Busking Europe, in Belgium

Excited by the success of the first small Europe trip we decided to spend a few months exploring Europe now that we were more confident we would be make money on the road. We combined places we had busked before to be sure of making some money initially, but we were more excited to venture into new countries for us. The first stop was Belgium!

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Handwritten European busking diary

BRUGES

As we were away for a few months on this trip, we decided to spend a few days in Belgium. The first town was Bruges, where Tom discovered that somehow between driving out of the campsite in Dover and arriving at the campsite in Bruges that his entire bag of clothes had vanished (to this day we have no idea how it was possible). This left him with literally two t-shirts, one hoodie, one pair of cargo shorts… for a 2 month trip.

Feeling kind of dishevelled, we headed into town in the evening to explore potential busking spots and look round. We agreed that if enough money could be earned the next day that Tom could go out clothes shopping afterwards, for one new item of clothing per busk. This was our motivation to do well.

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Playing in the town

The centre of the old town of Bruges is pretty awesome. Full of cobbled streets that looked a little scary in the dusky light but it turned out that most of them only contained Belgian chocolate shops. We found a busking spot near the huge square in the centre of the city and headed out the next day, prepared with a brand new handmade CD sign.

No amplification is allowed in Bruges, so we caught the bus to outside the centre and strolled in with just guitars on our backs. We set up opposite a handmade Christmas decoration shop, packed with items for sale. It seemed to be a tourist draw which only meant good news for us and it turned out to be a good spot. This was apart from at quarter to, half past, quarter to and the o’clock of every hour where, for a few minutes, bells would ring out from the large clock tower next to us.

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Käthe Wohlfahrt, German Christmas decoration shop

On the second day we ambitiously attempted to busk in the large square itself where on one hand, it seemed to be where most of the people where but on the other hand it was much harder to be heard. A guy sidled up to us in the afternoon, who was a busker himself and asked if we had a permit to play. We had no idea we even needed to get one. He kindly pointed us in the direction of the council offices and suggested we ought to really get one. He told us that without one you could get fined.

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Busking in the square

Back then, we were fairly new to the whole concept of permits and busking as it is not really an issue in the UK. It was free to pick up and the location for it is here.

Rules for Busking:

  • Busking in one spot is allowed up to an hour
  • You can only play in Bruges three days in any one month. This is bad news if you live here. Some of the other buskers we saw while we were there were definitely ignoring this rule.
  • No amps are allowed

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Luckily the day that we got the permit happened to be the day that we got stopped. The permit also covered the two of us playing and we were able to get one the same day we asked for it. It took less than an hour to get, I think. The only drawback is that each permit only lasts for one day. So, if you want to play again – you guessed it. You have to return to the council office each time.

 

BRUSSELS

After the third day we decided it was time to move on to a new place. Brussels was designated as the next stopover. Driving into Brussels around the huge ring road we decided it would be fair to class Brussels as the largest city we’d attempted to busk. It felt a little daunting, to say the least.

Playing in the town

The situation for Brussels did not exactly improve much the next day. We headed into the city on the Sunday by train and eventually managed to find a pedestrian area to busk. The amp came with us this time and after two songs had made €27. We thought Brussels was going to be amazing! Then the police arrived and told us busking was not allowed on the weekends.

Not really sure what to do with ourselves, we asked around a few cafes and almost managed to convince one to give us a gig over lunchtime. After a few minutes of strolling the streets we heard a noise in the distance and followed it. To our outrage we spotted another busker with a set of steel drums set up in plain view. Conveniently, there were no police around. We almost considered playing again acoustically but the police appeared again and the sound of drums ended pretty abruptly. It was then that we happened upon the cathedral in Brussels, along with every tourist in the city. The huge square was impressive but we were not really in a state where we could take it all in, so we retreated back to camp.

Why we decided to leave

On arrival we discovered that one of the bags with music equipment had gone missing containing a Boss tuner, splitter pedal, one lead and some CDs. The second loss of the travels almost prompted a rethink of the whole trip. We considered turning back while we were close to the UK and what would happen if something worse went wrong when we were much further away from home. Fortunately we decided to carry on, but we didn’t attempt another busk in Brussels.

 

Ghent

On our most recent trip to Belgium we stopped off at Ghent. This was a town that we had passed by many times before but never visited. We went in on a weekend and tried an acoustic busk that went OK, but on the second day we were stopped and told we needed to get a permit. The permits can be got at 17A Bokermarkt and they are completely free.

Ghent-canal

Main Rules for Busking:

  • Can only play for an hour in each place
  • Can use one small battery powered amplifier – adjust the volume to suit where you are playing.
  • No more than a group of 10
  • Stay 50 metres from another busker
  • Keep 10 metres away from terraces (we weren’t sure exactly what that meant but kept this distance from restaurants/roads etc)

There is also a handy group for busking in Ghent called Free Busking Ghent for any questions. The full Dutch explanation of the permit can be found here.

It was so nice to play in a town where obtaining a busking permit was so easy! They made two up for us in half an hour on the same day and we just went off to play. If Ghent can do it, why can’t every other town?

With such great rules in place the only downside of playing in Ghent was, unsurprisingly the large amounts of other buskers. There were especially a lot on the weekends. When we got our permit I think we were around the 440th buskers to be registered that year.

 

Busking in Belgium

To get around in Belgium, we used the handy, pocket-sized town maps made by USE-IT. They had maps for Bruges, Brussels and Ghent and were packed full of useful information. The maps are made by locals and so are also packed with tons of helpful tips. They range from interesting attractions that each town has, such as the little Africa section in Brussels, to useful places that you would not have otherwise heard about, like the fact that Ghent has public BBQs in one of the parks. These maps are definitely a unique twist on a regular tourist map and give lots of information about a selection of towns all over Europe.

All in all, Belgium is quite a nice country to busk. You need a permit to busk in most places but they are mainly free and not too difficult to get. We didn’t busk in some other major towns like Antwerp because we had heard some bad experiences. Obviously that doesn’t mean they are bad places to play, but we decided to go elsewhere. Belgium on the whole,  does seem to try to be welcoming to street music though, which is nice to see. Plus, the beer is also amazing! Prost!

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