The novelty of physically being in more than one country at the same time never wears thin for me. I will always take the (photo) opportunity to splay myself across official frontier lines even if the resulting pose may present me in a less than flattering light.
So when I first heard about the unique Belgian-Dutch town of Baarle (on the fabulous BBC comedy panel show QI), I couldn’t resist charging up my camera and paying it a visit.
Visitors to Baarle maybe forgiven for thinking that the town straddles the Belgian-Dutch border because one quickly crosses into Belgium from the Netherlands when travelling through it. Yet, carry on through the town and one will cross back into the Netherlands before very likely entering and leaving Belgium for the second time and maybe even a third time. The reason being is that the Belgian-Dutch border does not run through Baarle at all. In fact the border is nearly fifteen kilometres away, south of the town. Instead, Baarle is a geographical jigsaw puzzle made up of several pieces of land officially part of Belgium within the Netherlands. These Belgian enclaves and exclaves are historically known as the ‘Hertog’ parts of Baarle, with the surrounding Dutch areas known as Baarle ‘Nassau’.
The result is a town with two very distinct identities and a rather complicated network of national border lines. These border lines are marked around the town with white crosses on affected pavements and steel discs across affected roads making it very clear when one is crossing from a Dutch part of Baarle into a Belgian part, and vice versa. They also make for some very interesting and unique photo opportunities.
Even though the exclaves and boundaries have been in existence in Baarle since the twelfth century, builders appear to have completely ignored them and over the years have built wherever possible in Baarle. As a result there are several homes and premises in Baarle that stand on exclave borders and thereby officially straddling two countries. This poses one major political problem for the owners of these properties: which government does one pay property tax to? The solution lies with the front door. The side of the border line on which the main building entrance stands determines the country in which the building is registered in.
But what happens if a border line runs right through the middle of a front door as it does with one house along Loveren, north of Baarle?
Some addresses may have dual nationality in the town but residents of Baarle do not. They are very proud of their national identity depending on which municipality they live in. When I first arrived at my hotel in Baarle Nassau, where one wall of the building skimmed a border line and just about managed to avoid a Belgian address by millimetres, the Dutch proprietor asked me in a jovial manner (and in perfect English) “so is this your first time in the Netherlands?” Actually, by that point it was probably my third time in the country having crossed through two exclaves to get to the hotel.
Belgian residents are far more visual in expressing their national pride. Belgian flags fly on almost every building in Baarle Hertog.
Although residents are very defensive of their nationality, there is no obvious animosity between the two communities. In fact, there is a strong sense of harmony in Baarle where every effort has been made to represent both countries equally in every aspect of town life. For example, although both communities are predominantly Roman Catholic, there are two main churches in the town – one Belgian and one Dutch – within walking distance of each other:
There is a Belgian post office and a Dutch post office in Baarle:
Both countries run bus routes through the town:
Belgian produce and Dutch produce are stocked and clearly marked out in the town’s supermarkets:
Two national crests share equal billing in the town centre:
… and there even appears to be two separate drainage systems:
All over Baarle there are monuments and symbols celebrating the town’s unity, like the ‘Friendship’ sculpture along Singel erected by the Cooperatieve Rabobank BA. The two figures are standing on a map of Baarle marking out the Belgian/Dutch enclaves and exclaves.
A bench was purposely placed on a border line and suitably decorated to also symbolise the unique friendship shared by the two municipalities:
One thing that is clearly not equal in Baarle is the law and this makes for some interesting interpretations of it within the town. The rules on selling fireworks in the Netherlands are the strictest in Europe with an outright ban on their public sale throughout the country for 362 days of the year, the ban only being lifted for the three days leading up to New Year’s Day. Belgian rules are far more lenient on the matter and Baarle Hertog residents appear to revel in the fact with not one but at least five stores dedicated to the sale of fireworks all year round.
The sale of tobacco in Baarle also illustrates the differing political attitudes held by the two nations. Although restricted and heavily regulated, there is no outright ban in the public sale of tobacco in the Netherlands, yet there is absolutely nowhere in Baarle Nassau where one can buy tobacco. Duties and taxes on tobacco have historically been much higher in the Netherlands than in Belgium, so there is no call for selling tobacco in Baarle Nassau as residents buy it cheaper literally down the road in Baarle Hertog. The Belgian enclaves and exclaves are awash with tobacco shops, and with Belgium’s less restrictive rules on the advertising of tobacco it is not difficult to spot a tobacconist’s in Baarle Hertog.
Baarle is a sleepy town in Northern Europe that would otherwise be unremarkable if it wasn’t for its unique geographical arrangement. No other place in the world is like it. I must have crossed in and out of Belgium at least twenty times in one day just by walking around the town. I could have crossed the border even more often during that day if I hadn’t spent so much time fooling around on some of the border lines.
Useful links and how to get there:
Getting to Baarle Nassau Hertog is fairly straight-forward. There is a regular Grenbus service (route 460) from the Belgian border town of Turnhout that will take passengers straight to Baarle Nassau Hertog. The bus stop is just outside Turnhout train station. The journey takes around twenty-five minutes depending on the traffic, and the best stop to alight from in Baarle is Singel (NL) in front of Den Engel’s restaurant. There are several trains direct to Turnhout from Brussels-Midi daily taking around one to one-and-a-half hours.
An easily digestible explanation of how Baarle’s network of enclaves and exclaves came into existence back in the twelfth century, as well as maps and photos of the town can be found on Baarle’s official website here. Although the website is primarily in Dutch, click on the Union flag icon and then download the town’s free English tourist guide Baarlezine for everything there is to know about the town locally known as “the puzzle of two countries”.
And what exactly is the difference between an enclave and an exclave? To be honest, after reading the various definitions on the internet I’m still not quite sure.
The Drielandenpunt, Vaals: the tripoint obelisk located in the Netherlands. Or is it in Belgium? No, it’s definitely in Germany.
And where exactly is the highest peak in the Netherlands these days?