Below are our tips on living in Flanders (Vlaanderen) and Belgium, with a heavy influence towards those who come here to race bicycles in Flanders and Belgium. You will however find many of these apply to general living in Belgium questions.
- Where to live in Belgium
- Housing in Belgium for cyclists
- Cell Phones – Keeping in touch
- Money / Paying for things in Belgium
- Travel and Free time in Belgium
- Bike Shops in Belgium
- Carrying ID in Belgium
Where to live in Belgium
One of the biggest factors to think about is where to live in Belgium. First off, you are going to want to live in the Flanders region of Belgium, which hosts most of the countries bicycle races. Within Flanders you have three major cities, Antwerp, Gent and Brugge.
Brussels can work, but doesn’t have as many races in the area or as many good roads for training. The Walloon region of Belgium has many races, but they are usually spaced farther apart from each other than in Flanders. Also, the Walloon region is French speaking and tends to have fewer English speaking citizens.
Some things to think about when choosing a place to stay:
- What sort of access to shops do I have?
- Are there cheap food shops (Aldi/Lidl) within a close riding distance?
- Where is the closest bike shop? Theater? Train Station? Cafe/bar?
- Will there be places in the town for me to relax? Do laundry? Find internet?
- Do I need a car where I live?
- How far are good training roads? (ie. canal roads, hills, etc.)
- How far are most races from where I live?
- Do they have many races in my area?
- Do I have access to a place to store and wash my bike?
In my experience East Flanders has the most bike races, and the Flemish Ardennes (Vlaamse Aredennen) is the best place for training with a great mix of flat canal roads and short hard hills to do power work. The largest city in the East Flanders area is Gent and has been a long time favorite place for many foreign cyclists. Oudenaarde is where The ChainStay is located and has a great balance between the location to races, awesome training roads and a city that is large enough to have everything you need but small enough not to be too “distracting” to a young cyclist.
Housing in Belgium for Cyclists
This is probably the biggest problem one usually faces when traveling to Belgium. There are several different options you have when coming, all with advantages and disadvantages. There are several different programs throughout Belgium, which offer housing and accommodations specifically for foreign cyclists. They can be anywhere from free (for riders with good results who race for a team) to over 5000 euros for a 6 month stay. All offer various levels of support and accommodation. Ask for photos of the actual room you will be staying in as the level of accommodation can vary from place to place.
There are also short term furnished vacation rentals or furnished apartments available, but they are often at least 900+ Euros a month and usually not located in the best areas of Belgium to stay and train.
Another option would be to rent a place in Belgium, but be aware that most landlords usually ask for a minimum 3-year lease. In larger cities 1 year leases are more common plus there are also options to find “student kamers” which are anywhere from 250+ Euros a month and only 6 to 9 month agreements. For rentals there is typically a two-month deposit plus the first month’s rent paid up front when you sign the lease, these apartments are usually not furnished (often without even lighting fixtures). You will also have to add the utilities to the rental, which typically carry a minimum one-year agreement. So we don’t often suggest renting unless you plan on staying a year or more.
It was because of these reason I started The ChainStay to accommodate cyclists looking for housing in Belgium. We are not the cheapest of the housing options, but we are the best, and include many things that often go overlooked by those finding housing. We strive to make your stay as stress free as possible, and allow you to race to your full potential.
Belgium is officially trilingual with French, Flemish (Dutch) and German spoken here. French is spoken in the Brussels region along with the Walloon region of Belgium. Flemish is in the Flanders region to the north along with Brussels, while the small region next to Germany is German speaking.
In Flanders however a large majority of people under 40 have a very good command of the English language, and most shop keepers in the major cities will all be able to communicate in English because of the large volume of tourism. Many Flemish television channels also show programming in English with Flemish subtitles. This multi-linguistic society is yet another reason why many cyclists come to Belgium.
Food Shopping in Belgium
Belgium is renowned for three things culinary: Beer, Chocolate and Frites. As the country is quite internationally diverse you can find a wide array of international foods and stores depending on the area you are living. The most common chain stores to find international brand names are Delhaize, Carrefour, GB, and Colruyt.
