Whilst I was eating a sandwich in front of the Belgian-Dutch-German tripoint on a sunny afternoon back in July 2015 (one foot in Belgium, the other in Germany just for the fun of it), a large group of young school boys suddenly appeared from the surrounding forest and started skipping around me and the obelisk marking the three borders point. A youngish woman, presumably their teacher going by the resigned and stressed look on her face, eventually joined them. She clambered up onto the bench I was sitting on and in typical teacher fashion waved her arms frantically in the air and screeched at the group, in a strong Birmingham accent, to quieten down. When the boys finally came to rest, the woman lowered her voice. “Right gentlemen,” she said. “Here we are at the Drielandenpunt, the point where three European countries meet. Who can tell me the names of those three countries?”
With this, twenty arms shot up into the air, one nearly knocking the sandwich out of my hand, and twenty young faces started turning red as mouths were purposely pinched and breaths were held in anticipation of being picked to answer the question.
Miss looked around at the group and pointed at one little boy who squealed “Germany!” in a similar Brummie accent. “That’s right,” she replied. Miss then pointed to another boy who looked close to bursting out of his school branded tabard by the sheer force he was using to raise his arm up at her. “Belgium!” he bellowed, before lowering his arm and physically deflating himself like a balloon, with evident relief. “Well done,” she cried. Miss then pointed to a third young boy. “Holland!” he yelled, accompanying his answer with a little leap as his teacher nodded her approval. “Correct!” she answered.
“No!” came a deep, forceful voice from the back of the group. “He is not correct!”
There was a sudden hush as the whole group turned towards the bench in the Dutch part of the tripoint area. A man with leathery skin wearing shorts and beige socks up to his knees, stood up and stared coolly at the teacher. “The boy is not right,” the man repeated. “This is not Holland. This is the Netherlands! Holland is in the west of the Netherlands. What you call a ‘region’, yes? It is bad to call my country ‘Holland'”. He looked around at the group in front of him who were all motionless and open-mouthed, including myself.
“You are all English, yes?” the man continued. There was no reply. “How would you like it if I called you from the Angular East?”
Awkward looks turned to looks of confusion around the Drielandenpunt before Miss flashed a watery smile at the man. “Erm, I think you mean ‘East Anglia’ sir,” she replied in a calmer, quieter tone. “But anyway, thank you very much for sharing that with us. And… er… sorry for the mistake”. She turned to the boy who had made the ‘mistake’. “So Jack,” she said in a authoritative tone, glaring down at him through her raised eyebrows. “Remember, it’s the Neth-the-lands, not Holland. OK?” Jack looked as though he had just been chastised, hunched his shoulders and gave the slightest of nods to confirm he had understood.
Miss then turned to the whole class, clapped her hands and cleared her throat. “Boys, pick up your things and let’s go to the maze. Now!” She jumped off the bench and started herding the boys, now giddy again, towards the Labyrint Drielandenpunt a few hundred metres away.
Seemingly unaware of the awkwardness he had just created, the man sat back down on his native Dutch bench and tucked into a biscuit.
The man may have been blunt but I respected his national pride, and he can be sure that at least twenty-one British nationals will never get the name of his country wrong again. Smugly, I already knew the difference, but as the now ashen-faced teacher was turning away from the man and the Drielandenpunt obelisk, she caught my eye and I gave her a reassuring smile. It’s not easy bringing twenty over-excited prepubescent boys all the way from England to this point on one’s own, not least to be then shamefully corrected in front of them all.
As the last few boys raced ahead towards the maze, I saw one curly haired boy hanging back and tugging at the end of his teacher’s blouse. “Yes, what is it Ben?” she snapped as she threw a rucksack full of clipboards, papers and navy jumpers back over her shoulder. “My Dad’s from East Anglia, Miss,” exclaimed the boy. “He was born in Norwich, Miss.”
I heard the teacher sigh before telling the boy to run along.
As mentioned in my short video above, close to the Drielandenpunt is another obelisk that sits on top of a point known as Vaalserberg (the “Mount of Vaals”). This was once celebrated for being the highest point in the Netherlands.
However, in 2010 the Dutch Government no longer recognised the Netherlands Antilles – a small group of Caribbean islands ruled under Dutch sovereignty – as a separate Dutch ‘country’, and instead declared the islands as part of the Netherlands. As a result, Mount Scenery on the Dutch island of Saba proved to be over 500 metres higher than Vaalserberg, making it the new highest point across the Netherlands.
The news of Vaalserberg’s relegation to second place in the Dutch elevation stakes doesn’t seem to have reached the people of Vaals as the obelisk remains (2015) and the plaque accompanying it still claims it to be the highest point in the Netherlands.
The nearest town to the Drielandenpunt is Vaals, two kilometres away in the Netherlands. From outside the main train station in the neighbouring German border town of Aachen, the number 50 bus to Maastrict will take passengers to Vaals daily, approximately every twenty minutes. The journey takes around half an hour and costs the price of a regular local bus fare in either country. A one way ticket can be bought on the bus.
Once in Vaals, the number 149 bus can be picked up from the bus station and will go directly to the Drielandenpunt in less than ten minutes. However, this route only runs at the weekends and holidays. To get to the Drielandenpunt during weekdays, the only choices are via taxi or on foot. The walk is very pleasant, passing along lush fields and through forest. The roads and tracks are well maintained and the destination is reasonably well sign posted along the way. Cross the road from the bus station and walk along Kerkstraat. Follow this road which leads into a quieter part of Vaals, before turning onto Viergrenzenweg. This leads into the countryside and the forest where signs for the Drielandenpunt are more regular and easier to find.
The closer one gets to the Drielandenpunt, the more cafes, bars and national flags one passes along the way.
Access to the Drielandenpunt and Vaalserberg obelisks are free, but can be overwhelmed by tourists and large school parties any time of the day.
The Gemmenich observation tower a few metres away from the Drielandenpunt, offers stunning panoramic views across Germany, the Netherlands and native Belgium. Entrance costs a few Euros. Visitors can climb the stairs or take the lift to the top.
Sadly, I didn’t have time to get lost in the Dutch Labyrint Drielandenpunt nearby. Details of opening times and ticket prices can be found on the Google translated version of the official website here. PS: bring a towel or even a change of clothes as there are hidden water spouts within the maze that will drench passing explorers without warning.
The Slovakia-Hungary-Austria tripoint: the exact geographical point that looks more like the middle of nowhere
Baarle Nassau Hertog: the unique town full of Belgian-Dutch borders, but is not a Belgian-Dutch border town. Confused?
Aachen: an encounter with a She-Wolf, a touch of the Middle East, and dealings with the Devil inside Charlemagne’s grand cathedral at the heart of Germany’s most westerly border town