Baarle: The town where borders run riot

In Baarle, a town on the Belgian-Dutch border, national borders run through private homes, restaurants, cafes, museums and galleries. That has both advantages and drawbacks.

White crosses marking the border in Baarle, with 'B' for Belgium on one side, and 'NL' for Netherlands on the otherThe border in Baarle is clearly marked — and it needs to be

Red-brick houses, barns with big gates, tidy streets — at first glance, the town of Baarle looks no different than any other along the border between the EU member states of Belgium and the Netherlands. 

But Baarle is special. It is only here that you can prepare your breakfast in one country — and then eat it in another. Or that you can sit comfortably in an armchair to watch a television that is on the other side of the border. In Baarle, it is even possible for a married couple to sleep in one bed with the wife lying in a different country than her husband.

How is that possible? Baarle consists of parts of Belgium and the Netherlands that are so closely intertwined that the border between the two countries runs through a number of different buildings in the town: private homes, restaurants, cafes, museums and galleries. The exact location of the border is marked throughout the town with white crosses — Baarle’s trademark.

The history of this bizarre geographical phenomenon goes back to the Middle Ages, when properties were divided up between aristocratic families.

“For example, in 1198, Duke Hendrik I of Brabant leased land in Baarle to the lord of Breda, but the latter was allowed to take only the properties that hadn’t been used for agriculture; the duke himself kept the land that was already cultivated,” Willem van Gool, the head of a local tourist office, told DW.

Advertisement for 'Biergrens' showing beer bottles on the colors of the Belgian and Dutch flagsThis advertisement for the drinks seller ‘Biergrens’ (Beer Border) capitalizes on the town’s special character

Enclave champions

After Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, it became necessary to precisely establish the border between the two countries. Surveyors worked their way step for step from the coast of the North Sea to the border of the German states. But when they got to Baarle, they simply skipped over it, leaving the border issues there to be resolved later.

But that didn’t happen until 165 years later: In 1995, two municipalities were founded — Baarle Hertog in Belgium and Baarlae Nassau in the Netherlands. They include altogether 30 enclaves: 22 Belgian enclaves in the Netherlands, seven Dutch ones in those Belgian enclaves and one Dutch enclave in Belgium.

“Considering that there are altogether only about 60 enclaves worldwide, we can say that we in Baarle are world champions with this number,” says Willem van Gool.

Nationality per front door

But establishing the national borders did not make the situation in Baarle any simpler. On the contrary: Many streets, parks, car parks, shops, galleries and even houses were now part Belgian and part Dutch. To avoid constant arguments it was agreed that the nationality of a house’s residents would be determined by the location of the front door.

That caused headaches for several people in Baarle. In 1995, Dutch officials suddenly came knocking on the door of a lady who had lived for 68 years as a Belgian citizen in the town. “Your front door is in the Netherlands, so you are now a Dutch citizen,” they said. “Please get yourself a new passport.”

Luckily for the lady concerned, a compromise was found: A window and the door could be swapped around so that the entrance was now in Belgium, and she was able to keep her old passport.

Border crosses running up to the door of a houseThe border runs right through the door of this house

Very special solutions

There are two of everything in Baarle: two town names, two mayors, two municipal administrations, two post offices — but a single committee that organizes the cooperation needed for running the town. Issues such as what streets are asphalted, who looks after what lawn or picks up the garbage and who pays for it all are just some of the problems for which the administrations of this double town have to find often very special solutions.

“With talks, patience and, most of all, a great readiness to listen first, we mostly come up with a solution. You can achieve a lot by talking with those involved, thinking logically and being friendly,” Frans de Bont, the mayor of Belgian Baarle, tells DW.

2 sets of coronavirus measures

There are also ways to profit from Baarle’s unusual character. There is probably no other border town in the world where residents are as aware of on what side of the border gasoline or certain foodstuffs are cheaper for the moment or where to buy tobacco and alcohol at the lowest price. Or in which country you can buy fireworks the entire year or only on December 31.

Baarle’s harmony was shaken by the coronavirus crisis. In a place where borders are usually just crosses on the pavement, there were now real differences on each side in the measures taken to combat the pandemic. Belgium shut down almost everything, while in the Netherlands, even cafes could keep operating.

Town sign with the Belgian and Dutch names of BaarleThe double nature of Baarle is apparent even in its town sign

Border through a store

The absurdity reached its climax in a store run by the textile discounter “Zeman,” through which the border runs. Employees in the Belgian part of the store had to separate it off with a red tape, while customers could keep buying in the Dutch part. Dutch citizens in Baarle could buy a new T-shirt — but not underwear, because it was in the Belgian part of the store.

“At first, the hairdressing salons in Belgium were closed, and those in the Netherlands were open,” Mayor de Bont recalls. “Later, it was the other way round.You try explaining something like that to people who have to close their businesses. For days, we received furious phone calls and had our work cut out calming the situation down.”

Now that spring has begun and coronavirus incidence rates are going down, all of Baarle is heaving a sigh of relief. This is underlined by the first post-pandemic tourists, who have already been arriving in this town that is two towns to take a typical Baarle photo: with one foot in Belgium and the other in the Netherlands.

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This article was translated from German.

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