Colruyt is the cheapest of all the larger stores. While the cheapest stores to shop for food are Lidl and Aldi. Lidl has more name brands and a bit more variety, but the cost is just a little more. Aldi is the cheapest, but lacks variety at times, but still has everything you would need to have a healthy, cheap meal if you take your time to plan out different meals with what they provide.
Also be aware that there are MANY local butchers, bakers and green / vegetable shops where you can get things fresh, at a good cost and top quality. Shopping at the town’s weekly market can also be a very affordable way to purchase fresh quality ingredients.
Cell Phones – Keeping In Touch
The communication network in Belgium is first rate, but also can be expensive at times. The use of pay phones (if you can find one) usually requires that you buy a calling card and even then rate is quite high. I would suggest avoiding them whenever possible.
Most people who come to Belgium buy a cheap mobile phone (or have their international tri-band sim-card phone unlocked) and buy a cheap pre-paid sim card. This will allow you to make calls in Belgium, but moreover, receive calls for free. Most plans only require a top up every 6 months and can be a very economical way to have people call you and be able to keep in touch. The most common pre-paid plans are:
- Mobile Vikings – http://www.mobilevikings.be – (best for those wanting mobile internet)
- Mobistar - http://www.mobistar.be/
- Base - http://www.base.be/
- Proximus - http://www.proximus.be/
- Lyca – http://www.lycamobile.be
- Ortel - http://www.ortel.be/ – (which is focused to international calling)
The cheapest way to stay in touch is by using Skype. The service will allow you to keep in contact with friends and family for free if they use the service or you can call for extremely low rates to both cell and land lines.
International calling cards are also available, but be sure to dial the 0800 number attached with it, and not the local number as local calls in Belgium cost money and are not included with the cost of your phone plan. Calls from a land line to a cell phone are also charged at a higher rate.
Belgium’s public transport is world class and all of it’s highways are toll free.
Within Flanders you have several choices for local transport. You can of course walk or ride a bike to most places you will need. If that is too far you can also catch a bus or tram (when in a bigger city) to your desired destination. For longer distances there is also a very integrated train system within Belgium with several international connections.
The cheapest way to travel on De Lijn, the bus and tram service, is with a “lijnkaart” which is 9 euros for a 10 trip pass. You validate it using the little yellow box on the bus or tram. For the rail service in Belgium the use of a Go Pass is your best bet if you are under 26. The Rail Pass is for people over 26 years old, and like the Go Pass, it allows you 10 one-way trips to any where from anywhere in Belgium for a low cost. If you trip is short you might be better off buying a normal ticket. You can also pre-purchase your train tickets online and print them out.
Car rental in Belgium is available in most large cities and can be found for as cheap as 25 euros a day. You are generally required to be 21 years old and hold a valid drivers license recognized in Belgium, but specific rules are varied.
Flying to Belgium is usually done through Brussels International Airport (BRU), but be aware you might be able to find a cheaper (and sometimes direct) flight to airports such as Amsterdam (AMS), Paris (PAR) and London (LON). All of which are a short train ride away, but be aware of the extra cost (and time) required to get to and from these airports. For flights within Europe to Belgium there are several smaller airports, mainly Charleroi (CRL) serviced by Ryan Air. There are also small charter airports in Oostende (OST), Antwerp (ANR) and Lille (LIL), France. These airports usually require a bus ride from a main train station to reach them.
- De Lijn – www.delijn.be
- NMBS-SNCB – www.b-rail.be
- Thalys – http://www.thalys.com
- EuroRail – http://www.eurail.com
- TGV – http://www.tgv-europe.be
- Eurostar – http://www.eurostar.com
Money / Paying for things in Belgium
Belgium uses the EURO as do most of the other EU countries. The biggest problem you will face is the lack of business accepting credit cards. It is always best to carry cash with you and never plan on being able to use your credit card at local shops. The reason is most shops use a debit system called “Bank Contact” for transactions in Belgium. Also, some places that accept Credit Cards require you to have a SIM chip (with pin code) embedded for you to be able to use it. Things are getting better each year, but credit cards are not as common of a payment option as they tend to be in places like the US.
