Europe’s strange border anomaly

The Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau is home to more than 20 Belgian enclaves, some of which contain Dutch enclaves.

In a quiet corner of northern Europe there exists a geopolitical anomaly, where many buildings have an international border running right through them. It’s a place where a person might be in the same bed as his or her spouse, but sleep in different countries. A place where people move their front doors for economic advantage.

They look like cartographic amoebae

Not far from the Belgian border, the Netherlands municipality of Baarle-Nassau is home to nearly 30 Belgian enclaves, known collectively as Baarle-Hertog. On the map, they look like cartographic amoebae, some of them with Dutch nuclei inside.

Baarle-Nassau, the Netherlands, is home to nearly 30 Belgian enclaves (Credit: Credit: Andrew Eames)

Baarle-Nassau, the Netherlands, is home to nearly 30 Belgian enclaves (Credit: Andrew Eames)

This whole confused mess dates to the Middle Ages when parcels of land were divvied up between different local aristocratic families. Baarle-Hertog once belonged to the Duke (hertog is the Dutch word for ‘duke’) of Brabant, while Baarle-Nassau was the property of the medieval House of Nassau. When Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands in 1831, the two nations were left with an international muddle so complicated that successive regimes were deterred from defining exact jurisdictions. The borders were not actually finalised until 1995, when the last remaining piece of no man’s land was attributed to Belgium.

On first impression, it’s not easy to tell the territories apart, as they look no different from any typical red-brick small Dutch town. Around three-quarters of the region’s roughly 9,000 total residents are Dutch passport holders, and the Dutch municipality also has by far the larger share of land (76 sq km compared to 7.5 sq km). But after a while the differences become apparent, albeit with the help of pavement markings – white crosses with ‘NL’ on one side and ‘B’ on the other – and house numbers which are marked with the appropriate flag.

The Dutch properties are more uniform in appearance than their Belgian counterparts, and Dutch pavements are lined with lime trees, their limbs carefully pruned and braided like vines. The Belgian areas tend to be more architecturally diverse.

The borders were not actually finalised until 1995, when the last remaining piece of land was attributed to Belgium (Credit: Credit: Andrew Eames)

The borders were not actually finalised until 1995, when the last remaining piece of land was attributed to Belgium (Credit: Andrew Eames)

If I had an ear for it, I’d be able to differentiate accents, too, explained Willem van Gool, chairman of the Baarle tourist office (himself a Dutch passport holder, though his mother is Belgian). Although French is taught in the Belgian schools, Dutch is the primary language of both communities.

However, van Gool noted, “With the Belgians it is more like a dialect, and with the Dutch it is more… clean.”

That, and the less prescriptive approach to residential landscaping on the Belgian side, has led to a tendency on the part of some of the Dutch to look down on their neighbours. “Back in the days when the schools emptied out at the same time, teenagers would fight,” recalled van Gool, but that all stopped in the 1960s when the town’s two mayors (one Dutch and one Belgian) altered the school timings so that they didn’t overlap and combined the youth club to promote positive interactions.

Today, many residents of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog have dual citizenship and both a Belgian and a Dutch passport. The peaceful interweaving of the two nations has attracted the interest of advisors to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as an example of how two different communities can live harmoniously together.

The borders are marked by white crosses with ‘NL’ on one side and ‘B’ on the other (Credit: Credit: Toerisme Baarle)

The borders are marked by white crosses with ‘NL’ on one side and ‘B’ on the other (Credit: Toerisme Baarle)

So is all this border obscurity to Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog’s benefit? It certainly attracts tourists, said van Gool. “The number of shops, hotels and cafes we have would be more suited to a town of 40,000 rather than 9,000. And when the Belgian shops have to close on Sunday, the Dutch don’t.”

The complexities can still prove difficult, however, especially when it comes to infrastructure. Building permits can be particularly tricky, said Leo van Tilburg, mayor of the Belgian municipality, whose town hall is bisected by the border. Because of its location, Belgium had to seek Dutch permission to build part of their mayoral building – the part delineated by the brightly illuminated border strip running right through the meeting room.

Everything is a matter of negotiation

Much of Tilburg’s time is devoted to sorting out the delivery of services – education, water, infrastructure – in co-operation with his Dutch counterpart, Marjon de Hoon. Resurfacing the roads is his particular bugbear, as roads can cross borders several times within a few hundred metres. And then there are issues like the planning of sewage pipes.

“The road under which the pipe is being installed may be all Belgian, but who pays if the pipework has to be enlarged thanks to Dutch houses nearby? And who pays to service the streetlights, where the pavement is Belgian but the light shines on Dutch windows?” Tilburg said. “[But] if there are 100 problems, 98 of them will turn out to be no problem – after plenty of discussions, of course.”

Everything is a matter of negotiation.

