Belgium – home of: Hercule Poirot, Tin Tin, 2,600 chocolatiers (UK has 80), Charlemagne (founder of the Holy Roman Empire), Magritte, Jean-Claude van Damme, Eddy Merckx (5x winner Tour de France), Gerardus Mercator (think maps) to name but a few – not bad for a country only created in 1830.
For my fourth visit, Thursday 06.59 hrs at St Pancras International and 15 www.brxbondstreet.co.uk members are on the Eurostar to Brussels Midi. A 10 minute taxi ride to Grand Place where a guide has been organised by the Main Tourism Office. We meet at their office in the town hall, which she points out is not quite symmetrical due to the two architects involved hating each other, rather than too much beer.
At Number 10 Grand Place is the newly renovated Belgian Brewers’ Museum with a well chosen web address www.beerparadise.be – entrance €6 with a free beer afterwards where on my visit at the end of the day, it is reassuring to see two policemen having a beer. Tucked round to the side in an alleyway is a brass statue which people touch once for good luck – although we are advised to wash our hands afterwards! A child’s head just above the main statue is touched if you want a baby, while a little mouse down to the left is if you want to have an affair with someone. Who said Belgians were boring?? Our guide Monica, says we can pop back later if we are feeling a bit shy here but as she is saying this one blonde lady walks past our group, touches the mouse and wanders off with a smile on her face.
5 minutes walk away is the Manneken Pis which has no clothes today and is just as crowded as last year http://www.georgeemsden.co.uk/2008/04/another-fine-kettle-of-fish-youve-got-me-into/
By this time, three have treated themselves to waffles with cream and fresh fruit and it is time to go uptown past what were originally poor areas. Brussels inhabitants are used to living in suburbs and it seems central properties are not very popular for rentals. Belgians do not take themselves too seriously and are proud of their sense of humour as the main heading means “And who will walk the dog?” slightly more imaginative than No Dogs Allowed. Reports of the death of Belgium as a nation after last year’s political crisis, are greatly exagerated and while a few per cent of each of the two main communities would like to see the country split up, the vast majority do not. Top of the hill is the must see http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/ next to a new Magritte Museum opening 2nd June 2009 http://www.musee-magritte-museum.be/
2009 is The Year of the Comic Strip http://www.brusselscomics.com/en/index.cfm where The Smurfs are another Belgian invention. Brussels itself has two large parks with the biggest in the south and next biggest in the north with its Heysel Sports Stadium and Atomium from the 1958 World Fair – both easily reached via metro or bus.
Monica leaves us after > 2 hours in Gallerie de la Reine http://www.ilotsacre.be/images/virtualvisit/galeriedelareine-koninginnegalerij.htm (think Burlington Arcade) just near our restaurant in Rue des Bouchers. Second surprise of the day is lobbyist Julia Harrison of www.fdblueprint.be who has been in Brussels for 20 years. Clients include UK companies wanting to do more business in Europe which brings her back to the UK about twice a month. Strangely in the these troubled times, huge EU grant funds are barely touched but as with any public money, one has to know the procedure to apply.
The UK has 3 ambassadors in Belgium, one to NATO, one to the EU legislature and one to the nation of Belgium itself. Property prices in Belgium are descrcribed as “a gift” as setting up a business is apparently cheaper than setting one up in the UK. All sounds a bit tough on the French where a professional connection told me last year, there has been an exodus of businesses escaping French bureaucracy with agencies to help French businesses set up in the UK at Ashford, the last Eurostar stop before the tunnel.
Strangest item in the day is tax – not what you would expect on a jolly with your friends in a foreign country. A bendy bus with film poster showing French pop star turned actor Johnny Hallyday goes past and Monica informs us that Monsieur Johnny (huge star in France) previously applied for Belgian nationality (like his father) so he could pay less tax while living in Monaco. Brings back memories of a tax wheeze The Belgian Tax Holiday http://www.taxationweb.co.uk/tax-articles/general/is-it-the-end-for-the-belgian-tax-holiday.html whereby UK nationals could avoid Capital Gains Tax by living in Belgium for a while. Belgium has (had?) no Capital Gains Tax, so sell off your assets at a huge profit while living in Belgium, and voila! pay no tax at all. Alas, all killed off a few years ago by our Prime Minister when he was at No 11. Last on this exciting subject is Julia who points out that the right sort of business structure e.g. representative office, freelance or whatever can save significant amounts of tax. But most important point to remember with business in Brussels is that it all works on relationships – c’est la vie.