Baarle | The town in two countries

This is a town in northern Belgium, or the south of the Netherlands, or both. Unlike other border towns, it doesn’t have just one simple divide running through the middle, but rather over 20 exclaves and border crossings that date back to the Middle Ages. Welcome to Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog.

Imagine sitting at a dinner table, walking along the same pavement, or even sleeping on opposite sides of the same bed as someone in a different country to you. Well, in this unique corner of northern Europe, it’s a genuine possibility. 

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A map of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau.

The Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau is home to 22 Belgian enclaves, known collectively as Baarle-Hertog. The names, and indeed the confusing boundaries, date back to aristocratic families who once ruled in the region. Baarle-Hertog belonged to the local Duke of Brabant – “hertog” is the Dutch word for ‘duke’. Baarle-Nassau, on the other hand, was the property of the medieval House of Nassau. The anomaly arose when the Duke of Brabant transferred some of his lands to the Lord of Breda in exchange for protection. 

In 1831, Belgium then declared independence from the Netherlands and a complicated border dispute ensued. Most of the claims over Baarle were settled by the 1840s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the divisions here were finalized.

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A front door in Baarle. (Getty Images)

There are now clear lines drawn between Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog, making it obvious for tourists and locals alike. They don’t always fall in the most convenient places, but it’s important to know where you are. After all, there are different laws in different countries and each town has its own mayor, local government and flag. 

For years, most of the tangible differences focused on money and taxes, but during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown rules varied and made Baarle even weirder than usual. There was a period when Baarle-Hertog needed to wear a mask in a public space, while Baarle-Nassau only needed masks on public transport. In a local art gallery, which was split by the border, visitors would have to enter from the Belgian side wearing a mask, but could then take it off once they had walked a few feet inside.

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BAARLE-NASSAU, NETHERLANDS – MAY 17, 2020: The Sylvia Reijbroek Galerie or Gallery. When confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Netherlands imposed what it termed an “intelligent quarantine” that was lenient compared to Belgium’s stricter lockdown. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

This understandably led to some tensions. On the whole, however, Baarle is a great example of how two societies can come together and live harmoniously. They have the front door rule, which states that wherever the front door is, that is the country you reside in. In some cases where the border splits the front door, residents can then decide for themselves. 

Read More: Who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe?

“We want to be an example to other regions where borders are a major problem,” says Frans De Bont, Baarle-Hertog’s representative.

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