Bordering on Bizarre
Is it physically possible to be in two countries at the same time? Well, sort of: the towns of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau make up one of Europe's strangest places to live, being part Belgian, part Dutch.
Two countries, two cultures and two towns all rolled into one small space. Baarle- Nassau and Baarle-Hertog on the Dutch–Belgian border make up one of Europe’s most curious corners, as Anna J. Kutor finds out. Illustrations by Stevie Gee
“Look at all these twisting borders, squares and strange geometric shapes. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” says a young girl while pointing at a map of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle- Hertog. I look down at the aerial layout of the Dutch-Belgian border towns, a scrambled mess of brightly coloured chunks of land, each marked with a symbol for “NL” or “B”. She’s right. This incredible place looks like a giant piece-it-together brainteaser, wrapped up in an enigma.
Baarle is a tangled tale of two towns, alike in location and socioeconomic characteristics, if different in nationality, temperament and local authorities. It’s a cross-border puzzle of 30 Belgian and Dutch enclaves. The Belgian part, Baarle-Hertog, is composed of 22 pockets of land. Over on the Dutch side, eight larger patches make up Baarle-Nassau. Yet to make matters more complicated, some of the Dutch parts are located within Baarle-Hertog, they overlap, which in effect means you can be looking at a Dutch house surrounded by Belgium in the Netherlands bordering on Belgium. It’s a slightly off-the-wall experience, much like seeing double when you know you’re stone-cold sober.
The borders follow a zigzag route, paying no heed to houses and streets, and are marked with metal studs in roads and white crosses on pavements. One line enters a building via a chemist’s and then exits out the side of a budget supermarket. Another cuts through a café, which can elevate ordinary dinner conversations into the realm of cross- border dialogue. As even homes are bisected by the frontier, residents follow an age-old “front door policy” whereby each household’s national affiliation – and public utility charge – is determined by the position of its entrance. As a visual aid, houses are flagged with number plates encircled by their national tricolour.
“We didn’t even know we had a small slice of Belgium on our property until Google Earth published a map of the area,” says Mariette van de Rakt, pointing to the little red markers concealed behind a curtain of lush grapevines. Those vivid sticks signal the edge of the smallest and northernmost Belgian enclave, situated smack bang in the middle of the family run Hof van Baarle vineyard. “If we were making alcohol on that part we would have to alert the Belgian tax authorities, but our wine-making equipment is on Dutch territory, so there’s no problem,” she says.
This frontier oddity is the result of a complex set of treaties, agreements and land deals between land-owners the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant during medieval times. Due to the intricate nature of Baarle, the Treaty of Maastricht in 1843 left the border line unsettled between two border posts, and individually laid down the nationality of 5,732 parcels of land. It wasn’t until 1995, after several repeat attempts to sort out this knotty situation, that the final piece of the border puzzle was put in place.
“It has never been easy to balance the culture and national identity of both communities in such a small space,” says Gitte Tilburgs, cultural coordinator of the Belgian municipality. Showing me around the newly built town hall of Baarle-Hertog, she bristles with quiet pride, pointing out the futuristic Philips light fixtures and LED-lit borderline that runs right through the middle of the building.
On the ground floor, police forces of both countries share one office space. The Dutch town hall is just a few hundred metres away. “With ongoing discourse, compromise and understanding, there is now a unity of purpose, but it’s good that not everything is centralised,” she says.
Today, Baarle’s rather strange case of split personality resembles both a sibling rivalry and a constructive cross- cultural marriage. Differences in laws, regulations and cultural character make duality a common condition. The town accommodates two sets of political parties, two mayors, two post offices, two income tax rates, two churches, two school systems, two tennis clubs and twofold provisions for telephone lines and electricity. Until 2002, there were even two currencies.
“We have both a Dutch and a Belgian telephone number, plus two mailboxes, one for each country,” says Stijn de Jong, manager of Royal Printgroup De Jong, a printing factory established by his great-grandfather in 1906 with a Belgian enclave on its territory. “The Dutch postman always comes earlier,” he adds half-jokingly as we stroll between barrels of paper, massive printing machines straddling the state border and cutting-edge presses spitting out flyers faster than the eye can follow. Dealing with two postmen, paying taxes in both countries and 400 Dutch and Belgian employees working side-by-side might seem double the trouble, but Stijn assures me: “It’s really the best of both worlds.”
The intertwined nature and evolving relationship of the two Baarles is best seen in the growing set of ties. The international library and youth organisation were co-founded by Belgium and the Netherlands, while civic services such as sewage, garbage and traffic control are also shared. Even the two fire brigades, which until last year raced each other to the fire, have now merged under one roof.
“The simple fact is that the two towns are joined at the hip, so we have to work together,” explains Jef van Tilburg, the Dutch-born president of the bi-national culture centre. Half in Belgium, half in the Netherlands, this complex lies in the centre of the two towns and serves as the base for community groups, language classes and festival planning committees. “We realise that the only way we can move forward is if we are in consensus,” he says.
WALK THE LINE
Stock up on a variety of Belgian beers at this warehouse split down the middle by the frontier. Look for a ceremonial marker: a border post-shaped bottle of Ne Baarlese Grensdruppel, a potent Flemish beverage.
98 MOLENSTRAAT, BAARLE-HERTOG, TEL: +32 (0)14 699774 / 26 MOLENSTRAAT, BAARLE- NASSAU, TEL: +31 (0)13 507 7878, WWW.DEBIERGRENS.BE
Hotel Brasserie Den Engel
In the heart of town, between the Dutch town hall and the border, this charming hotel and restaurant is an ideal base from which to criss- cross the twisted terrain.
3 SINGEL, TEL: +31 (0)13 507 9330, WWW.ENGEL-SCHALUINEN.NL
Choose from more than 11 bike tours and a wide range of walking guides, including one entitled: A Walk Through Limitless Boundaries in Baarle.
16 NIEUWSTRAAT, TEL: +31 (0)13 507 9921, WWW.VVVBAARLE.NL
Bistro la Frontière
From the interior to the waiting staff and the international menu, fusion forces are a daily highlight here. Go for the Dutch cheese plate or aquatic delicacies with Belgian beer.
54A CHAAMSEWEG, TEL: +31 (0)13 507 6360, WWW.BISTROLAFRONTIERE.COM