Bf520 ($11.70) per kilogram, 250grams of filter coffee Bf85 ($1.95), 3 kilograms of potatoes Bf72 ($1.65), 250 of grams butter Bf55 ($1.25), 1 liter milk Bf45 ($1), 750 grams of Kellogg’s cornflakes Bf109 ($2.50), 20 Stuyvesant cigarettes Bf127 ($2.90).
Mussels and beer
There’s an incredible choice of restaurants. And believe me, portions are huge. A 3-course meal of Flemish specialties (eels for starters, rabbit and prunes for the main course) in Le Petite Venetie, Huidenswetterplein, cost $16 each. My own favorite eatery is Chagall, a cozy bistro on Saint Amandsstraat. Order mussels in cream, and what appears to be half the North Sea’s mussel stock arrives at your table in a bubbling cauldron. With a plate of fries on the side, it would easily have fed ten of Bruges’ jolly peasants. They serve a good range of beers here too—try one of the local brews like Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry) or shock your taste buds with a cherry-flavored Kriek beer. IL
A three-story house for under $29,700
Most Bruges agents handle rental properties as well as sales. Houses and apartments for sale can be organized by Te Koop; rental properties by Te Huur. You may even come across a rental property you like by wandering through Bruges, back streets. I saw a delicious little artisan-type cottage near the Jerusalem church with a Te Huur sign in the window.
Many agents have sales and rental listings in a monthly paper called De Vastgoedmakelaar, website: www.devastgoedmakelaar.be. You can also try the Eigen Dome agency, which can be found at www.immoweb.be. The site is partly in English but for Bruges properties click on the West Flanders button. (For really cheap properties look to Kortrijk, a West Flanders town near the French border. A 3-storey house, 86 square meters, is on offer here for a mere Bf1,320,000: $29,700)
An English-speaking lady in Hoorens & De Neve’s office told me that most leases in Bruges run for a year, with the majority of properties let on an unfurnished basis. Studios start at around Bf8,500 ($191) monthly, 2-bedroom apartments from Bf15,500 ($348) monthly and villas from Bf36,000 ($810) monthly. However, it’s quite feasible to rent furnished apartments and houses in nearby seaside villages for a two- or three-month period. It’s not impossible to find furnished properties in Bruges itself, either.
The ERA office had furnished studios starting at Bf10,950 ($246); Dewaele had 1-bedroom apartments from Bf14,000 ($315) and a 3-bedroom villa at Bf48,000 ($1080) monthly. De Smet & Poupeye’s furnished rentals included studios from 8,500 ($191) to Bf11,500 ($258) and 2 and 3-bedroom apartments from Bf24,000 ($540) to Bf32,000 ($720).
• Woonburo Hoorens & De Neve, Katelijnestraat 150, 8000 Bruges; tel. (32-50) 343-848, fax (32-50) 342-520.
• Eigen Dome, Westmeers 15, 8000 Bruges; tel. (32-50) 333-399, fax (32-50) 330-710, e-mail:email@example.com.
• Adviesbureau Dewaele, Vlamingstraat 32, 8000 Bruges; tel. (32-50) 444-999, fax (32-50) 444-990,
• ERA Belgium, Hoogstraat 30, 8000 Bruges, tel. (32-50) 331-932.
• De Smet & Poupeye, Hoefijzerlaan 1, 8000 Bruges; tel. (32-50) 470-000.
A small townhouse in central Bruges converted into three studio apartments can bring in a rental income of Bf323,000 ($7,267) annually. Price: Bf2,500,000 ($56,250).
• Two-bedroom Bruges maisonette, 100 squared meters. Price: Bf2,975,000 ($66,938).
• Renovated 2-bedroom artisan’s house in the Bruges back streets, 80 square meters. Price: Bf3,400,000 ($76,501).
• Bruges house built in the year 1600. 2 bedrooms, 1 bath room, 120 squared meters. Price: Bf4,900,000 ($110,251).
• Two-story house of 827 square meters with 3 bedrooms, 700 meters from the beach near Ostend. Price: $151,877.
• “Rustieke villa’’ (rustic villa), 530 square meters, in the nearby village of Eernegem. has four bedrooms and a garage. Price: Bf6,900.000 ($155,252).
• Mid-19th-century canal-side house, 160 square meters, three stories high with typical Bruges facade. Price: Bf8,300,000 ($186,753).
Living in Belgium
Foreigners staying longer than three months are classed as
residents and must conform with various formalities regarding residential permits and any necessary work permits. If you’re coming for work, your employer must get you a work permit.
You have to obtain a temporary residence permit from a Belgian diplomatic or consular office in the States. On arriving in Belgium, future residents register with the Population or Aliens department of their commune of residence (the equivalent to a local town hall), and obtain a certificate of registration for foreigners. Initially valid for one year, this is your proper residence permit. Depending on personal circumstances, it can be renewed annually.
Freelancers pursuing independent work-related activities must also apply to the commune for what’s called a carte professionnelle. The carte, issued for a 5-year period, includes a description of the authorized activity.Persons of ‘private means’ must apply for residence permits through the Belgian Embassy or Consulate in their country of origin. You must be able to show that you have sufficient means at your disposal and that capital and income can be transferred to Belgium.
Embassy of Belgium, 3330 Garfield St. NW,
Washington DC 20008; tel. (202) 333-6900, fax (202) 333-3079, e-mail: Washington@diplobel.org.
To help foreigners settle in the country more easily, the Ministry of External Relations publishes an information dossier (in English) about communes and how the Belgium system works. Get it from The Brussels-Europe Liaison Office, 63 Avenue d’Auderghem /Oudergemlaan, 1040 Brussel; Tel. (322) 280-0080, fax (322) 280-0386, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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