What happened to Baarle Hertog during the First World War

The city that is two cities

Red brick houses, stables with large gates, well-tended streets - at first glance, the town of Baarle doesn't look any different from the other towns along the border between the EU member states of Belgium and the Netherlands.

But Baarle is special. This is the only place where breakfast can be prepared in one country and eaten in another. That you can make yourself comfortable in the TV chair - and look at a screen that is on the other side of a border. Or even that married couples sleep in one bed - with the wife being in a different state than the husband.

How is that possible? Baarle consists of parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, which are so closely intertwined that the borders between the two countries run through a wide variety of facilities in the village: through private houses, restaurants and cafes, museums and galleries. The exact location of the border is marked with white crosses throughout the village - a trademark of Baarle.

The history of this bizarre geography dates back to the Middle Ages, when plots of land were divided between noble families. "In 1198, for example, Duke Hendrik I of Brabant leased land in Baarle to the Lord von Breda, but he was only allowed to take the land that was not built on; the Duke himself kept the land that was already cultivated," Willem van told DW Gool, the head of a local tourist office.

World champion of the enclaves

After Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, the border between the two states had to be determined. Land surveyors worked their way step by step from the North Sea coast to the border of the German states - but when they reached Baarle they simply skipped the village; the border issues there were to be resolved later.

Baarle's trademark: White crosses mark the state borders

This solution came up 165 years later: in 1995 two municipalities were founded - Baarle Hertog in Belgium and Baarle Nassau in the Netherlands. This includes a total of 30 enclaves - 22 Belgian in the Netherlands, 7 Dutch in these Belgian enclaves and one Dutch enclave in Belgium. "In view of the fact that there are only around 60 enclaves in the world, we can say that we are world champions in Baarle when it comes to numbers," says Willem van Gool.

Front door defines nationality

However, the situation in Baarle did not get any easier with the establishment of the state borders. On the contrary: now streets, parks, parking lots, shops, galleries and even houses were partly Belgian - and partly Dutch. In order to avoid constant disputes, it was agreed: where the door is, defines the citizenship of the residents: inside a house.

The Belgian-Dutch border in Baarle also runs through this door

That caused some headaches inside some Baarler. In 1995, Dutch officials suddenly knocked on a lady who had lived in the village as a Belgian citizen for 68 years: "Your front door is in the Netherlands, so you are now a Dutch citizen. Please have a new passport issued." Fortunately for those affected, a compromise was found: a window and the door of the house were allowed to be replaced, which means that its entrance was in Belgium; the lady was allowed to keep her old passport.

Very special solutions

In Baarle there are two places: two place names, two mayors, two municipal administrations, two post offices - but only one joint body that takes care of the cooperation that is necessary for the administration of the city. Which streets are paved, who tends the lawns where, collects the rubbish, who pays for all of this - these are just some of the questions for which administrations of the city, which is two cities, often have to look for very special solutions.

Advertisement for the Belgian-Dutch beverage dealer "Biergrens" (beer limit) in Baarle

"With discussions, patience and, above all, a lot of willingness to first listen, we usually come to a solution. You can achieve a lot by speaking to those affected, thinking logically and showing friendliness," explains DW Frans de Bont, mayor of the Belgian Baarle.

Two kinds of pandemic measures

You can also benefit from the special features of Baarle. Probably in no other border town in the world do the citizens know so exactly on which side of the border the gasoline or certain groceries are cheaper. Where to buy tobacco cheaply. And approves of drinking alcohol. In which of the two states you can buy fireworks all year round and in which only on December 31st.

Strict measures: The Belgian capital Brussels during the corona lockdown in March 2020

The Baarler harmony was shaken by Corona. Where borders are really just crosses on the sidewalk, suddenly there were real differences in pandemic rules. Belgium shut down almost everything - while in the Netherlands even the cafes were allowed to continue working.

Border separates textile discounters

The climax of the absurdity occurred in a shop of the textile discounter "Zeman", through which the state border runs: the employees had to separate the Belgian part of the business with a red ribbon, while people continued to shop in the Dutch. The Dutch among the Baarler: inside could buy a new T-shirt - but not underwear, as it was in the Belgian part of the shop.

Hardly anyone wears protective masks in the Dutch capital Amsterdam on July 23, 2020

"At first the hairdressing salons in Belgium were closed - and those in the Netherlands were open," recalls Mayor de Bont. "Later it was the other way around. Try explaining something like this to people who have to close their stores. We received angry calls for days and had our hands full trying to calm the situation down."

With the beginning of spring and decreasing corona incidence values, all of Baarle breathes a sigh of relief. This is confirmed by the first post-pandemic tourists who have already arrived in the city, which is two cities, to take a typical Baarle photo: with one foot in Belgium and the other in the Netherlands.