Dutch destinations: unravel the history of Baarle-Nassau / Baarle-Hertog
It’s such a pretty town that they’ve named it twice. In fact, the story of this unusual community that engulfs the Dutch / Belgian border in and near North Brabant is actually a little more complicated.
The borders that divide Baarle-Nassau / Baarle-Hertog are so convoluted that they have made real estate agents, lawyers and bureaucrats cry for centuries.
Baarle-Nassau is the name of a Dutch town intertwined like a hopelessly knotted ball of wool with a Belgian town called Baarle-Hertog. Each is made up of enclaves, a few of which contain enclaves from the other city. Are you still confused? You’re not alone.
Visitors will find two town halls, two police departments and two income tax rates, as well as border posts that run through several sidewalks and, in a few places, in the middle of businesses and even private residences. It is possible to make several round trips to Belgium while shopping in the local Zeeman and every building that crosses a border has a Dutch address and a Belgian address.
The mishmash map is the result of a bizarre series of treaties, land swaps, and other deals between various Lords, Dukes, and other officials who have likely all been slapped together in negotiations involving large amounts of wine and / or beer. At least a few of them date back to the 12th century.
An attempt to settle the problem, which was further complicated after Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands in 1830, took place in 1843. It resulted in the Treaty of Maastricht, an agreement which at least firmly established many of the existing borders. Officials finally figured out the latter in the 1990s.
Many current citizens have dual citizenship and everyone seems to get along pretty well there. This is one of the reasons why former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked a cabinet secretary to research the community in 2014 and come up with ideas on how to settle border disputes with Palestine. . Needless to say, the plan didn’t bear much fruit.
Top 5 things to do
Cross the border (over and over again)
It is possible to visit both countries dozens of times by exploring the streets. Having a picture taken with one foot in the Netherlands and the other in Belgium is almost a prerequisite.
While you do, you can treat your fellow travelers with random facts like this from author Ben Coates’ book in 2015 Why the Dutch are different. He tells a story about a few local residents moving the entrances to their homes across the border to dodge taxes. Local regulations state that they pay taxes to the nation where their gateway is located. Other anecdotes can be found in the books and brochures available at the visitor center.
Visit unusual museums
Barle-Hertog is home to not one but two rather bizarre museums. The first is devoted to religious scenes and sculptures by artist Frits Spies. Instead of clay or stone, they are made from beeswax and other natural materials. They are technically referred to as candles, so you will find them at the Kaarsenmuseum.
Stranger still is the Vergane Glorie Museum. This one focuses on regional tools and utensils that were all once used by local farmers, blacksmiths and others. The interior looks like a passionate collector’s project that has truly gotten out of hand. The museum is currently only open by appointment, however.
Explore the history of two world wars
The bizarre boundaries of the community presented more than a few complications during WWI. The Netherlands remained neutral during the conflict, but Belgium was captured by the Germans. To protect their sovereignty, the Dutch government surrounded the two towns with a fence, but that did not prevent them from becoming a refuge for smugglers and members of the Belgian resistance who set up a secret telegraph station.
The Germans finally responded by further separating Belgium from the cities with an electrified part of their infamous Dodendraad (“The thread of death”). Baarle-Nassau / Baarle-Hertog gave the Germans further headaches during WWII when they tried and failed to pass a measure to enforce Dutch customs and trade laws on both sides of the border. Memorials and information markers for the two conflicts can be found in various places. The most elaborate focuses on the Dodendraad.
Cover your tracks
A former railway line between Tilburg and Turnhout runs through the community and now serves as a 30-kilometer cycle and walking path. The border once crossed one of the stations and part of it is still on the road. Besides nature, other signs of its history can be found along the way.
Catch a smuggler
‘Catch the Smuggler’ is a chase game inspired by the TV series Jachtseizoen. This will put you and your colleagues in the shoes of a bunch of cops determined, as you may have already guessed, to catch a smuggler. This involves following them via an interactive map on your favorite mobile devices, but be careful. The smuggler can retaliate with signal jammers and other tricks.
Where to eat
If you are going for a walk or a bike ride you might want to stop at Het Smokkelbroodje for sub sandwiches served on fresh Belgian baguettes baked on site that you can ‘pass’ across the border. . It’s a popular spot with everyone from tourists to local construction workers, and the wait can be long during lunch hour on weekdays. They also have soups and full meals to take out.
Ijssalon D’n Italjaan is a great place to take the kids for an ice cream or linger over a cup of coffee. They have a large menu and the dining room has a row of vintage ice cream carts. De Lantaern is a good choice for dinner if you like hearty comfort food and long Belgian beer menus. For a more bistro experience, aim for La Frontière. Wokwonderland, housed in a former train station / bowling alley / pudding factory, will satisfy your appetite for Asian dishes.
Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar is the place to go for a craft beer (or two or three…) They have a tasting room with a limited snack menu, a bottle shop and a terrace often watched over by a real bierhond. The adorable Labrador of the brewery is known to roam around in search of hugs or to pose with pleasure beside your table. As of this writing, hours of operation are limited, so be sure to check their website first.
Where to stay
Den Engel is a small hotel dating from 1894 with a terrace lined right through. Schaluinenhoeve is a more rustic lodge on the outskirts with a swimming pond and hunting room which has been converted into a library / cafe / lounge. There are also a plethora of short-stay chalets and cottages.
“The emergency house” is one of the most spectacular options. It was originally built as a temporary home for a family after their farm was ransacked and burned down by the Nazis during World War II. It was completely renovated in 2018 and the adjacent land is frequented by a friendly group of goats who live on the property.
At least a few things are still being smuggled across the border there. A neighborhood on the Belgian side of the community seems almost entirely devoted to small shops that sell fireworks all year round. There are so many of them that the streets literally reek of sulfur.
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