Many of the buildings in Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog are split in half by the border (Credit: Credit: Toerisme Baarle)

Many of the buildings in Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog are split in half by the border (Credit: Toerisme Baarle)

Given that Belgium’s planning laws are less restrictive than the Netherlands’, there are clear advantages to having a front door in Belgium, as Kees de Hoon (no relation to the Dutch mayor) explained when I met him at his border-straddling apartment block. A Dutch passport-holder living in Baarle-Hertog, Kees wanted to redevelop the original building, but the front door was in the Netherlands and he couldn’t get planning permission from the Dutch town hall. He solved the problem by simply installing a second front door, adjacent to the first but on the other side of the border. So now with two front doors to the building, one of his apartments is Dutch, and the other three are Belgian.

It was done on both sides of the border

Kees isn’t the only one who has taken advantage of jurisdictional loopholes; many long-established families and business owners will admit to have benefited in some small way. The most flagrant example is a former bank that was built right on top of the border so paperwork could be moved from one side of the building to the other whenever one nationality’s tax inspectors came calling.

Although loophole-exploiting isn’t as common as it once was, I couldn’t help imagining the glory days of cross-border rule-bending. The cattle that mysteriously changed fields overnight. The shop stock that was acquired in one country and sold in the other without bothering the tax man. “It is a subject the locals like to talk about,” agreed van Gool, “and it was done on both sides of the border.”

Kees de Hoon skirted a Dutch building restriction by installing a second front door on the Belgian side of the border (Credit: Credit: Andrew Eames)

Kees de Hoon (right) skirted a Dutch building restriction by installing a second front door on the Belgian side of the border (Credit: Andrew Eames)

That doesn’t mean the two jurisdictions are without friction. The drinking age in the Netherlands is 18 but Belgians can legally drink beer and wine at 16, so if a Dutch barkeeper refuses to serve a crowd of teenagers, they can just thumb their nose at him and walk across the road. And the many fireworks shops in the Belgian parts of town are a source of irritation to the Dutch authorities. In the Netherlands, the sale and carriage of fireworks is illegal (except for around the New Year). So when I came to the end of my November visit in Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog, I had to face Dutch police who were scrutinising everyone leaving town.

It seems that, in this laboratory of trans-frontier co-operation, there are still a few outstanding issues to be resolved.

By Andrew Eames 11 December 2017

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

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In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer

Remains of a Stone Age baby, with its teeth still intact, found cradled in mother’s arm in the Netherlands

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 Researchers working at an archaeological site in the municipality of Nieuwegein, south of the Dutch city of Utrecht, have made an astonishing Stone Age discovery. They’ve found a 6,000-year-old grave containing a baby in the arm of a young woman, most likely his mother.Experts say that this is the oldest infant grave ever discovered in the Netherlands, dating back to the late Stone Age.

IB Times reports that the baby’s remains were only discovered after a closer inspection of the woman’s skeleton was conducted by archaeological consultancy RAAP in Leiden. What was unusual about this particular skeleton was the fact that, unlike other skeletons discovered at the site in Nieuwegein, the right arm of this skeleton had been bent at a strange angle, which led to the discovery of the baby’s remains.

“The posture of the woman’s body did not conform to what we had found so far, that is, bodies whose limbs are placed parallel to the body. We then made the moving discovery that she was, in fact, cradling a little baby,” project leader Helle Molthof told NOS.

The bone fragments that were discovered at the site included a tiny jaw with several milk teeth, which helped scientists to conclude that the baby most probably had died when it was several months old. What makes this find even more unique is the fact that an infant’s skeletal bones would normally perish by now, but in this case, they were preserved due to a layer of clay and peat at the site.

Archaeologists believe that the woman holding the infant was between 20 to 30 years old at the time of her death. Although scientists believe that the woman is most likely the infant’s mother, a DNA test will be conducted to reveal the relationship and will also determine the sex of the baby.

Several more skeletons and many other archaeological finds were unearthed at the site during the past two years. According to Dutch News, over 136,000 well-preserved finds have been discovered in the area of Nieuwegein so far. Archaeologists believe that the discovery of the skeletons can provide vital information about the burial practices of the hunter-gatherer people of the Swifterbant culture, a people that lived in the region thousands of years ago.

Dated between 5300 B.C. and 3400 B.C., the people of the Swifterbant culture inhabited the territory of modern-day Netherlands, where they built their first primitive dwellings along the rivers of the area. These people allegedly lived in small groups of 40 to 80 individuals and their existence depended greatly on nature’s resources.

Similiar to other prehistoric people, the Swifterbant people primarily survived by hunting animals, fishing in the nearby rivers, and farming. However, what distinguished the Swifterbant culture from neighboring cultures is the fact that members of this culture were the first to domesticate animals such as dogs, pigs, sheep, and goats.

As mentioned above, the archaeological site in the municipality of Nieuwegein is rich with artifacts and all of them helped scientists in their research of the hunter-gatherer community that once thrived in this particular region of the Netherlands. Thanks to the discovery of these artifacts, archaeologist now know how the members of the Swifterbant culture lived, what food they ate, what hunting and fishing techniques they used, what their homes were like. But the discovery of the skeletons will surely provide more interesting information about their culture, customs, and traditions.

Prior to the discovery of the skeletons, scientists were unaware of how the people of the Swifterbant culture buried their dead and what happened to their children. Hopes are that this unique archaeological find will help in the further research of the burial practices and will reveal more details about the lives of these people.

 Goran Blazeski