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Mapping Belgium’s Absurd Borders


It’s finally out: The Strange Maps book by Frank Jacobs, the man behind the wonderful Strange Maps blog. The book itself has become a hefty anti-atlas bringing together some of the strangest, weirdest and interesting maps ever created or found.

I’m also glad to say that it contains two maps of my own.

Fitting for a complex little country as Belgium, it hosts some of the most absurd national borders you’ll find on this planet. When it comes to enclaves, exclaves and counter-enclaves, it’s only outdone by the border mess in Cooch Behar on the Indian/Bangladeshi border.

The Baarle-Nassau & Baarle-Hertog Enclaves/Exclaves

map_of_baarle_enclavesThe most famous of our crazy borders is the situation in the town of Baarle which is split into several Dutch parts (Baale-Nassau) and Belgian parts (Baarle-Hertog). Most sane people when creating borders would simply draw a line with one side going to one country and the other side to the other. The British were famous for this approach and divided the world using only straight rulers, rarely taking in to account the situation on the ground. In Baarle however, rather than just drawing border lines, plots of land were assigned to either one of the two nations depending on old treaties that went way back. The result is a town that has become a patchwork of enclaves and counter-enclaves. Borders run straight through houses and buildings. It’s not uncommon to find yourself in a café or other room where half of it is in Belgium and the other in the Netherlands. This resulted in the front door policy. Any house in Baarle falls under the jurisdiction of whatever country the front door opens to. So it’s not uncommon to change your front door if the laws of the other country would happen to favor you better at that time.

Legend: Black border is the main border between the two countries. Red borders are Belgian enclaves within the Netherlands mainland. Blue borders are Dutch counter-enclaves inside Belgian enclaves. And the green border is the only Dutch enclave within the Belgian mainland. Each enclave is assigned a number. H numbers belong to Baarle-Hertog. N numbers belong to Baarle Nassau.

And if things weren’t crazy enough, more than a hundred years after the final border treaties were signed, someone apparently discovered an overlooked plot of land (H22). During all that time, it had practically been a no man’s land without anyone realizing it. In 1996, it was finally assigned to Belgium bringing its exclave count to 22.

The VennBahn Enclaves

vennbahn_borderLess known, but equally as absurd is the Vennbahn border. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Germans build a railroad that ran from Aachen all the way to down to Luxemburg and called it the Vennbahn. All seemed fine until silly little Franz Ferdinand got himself shot, setting off a dangerous domino effect into motion that finally led to World War One. Germany decided to invade Belgium on its way to to France, but got bogged down for four years and ultimately lost.

Belgium then demanded war reparations in the form of annexed German land which they finally got without too much trouble. It was then the Belgium must have realized that in doing so, they had also inherited the Vennbahn, or at least just parts of it. At several different locations, the railroad would cross back into Germany before reentering Belgium again. Rather than dealing with an array of border controls along this route, the Belgians came up with a brilliant plan. They decided to annex the land underneath the railroad as well. The results are several long thin areas of Belgian land, just a few meters wide, winding through the German landscape, and here and there even straight through villages and towns. And in doing so, it also created five new German exclaves, separated by a railroad from the mainland. In the mean time, the railroad has long fallen in to disuse, and is now being converted to bicycle tracks.

When I learnt about the Vennbahn, I immediately notified Strange Maps about this, but Frank replied that he already knew about it; he just couldn’t find a descent map of the place. After an exhaustive search of the internet, I came to the same conclusion. The best maps I could find only highlighted small sections of the Vennbahn. Because the land between the borders are just a few meters wide, they rarely appear on large scale maps. For the time being, you won’t even find them on the maps of Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft. Though I’m glad to see that the wiki like has included them.

And so I decided to create my own map that illustrates the situation rather than trying to depict an accurate representation of the borders. As I’ve said before, the latter is impossible at that scale.

By the time I had concluded my research and finished my map and sent it in, Frank had started working on his book and asked if I could also have a look at the Baarle situation. I gladly obliged and created the second map.

Another surprise was when I sent in my copyright release forms for the maps. We realized that until recently, before he had just moved to London, we both lived in the same town. For years, as I regularly followed the Strange Maps blog and wondered who the mystery man behind it was, and where he was from; he was apparently just a few streets away, collecting maps and posting his findings to the internet. The world truly is a strange and small place.

As for the book: If you love maps like I do, you definitely want this in your library.  I know its going to be keeping me busy for a while.


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Pieter  ¤ December 6, 2009 at 12:30
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