Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Is this the strangest town in Europe?

I’ve always been fascinated by odd borders – isolated towns and villages cut off from their own countries like islands in a foreign sea, or places straddling borders. So when my husband Tom suggested a visit to Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog, a town that is a muddle of Belgium and the Netherlands, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Baarle is a place with a split personality, I doubt many tourists would visit it. It’s a fairly non-descript place, with a mix of squat, featureless modern buildings and some older sturdy Flemish-styled brick buildings, but from a geographical point of view it’s one of the most fascinating places in Europe.

 No sooner had we parked in the town’s car park than the questions began. The line of white crosses, or iron pins, (indicating the border throughout the town) crossed the car park diagonally. We drove our car into a parking space in the Netherlands. Another car sat in Belgium a few spaces away, while the car opposite ours straddled both countries in its parking space. Who had responsibility for the car park, I wondered. Did the Dutch and Belgian authorities share the takings from the central ticket machine? And what about maintenance costs? Did they split them evenly – or did they just maintain their own patches? My head was hurting already, and I hadn’t even left the car park.

But this was just the beginning. We crossed the road from the car park to a bargain store, the border running through the middle of it. I bought a beanie in one country and paid for it in another. We wandered on through the town, sometimes in Belgium, sometimes in the Netherlands. There was no rhyme or reason to where the iron pins or studs popped up to indicate the border. It was not as if one side of the road was Belgium and the other the Netherlands (although this was sometimes the case) – it was much more complex. I entered one shop in Belgium, but as soon as I stepped back over its threshold, I was back in the Netherlands.

So here’s the lowdown with Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog: there are 22 Belgian enclaves inside the Netherlands (isolated pockets of Belgium in the Netherlands) and seven Dutch ‘counter’ enclaves in Belgium – pockets of Dutch land surrounded by Belgian land which in turn is surrounded by the Netherlands. Think Russian dolls. This crazy entanglement of Holland and Belgium goes back to the medieval lords of Breda and Brabant who were engaged in an endless round of rental and sales agreements along with land swaps. After Belgium came into existence in 1830, The Maastricht Treaty clarified and ratified the borders – but never simplified them.

On Kerkplein I came to a 3D model map of Baarle, the enclaves electronically rising and falling to show which were Belgian and which were Dutch. Of course, in reality the land doesn’t rise and fall to let you know which country you’re in; just the lines on the streets and the flag colours painted on the sides of the door number tiles to orientate the visitor – and probably the residents too.

By this stage, my head was spinning from working out whether I was in the Netherlands or Belgium. Yikes, I was in need of a large whiskey, but as it was still mid-morning a coffee would have to do. As we’d just spent a week in the Netherlands, we thought it would be nice to have our mid-morning cuppa in Belgium – only the Belgian cafes were still closed and the Dutch cafes around the corner were open. As you can imagine, the residents of the town can take advantage of favourable laws, whether they are in a Dutch enclave or a Belgian one.
Likewise, services come in pairs: churches, fire services, police forces, council workers and mayors. And if all this sounds very complicated, imagine how it must have been before the two countries joined the European Union.

But at the end of the day, there is still the small matter of which government you pay your taxes to. As houses are sometimes partly in the Netherlands and partly in Belgium, the position of the front door decides which municipal the owner pays their taxes to. Some residents have been known to move their door in order to pay a more favourable rate of tax. Even this can become problematic. Before we left the town, we passed a house with two front door numbers (and two doorbells) as the border goes right through the middle of the front door. With this household, the lucky owners get to choose which country they want to live in.

Baarle feels like a surreal social construct, or an elaborate joke or hoax – something like the Truman Show – but perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the fact that Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog is very much a real place.  We live in a very strange world.

Originally published on my Freewheeling blog for Wanderlust e-zine.

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