Baarle-Nassau-Hertog … the fascinating town full of Belgian/Dutch borders but is not a Belgian/Dutch border town. Confused?

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.

'Lollygagging' on the French-Spanish border (marked by the pole) along the historic Santiago Frontier Bridge between Hendaya (France) and Irun (Spain). My left foot here is in Spain, my right foot is in France, but all of me is in the Basque region

‘Lollygagging’ on the French-Spanish border (marked by the pole) along the historic Santiago Frontier Bridge between Hendaya (France) and Irun (Spain). My left foot here is in Spain, my right foot is in France, but all of me is in the Basque region

The Drielandenpunt located 2km outside the Dutch town of Vaals. The obelisk marks the point where three European countries meet. My left foot is in Germany, my right foot is in Belgium and my necklace is in the Netherlands

The Drielandenpunt located 2km outside the Dutch town of Vaals. The obelisk marks the point where three European countries meet. My left foot is in Germany, my right foot is in Belgium and my necklace is in the Netherlands

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.

Baarle Hertog Nassau town road sign

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 centre of Baarle photographed in the Netherlands. The church is Saint Remigius, standing on Belgian land. However, the main Belgian-Dutch border does not run through this town. Confused?

The centre of Baarle photographed in the Netherlands. The church is Saint Remigius, standing on Belgian land. However, the main Belgian-Dutch border does not run through this town. Confused?

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.

One of the many border lines found in and around the town of Baarle, officially marking out Belgian and Dutch territory

One of the many border lines found in and around the town of Baarle, officially marking out Belgian and Dutch territory

Baarle Hertog Nassau border beside pub

I'm surprised the driver of this Dutch-registered car made every effort not to park in his/her native country. Maybe the road restrictions are more favourable in Belgium

I’m surprised the driver of this Dutch-registered car made every effort not to park in his/her native country. Maybe the road restrictions are more favourable in Belgium

This car has just entered one of Baarle's Belgian exclaves (I've added the red markings to this photo to show where the exclave border is here). It's a good thing one has to drive on the right in both the Netherlands and Belgium, otherwise that cyclist may have been in trouble

This car has just entered one of Baarle’s Belgian exclaves (I’ve added the red markings to this photo to show where the exclave border is here). It’s a good thing one has to drive on the right in both the Netherlands and Belgium, otherwise that cyclist may have been in trouble

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.

This newly built home is the latest building in Baarle to stand on a Belgian/Dutch border line (the white border crosses can be seen on the pavement in front of the 'For Sale' sign). As the front door stands on the Belgian side of the line, the new owners of this house will be able to enjoy evenings watching telly in the Netherlands but will pay Property Tax to the Belgian Government

This newly built home is the latest building in Baarle to stand on a Belgian/Dutch border line (the white border crosses can be seen on the pavement in front of the ‘For Sale’ sign). As the front door stands on the Belgian side of the line, the new owners of this house will be able to enjoy evenings watching telly in the Netherlands but will pay Property Tax to the Belgian Government

... or they could always move their front door a few metres to the right to benefit from the Dutch tax system (and in the past Baarle homeowners have apparently done this to benefit from cheaper taxes)

… or they could always move their front door a few metres to the right to benefit from the Dutch tax system (and in the past Baarle homeowners have apparently done this to benefit from cheaper taxes)

The main entrance to this branch of Zeeman's is on the Dutch side of this border and so this store is registered in the Netherlands

The main entrance to this branch of Zeeman‘s is on the Dutch side of this border and so this store is registered in the Netherlands

Clearly there is no demand for tea cloths and bin liners in Belgium

Clearly there is no demand for tea cloths and bin liners in Belgium

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?

'That' house along Loveren

‘That’ house along Loveren

The front door is neither entirely in the Netherlands nor in Belgium, so the solution is ...

The front door is neither entirely in the Netherlands nor in Belgium, so the solution is …

Two door numbers (Belgian number 2, Dutch number 19), two official addresses and even two door bells ... so I guess two annual property tax bills as well

Two door numbers (Belgian number 2, Dutch number 19), two official addresses and even two door bells … so I guess two annual property tax bills as well

This gift shop along Niewuwstraat has also adopted two addresses

This gift shop along Niewuwstraat has also adopted two addresses

The gift shop owner has capitalised on her unique geographical position and marked the border out inside her shop to entice curious border enthusiasts like myself, in

The gift shop owner has capitalised on her unique geographical position and marked the border out inside her shop to entice curious border enthusiasts like myself, in

The gift shop's two addresses

The gift shop’s two addresses

A mock boundary stone above the door of the gift shop. '1198' is the year in which the exclaves were first established as 'Baarle Hertog'

A mock boundary stone above the door of the gift shop. ‘1198’ is the year in which the exclaves were first established as ‘Baarle Hertog’

Another business in Baarle with dual nationality: De Biergrens wine and beer merchants

Another business in Baarle with dual nationality: De Biergrens wine and beer merchants

Baarle Hertog Nassau De Biergrens front sign close up

De Biergrens has also made a tourist attraction out of the Belgian/Dutch border line running through its premises

