One cycle route, nine border crossings

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).

The nine crossings of the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. The last picture, in the bottom right, shows the actual international border, the first 8 pictures are of the borders in Baarle that has a number of Belgian exclaves.

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.

Proof that I did actually cycle all the way from Tilburg on this OV-Fiets to Turnhout. You can see my camera attached to the handlebars.
Turnhout Townhall doubles as the police station, at least that is what is mentioned over the two arched doors.

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.

Some interesting differences. In Belgium even the most minor crossing streets had priority over the cycle route.
In the Netherlands priority on many (but certainly not all) the more minor crossings is given to the cycle route. The white house is a very typical railway building from the late 19th century. It was nicely restored and even got the old number to distinguish it from all the other service buildings next to the railway.

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.

Not all maps are accurate enough to show where precisely the erratic borders are located. In Google maps the cycle way (red line) does not appear to cross into Belgian territory here (the white line is the border). But the aerial picture shows that a border is marked on the cycle way. I added a green arrow at that border.
This map from ArcGys is more accurate. It shows that the cyleway does indeed cross at the location the aerial picture also shows and then again in the middle of the street at an unmarked location. I marked the two crossings with a red dot on this screen shot. These two crossings are only about 15 metres apart!
“Sorry madam, the underwear is on Belgian territory, you can’t go there now.” The borders never were a problem in Baarle, until the Corona measures in Belgium and the Netherlands turned out to be very different in March 2020. With the shops open in the Netherlands, but closed in Belgium, this store made headlines. The border runs straight through the shop and that meant the Belgian part was cordoned off – inside – to prevent customers to get merchandise from the Belgian part of it.

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.

These two maps of Alphen show the original railway as it was until the late 1980s (the red straight line). After the line was closed Alphen used part of it for industry. The right map shows the current situation that forces people to cycle around that industrial area. This is the largest deviation from the original route in the entire 32 kilometres and it is only a few hundred metres long.
Just north of Turnhout a new bridge for walking and cycling was built over the canal from Dessel to Schoten to replace the old railway bridge that was falling apart. You can see the abutments on the left hand side of the picture.

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!

This watch tower directly next to the cycle route was built in 2009. It makes it possible to view the wetlands north of Turnhout.
There used to be a big international station directly on the border between Belgium proper and the Netherlands called Baarle-Nassau Grens (Border) or Weelde-Etat. Two of the supporting steel beams (high-lighted on this picture) have been rebuilt.
In 2017, 150 years after the railway line was opened, two supporting steel beams have been rebuilt to indicate where the former station was and to show the enormous size of the building. The original walls of the platform are still there. In the foreground you can see the cycleway, running at the exact location of the former tracks. The two faded diagonal white lines indicate the state border as does the strip of grass on the former platform. The Netherlands is in the foreground, the view is into Belgium.
The full ride from Tilburg to Turnhout in real time.
The sped-up version (5x) of the cycle route from Tilburg to Turnhout.

4 thoughts on “One cycle route, nine border crossings

  1. Many thanks for this video.

    On the 28th day of my one and only trip to the Netherlands in 2018, I rode this same route from Tilburg to Turnhout, then stayed at the hotel over the station before taking a train to Antwerp, Lille, and south-west France. I watched the whole video, reliving the wonderful experience of this trip.

    Bart Hawkins Kreps Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada


  2. This is so interesting. Since the railway operated well before EU, I wonder how often trains had to check in at the border, or whether there was some special arrangement that allowed them to go through.

  3. Hello,
    Do you know how wide the bicycle path is? Maybe do you also know how many bicyclist pass in 1 hour?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.