You can also set up a Belgian account if you will be here for a while and get a debit card (bank contact card) for free or a low cost. This might be the most convenient option if you will be here for an extended period of time.
Money exchanging can be done at most banks around Belgium, but rates will vary, so do a bit of searching around. Do avoid exchanging any money at the airport as you will not receive as favorable a rate as you would at a bank.
Travel and Free Time in Belgium
There are lots of great places to visit in Belgium. You can research which ones you would like to visit the most:
- Gent, Belgium – http://www.trabel.com/gent.htm and http://www.visitflanders.co.uk/go/destinations/ghent-intro.html
- Brugge, Belgium – http://www.brugge.be/internet/en/index.htm
- Antwerp, Belgium – http://www.trabel.com/antwerp.htm
- Diksmuide, Belgium – http://www.trabel.com/diksmuide/diksmuide.htm
Oudenaarde, Belgium - http://www.oudenaarde.be/en/visitors
- Brussels, Belgium – http://www.visitbelgium.com/
- Oostende, Belgium – http://www.trabel.com/oostende.htm
- Spa, Belgium – http://www.trabel.com/spa/spa.htm
There are also lots of great beer breweries you can visit including Stella, Palm, Westmalle, Orval, and Brugese Zot. For a complete list see: http://www.visitbelgium.com/beer.htm#breweries
From Belgium you also have plenty of great cities less than three hours away to be able to visit.
- Paris – http://en.parisinfo.com/
- Amsterdam – http://www.amsterdamtourist.nl/
- London – http://www.visitlondon.com/
- Berlin - http://www.visitberlin.de/en
- Cologne - http://www.koeln.de/cologne_tourist_information
If a longer trip isn’t for you there are many things you can do in your free time.
- Movies – Kinepolis is the largest theater chain in Belgium, but there are many local theaters in the area you can also try. - http://kinepolis.be/
- Tour of Flanders Museum
- Bars/Cafes – Many great little bars and cafes where you can sit down and enjoy a coffee or a beer.
- Beach – The beach is usually only a quick train ride away and you can enjoy a day in the sun and relax. The most common places to visit are Oostende, Blankenberge, Knokke and De Panne.
- Restaurants – Plenty of great places to sample in Belgium and if there is a type of food you want there is a restaurant for it.
- Festivals – There several to choose from: Gentse Feesten, Pop Rock, and Rock Wechtwer – http://www.2camels.com/festivals/belgium.php
Bike Shops in Belgium
The best bike shop as far as cost is Van Eyck in Aalst, Belgium. Their prices are very good and they have a big sale in July and January. “Solden” or sales is a Belgian wide sales month where shops are allowed to sell at lower than normal price on all of their items.
You can also look to mail order places in Europe including Chain Reaction, Wiggle, Total Cycling and even Amazon.
Your local bike shop can be a good and cheap source for parts. Just a quick introduction to the owner and some short conversation can lead to a much lower cost on things (especially tires and tubes). It’s a good idea to develop a relationship with these shops because they can be super useful when things go wrong and you need something quick
- Van Eyk – http://www.vaneycksports.com/
- Fashion For Cycling - http://www.fashionforcycling.be/default.html
- Chain Reaction – http://www.chainreactioncycles.com/
- Wiggle – http://www.wiggle.co.uk/
- Total Cycling – http://www.totalcycling.com/
- Bike 2 Build – http://www.bike2build.nl/
Carrying ID in Belgium
In Belgium you are required to carry ID at all times. What I always did (as I didn’t like to carry my passport all the time) was to carry a copy of my passport and other important ID’s on a piece of paper. I did this around town or when on my bike when not too far away from home. Other times I always carried my passport, like when visiting a larger city, or going to a larger interclub race.
If the police do stop you for some reason and ask for ID your drivers license is not considered ID (as it is in the US) so it is important to have your passport (or a copy) with you. Always have it when crossing a border, even within Europe. While the boarders are now open, that doesn’t mean that there are not random boarder checks (which DO happen).