Most Ridiculous Borders and Walls Series : Baarle-Hertog

Put One Foot Wrong in This Town and You’ve Left the Country

Welcome to the first in a new series on the world’s most ridiculous borders and walls.

The city of Baarle-Hertog is perfectly ordinary except that it’s a Belgium town inside a Dutch town, Baarle-Nassau.

There’s twenty-one little bits of Belgium scattered around the town (and nine mini-Netherlandses inside the mini-Belgiums). Some of these are as small as 2,632m2.

Yes, there are parts of the Netherlands inside parts of Belgium that are inside the Netherlands. Got it?

Our first of the world’s most ridiculous borders dates back to the twelfth century, and a land dispute between the Duke of Brabant (today’s Belgium) and the Lord of Breda (today’s Netherlands). The only indication of what country you are in at any particular time? The border is marked with white crosses on the pavement and metal studs in the road.

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One such line enters a block via a gift shop then comes out of the back of a supermarket. There may even two cash registers, at opposite ends of the shop – one in each country.

Many homes are cut in half by the border, so each household’s nationality is determined by the location of its front door. If the border runs through the street door as in the fractured home above, the two parts then belong in different states. Notice the two street numbers and two front-door bells!

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Buildings sitting within both countries pay taxes according to where their front doors are located. Some shops have apparently moved their doors “as a tax dodge of sorts.” Up until recently, a nightly ritual ensued in which, at the appointed hour, waiters would forcibly move lingering customers to new tables on the more liberal Belgian side of the border.

The sale of fireworks is much more strictly controlled in Holland than it is in Belgium, meaning there are many fireworks shops in the Belgian parts and Dutch people flock there around New Year to stock up.

There was a complicated legal case in which a bank engaged in money laundering had a front door in the Netherlands, but a vault in Belgium. The Belgian tax department couldn’t reach the safe, which lay behind “Dutch” counters. And the Dutch authorities could pass the counters but couldn’t open the safe, which was “Belgian.”

Baarle-Hertog used to be the main spot to smuggle things into the Netherlands, with a particularly interesting one being butter. Once authorities finally cottoned on to the whole operation, women suspected of hiding butter under their dresses(!) were forced to do their paperwork next to a furnace.

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 in the interests of sanity recently merged their police departments!

If you enjoy ridiculous borders, check out Derby Line, where if you leave the library the wrong way, you’ll get arrested.

If you have any favorite borders, please chime in below!