Put one foot wrong in this town and you have left the country

BAARLE (Belgium/The Netherlands) • At De Biergrens beer shop, you can walk in from the Netherlands through one door and walk out into Belgium through another.

There are two telephones, one connected to the Belgian telecom system and one plugged into the Dutch system. There are even two cash registers, at opposite ends of the shop - one in each country.

That is par for the course in Baarle, a village about 105km south of Amsterdam that is sliced and diced by what is probably the world's craziest stretch of international border. It zigzags up and down streets, and right through the middle of stores like De Biergrens, and even people's living rooms and gardens.

The bewildering layout dates from the 12th century when wars and land spats kept morphing the dividing line between the holdings of rival noble families.

When Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in 1830, those untidy lines hardened into a national frontier, but they left a number of enclaves: isolated bits of one nation's territory surrounded by the land of the other. Today, Baarle lies within the Netherlands, but it has 22 Belgian enclaves that, in turn, have seven Dutch enclaves within them.

Confused? Baarle has a system to help. The border is marked on the town's pavements with white crosses and metal studs.

Outside Den Engel, a cafe, visitors can stand with a glass of wine in the Netherlands and lean over a white cross to drink it in Belgium. When closing times differed in the two countries, divided restaurants would move their tables to the Belgian side of the room when last call came on the Dutch side.

Addresses go by the voordeurregel, or front-door rule: If it opens on the Belgian side of a street, you live in Belgium, wherever the rest of the house may lie. (For easy identification, the national flag is usually painted next to the house number.)

A shop like De Biergrens, with entrances in both countries, gets an address for each door.

The intertwined halves of the town - formally, the Belgian parts are Baarle-Hertog and the Dutch parts Baarle-Nassau - have separate town halls, churches and fire departments, but they recently merged their police departments.

None of this bothers the people at De Biergrens, which stands slightly more in the Netherlands but sells mostly Belgian beer.

"Yes, we have two addresses, two telephones and two cash registers," said Ms Karlean Vermonden, a store employee. "But it's not a problem. That's just a way of life here."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Put one foot wrong in this town and you have left the country'. Print Edition | Subscribe