I love travelling curiosities. And, to quote Alice in Wonderland, they don’t come much more curiouser and curiouser than the ‘siamese-twin town’ of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau.
I first heard about the Baarles from Paul when we visited Drielandenpunt last year, the point at which the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet in the one spot. I was pretty excited about this, and enjoyed skipping over each of the borders, until Paul mentioned the Baarles. Instantly this place shot up to number one on my Dutch Bucket List, due to be explored a little later in the year when the weather was nice.
So there I found myself last night, sifting through uni readings when the weather came on the telly. Eighteen degrees tomorrow! It sounded positively tropical. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I spent the first nice day of the year in my tracky pants and reading about détente.
Off I went this morning, camera inside the trusty Satchel, across the provincial border from Zuid Holland to Nord Brabant. The Baarles were easier to reach than I thought, just an easy change from train to bus at Breda and I was in the weird little village.
So, some background. The websites devoted to the curiosity are woefully inadequate, but thankfully the local tourist office had a flyer translated into rough English (for Dutch standards) for me. Essentially, the town of Baarle is made up of two different councils – that of Baarle-Hertog (Belgian, with around 2,000 residents) and Baarle-Nassau (Dutch, with around 6,000 inhabitants).
The two Baarles aren’t separated in a Berlin Wall sort of way – no, instead there’s twenty-one little bits of Belgium scattered around the twin town (and nine mini-Netherlandses inside the mini-Belgiums), with road markings and house numbers (a minuscule national flag indicates the country to which the house belongs) the only indicators as to which country you find yourself in.
The Baarle situation isn’t a new thing. Quite the opposite, actually – the curiosity dates back to the twelfth century, and a land dispute between the Duke of Brabant (today’s Belgium) and the Lord of Breda (today’s Netherlands). This means Baarle today has two town halls, two police forces, two fire departments… you get my drift. Until a few years ago, Dutch restaurants had to close earlier than their Belgian counterparts. For some lucky restaurateurs, this meant they just moved everyone to the other side of the room.
Instead of whinging about the bizarre situation, the residents embrace it. As the lady in the tourist office said, ‘You’re here to see the border markings, yeah?’ And as my little flyer so elequently put it;
If the situation were to be ended, our village would become just a regular place. We would like to keep Baarle as it is a precious inheritance we shall defend against every attack and we hope everyone who visits us will understand our point of view.
Anyway, I hopped off the bus this morning in brilliant sunshine, my bus driver visibly intrigued by the camera hanging around my neck. I’d gotten the impression that Baarle was a big domestic tourist attraction. Not at all. It seems as if everyone’s heard of it, but not many actually go. I got plenty of stares walking down the main street.
Baarle is actually quite a nice little place, even without the strange border situation. There’s plenty of little lunchrooms and antique stores, and some of the single-storey houses have thatched roofs. Sheep can be found in the main street and the air has a decidedly farm-y smell.
Of course, visiting the Baarles today is a lot different in the Schengen age. I didn’t even bring my passport with me, and in my wanderings I probably crossed about twenty international borders. Baarle Hertog was the main spot to smuggle things into the Netherlands, with a particularly interesting one being butter. Once authorities finally cottoned on to the whole operation, women suspected of hiding butter under their dresses(!) were forced to do their paperwork next to a furnace.
As I wandered around the streets for a couple of hours, I tried to label the place as either Dutch or Belgian. It was hard; the shops were Dutch, but the dialect sounded Belgian. The main bank was ABN-AMRO, but the pubs were stocked with Stella Artois and Leffe rather than Heineken and Grolsch.
So, I headed back to Dutch normalcy in a pretty contented frame of mind. And my favourite curious fact? The towns’ two mayors are both called Jan.