Amazing Places

The Town of Baarle Sits on One of the World's Most Complex International Borders

Have you ever wished you could just pick up and move to another country? On the border of Belgium and the Netherlands, in the small town of Baarle, it's as easy as moving your front door. What's not easy is explaining why.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Let's start by getting to know Baarle, a small border town with Belgium to the south and the Netherlands to the north. Baarle is made up of numerous parcels of land, all either owned by Belgium and called the village of Baarle-Hertog, or owned by the Netherlands and called the village of Baarle-Nassau. Easy enough right? Actually, this is where things start to get complicated.

Rather than clumped together and divided by a simple borderline, these parcels of land are instead mixed up and scattered in a patchwork of no conceivable pattern. They're so mixed up, in fact, that a large chunk of Belgium's parcels are actually inside the boundaries of the Netherlands. And if that wasn't confusing enough, inside of those Belgian parcels are more parcels owned by the Netherlands, essentially creating something like a Russian nesting doll of territories. What you're left with is one of the most complex borders in the world.

Baarle's bizarre geography dates back to medieval times when a number of different treaties and sales split the land between local aristocratic families, specifically the Duke of Brabant and the House of Nassau. It wasn't until 1831, when Belgium declared its independence from the Netherlands, that the borderlines in the area of Baarle needed to be sorted. Over time, various land commissions struggled to figure things out. They eventually gave each pocket of land an individual nationality, finalizing the last piece in 1995.

Come on Over to Our Side

Today, a visit to Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau is a fascinating experience. White crosses painted on the pavement serve as border lines, which snake their way through the two villages — and in some cases, directly through houses, restaurants, and even the town hall of Belgium, creating properties that lie in both nations. In these special cases it's simply the location of the front door that tells you the building's nationality.

Baarle's residents are equally fascinating. Stories abound of clever residents who have used the border town's jurisdictional loopholes to their advantages. For starters, there's the famous court case involving a bank charged with laundering money via their front door in the Netherlands and their vault in Belgium. There's the owner of a Dutch building who built a second front door on the Belgium side of the border when he couldn't get permission from the Netherlands to redevelop. There's even talk of a time in history when Dutch bars were required to close earlier than Belgian bars, so owners simply moved the tables across the border to stay open later. Well played, Baarle. Well played.

The Most Complex Borders in Europe: Why Do We Have Nations?

Written by Ashley Gabriel April 3, 2018

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