De Biergrens has also made a tourist attraction out of the Belgian/Dutch border line running through its premises

Baarle Hertog Nassau De Biergrens inside border running through shoop De Dool Belgian beer crates on border

I was expecting the placing of produce on this set of shelves to be determined by the border running through it with only Dutch beer on the left and Belgian beer on the right. But there is no such segregation in this store. Belgian and Dutch beer sit side by side on either side of the border in De Biergrens (although the Heineken is clearly on the Dutch side of the store here)

I was expecting the placing of produce on this set of shelves to be determined by the border running through it with only Dutch beer on the left and Belgian beer on the right. But there is no such segregation in this store. Belgian and Dutch beer sit side by side on either side of the border in De Biergrens (although the Heineken is clearly on the Dutch side of the store here)

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.

Heme House in Baarle Hertog near Saint Remigius Belgian church; once a Belgian town house now a proud Belgian National Monument. A bronze sculpture at the side of the building is in memory of three Baarle Hertog inhabitants who were executed by Nazis during the Second World War

Heme House in Baarle Hertog near Saint Remigius Belgian church; once a Belgian town house now a proud Belgian National Monument. A bronze sculpture at the side of the building is in memory of three Baarle Hertog inhabitants who were executed by Nazis during the Second World War

A proud Belgian establishment in one of Baarle's Belgian exclaves

A proud Belgian establishment in one of Baarle’s Belgian exclaves

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:

The spires of Baarle's Dutch and Belgian churches indicating how close they are to each other

The spires of Baarle’s Dutch and Belgian churches indicating how close they are to each other

There is a Belgian post office and a Dutch post office in Baarle:

Both countries run bus routes through the town:

A Dutch bus stop (bottom left) and a Belgian bus stop (top right) with a poster in the middle advertising an event either nation can attend

A Dutch bus stop (bottom left) and a Belgian bus stop (top right) with a poster in the middle advertising an event either nation can attend

Belgian produce and Dutch produce are stocked and clearly marked out in the town’s supermarkets:

Catering for everyone's tastes in Baarle

Catering for everyone’s tastes in Baarle

Two national crests share equal billing in the town centre:

The crests of Baarle's two nations celebrated in this pavement mosaic along Singel

The crests of Baarle’s two nations celebrated in this pavement mosaic along Singel

… and there even appears to be two separate drainage systems:

Baarle-y water: making sure both countries have an equal share of rain water in Baarle

Baarle-y water: making sure both countries have an equal share of rain water in Baarle

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.

I'm not sure which one is the Belgian figure and which is the Dutch

I’m not sure which one is the Belgian figure and which is the Dutch

A bench was purposely placed on a border line and suitably decorated to also symbolise the unique friendship shared by the two municipalities:

Baarle Hertog Nassau bench sitting across border side

Baarle Hertog Nassau bench sitting on border, front

Not the most ladylike way to sit on a bench but I just couldn't resist straddling the border in this way

Not the most ladylike way to sit on a bench but I just couldn’t resist straddling the border in this way

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.

One of five shops I came across in Baarle Hertog dedicated to selling fireworks

One of five shops I came across in Baarle Hertog dedicated to selling fireworks

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.

It is not just the criss-cross border lines that help determine whether an area in Baarle is Dutch or Belgian. The many tobacco stores in Baarle Hertog are a good indicator as well

It is not just the criss-cross border lines that help determine whether an area in Baarle is Dutch or Belgian. The many tobacco stores in Baarle Hertog are a good indicator as well

All the tobacconist's in Baarle Hertog advertise their prices in the window (because Belgian law says they can) comparing them with the alternative Dutch prices for the same product

All the tobacconist’s in Baarle Hertog advertise their prices in the window (because Belgian law says they can) comparing them with the alternative Dutch prices for the same product

At these prices it's little wonder that Baarle Nassau residents venture in to Baarle Hertog for their tobacco

At these prices it’s little wonder that Baarle Nassau residents venture in to Baarle Hertog for their tobacco

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.

Baarle Hertog Nassau straddling the border ladylike

No, I hadn't fallen over drunk in this shot even though it looks like I had

No, I hadn’t fallen over drunk in this shot even though it looks like I had

A plaque commemorating international recognition of all borderlines in Baarle, with my feet in shot (right foot in the Netherlands, left foot and coat buttons in Belgium)

A plaque commemorating international recognition of all borderlines in Baarle, with my feet in shot (right foot in the Netherlands, left foot and coat buttons in Belgium)

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”.

A map of De Tweelandenpuzzel - The Puzzle of Two Countries

A map of De Tweelandenpuzzel – 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.

Now I'm really confused. Where the hell am I here?!

Now I’m really confused. Where the hell am I here?!

TLT x

Having enjoyed my time in Baarle so much, I have made a TLT travel vlog on it! Enjoy x


Feet in Germany, knees in the Netherlands, camera in Belgium

Feet in Germany, knees in the Netherlands, camera in Belgium

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?

 

 

 

 

 


 

This entry was posted in Belgium, Baarle Hertog, Borders, Territories & Tripoints, Netherlands, Baarle Nassau. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *