This is a post about a border crossing international cycle route. Although Belgium and the Netherlands are direct neighbours, this cycle route from Tilburg to Turnhout crosses that international border nine times! The cycle route is on the former railway between those two cities. I cycled here before, but due to time restrictions I could only cycle to the real border that time. This time I did cycle all the way to Turnhout, a distance of 32 kilometres (one way).
In my earlier post, in 2018, I wrote that I would go here again, to cycle into Belgium proper and to find out what the final 7.5 kilometers of this route looked like there. But after waiting too long the Corona crisis postponed my return further. The border between Belgium and the Netherlands had even been closed for a while and for quite some time international travel was impossible. Then I had to undergo surgery, followed by a recovery period. All that is behind us and me now and I knew that I can cycle long distances again. I cycled from Nijmegen to Cleves and back this Summer, so I was confident that I could cycle this slightly longer distance too. Unfortunately, you cannot bring your own bicycle in Dutch trains during the evening rush hour and that meant I had to cycle on an OV-Fiets this time. That is a single speed bicycle, but even with such a bicycle, I was certain that I could do it.
To make the tour a bit different I cycled through the city of Tilburg this time. In 1958 the railway had been rerouted further west around the city and that was the route I took for the previous post. Because I would cycle all the way to Turnhout this time I decided to take the pre-1958 route, which is a few kilometres shorter.
In my previous post I explained a lot about the former railway line. So if you want the full report you can visit that post and watch the video related to it again. I will give you a short recap here. The railway line from Turnhout to Tilburg was built and operated by a Belgian company and opened on 1 October 1867. The route got the nickname Bels Lijntje which (in the local dialect) means Little Belgian Line. The line wasn’t the success it was hoped to be and passenger services were already stopped in 1934. The line was then used for goods transportation until that stopped in 1973 too. From 1974 to 1981 the line was used for a few years as a tourist steam train line. In 1980 I was a passenger on one of those trains. This means that (to my knowledge) this is the only rail to trail cycle route that I used both as a train passenger and on a bicycle! By 1982 the tracks had become so unstable that for safety reasons the line was closed permanently. From 1989 the line was converted into a cycle route. In 1993 the entire route on Dutch territory was opened, but you can now cycle all the way to Turnhout in Belgium.
The landscape through which this route runs is not the most attractive, but there is one thing that makes this route very special: the fact that you cross the border nine times. That is because the route runs through the town of Baarle. Baarle is a single town in two countries. The Dutch part of Baarle is called Baarle-Nassau and the Belgian part is called Baarle-Hertog. The division dates back to the twelfth century and still exists. There are 22 Belgian exclaves. Some of which have in turn Dutch enclaves within them. The complex medieval borders now run randomly through streets and even buildings. I won’t go into detail about this in this post but it is really nice that the border crossings on the cycle route are almost all marked. There are also two unmarked border crossings that are in the middle of the street. I believe this is for safety reasons, markings there could distract drivers. The many borders have never really been a problem, but that was different when the COVID measures turned out to be very different in the Netherlands and Belgium. Especially when Belgium closed all shops and the Netherlands didn’t. This led to absurd situations in shops directly on the border. One shop even cordoned off the Belgian part of the interior. This made headlines, also in the international press. Later in the COVID crisis the regulations were dealt with in a more relaxed way. Such as looking in which country the front door of a shop is located and applying the rules of that country for the entire shop. Belgian residents of Baarle-Hertog were also allowed to visit the supermarkets in Baarle-Nassau for the simple reason that Baarle-Hertog has no supermarkets and the residents were not forced to visit Belgium proper for their daily needs.
I was really pleased to see the Belgian part of this route. It is almost indistinguishable from the Dutch part, but it is even more obviously for recreation. To demonstrate my point you can find an observation tower to watch over a nature reserve near the end destination of Turnhout. I didn’t pick the best date to visit Belgium. On 11 November the country commemorates the end of World War I. Everything was closed. You can see a lot of people walking on the path towards the end. Simply because there was not much else to do that day. The Dutch do not know much about WWI, because the Netherlands remained neutral in that war. All in all I really enjoyed this cycle tour of in total about 65 kilometres. Glad I can do that again without any consequences. People asked about sore muscles or whether I could sit the next day. I can tell you that when you cycle every day it is absolutely no problem to cycle a bit longer for a change. Yes, I could sit! No, I did not have any pain in my muscles the next day, but thanks for asking!