Through the three-border region by bike
Borders still exist only on the map

View from the Three Country Point of the surroundings
View from the Three Country Point of the surroundings | Photo (detail): Daniel Gerhards

People in the three-border region of Germany-Belgium-Netherlands hardly give much thought to the fact that they are constantly crossing borders. On a bike tour, many aren’t even sure which country they are biking through. There is much to discover in the border triangle.

A lot of history, a lot of identity, a lot of Europe. This all comes together at a point. There, where Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany bump into each other: in the Aachen forest, southwest of the old imperial city of Aachen, is the Three Country Point, in which the nations meet. There people speak German, Dutch and French. And yet they still understand each other.

Here it is easy to cross borders, especially by bike. “It’s become quite normal to be underway in the different countries. The borders have long been open”, says the 29 years-old Daniel Moselewski. Together with Henning Schendekehl, 35 years of age, he has come from Aachen with his mountain bike to the Three Country Point. “I can remember that there used to be barriers and queues at the border only from my childhood. When you now ride through the forest, you’re not even sure whether you’re in Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands”, says Moselewski.

Only license plates recall the borders

So it is in many places in the region that calls itself, after its rivers, the Meuse-Rhine Euregio. No sign, no stone, marks the borders. Only the license plates of the cars give a clue: a yellow field with black lettering for the Dutch, white with black lettering for the Germans and red lettering against a white background for the Belgians.

Paying, talking to each other, is not a problem. “It’s easy to communicate. Most Dutch people speak German”, explains Schendekehl. And the Belgians do in any case. The Belgians? Yes; this part of eastern Belgium is German-speaking. Seventy-five thousand people live in the region of 850 square kilometres. It has its own parliament and governor.

The capital of this small member state of the Belgian Kingdom is Eupen, with 18,900 inhabitants. There René Janssen is the Chairman of the Chudoscnik Sunergia Cultural Association. The association organizes one of the largest music festivals of the region, the Eupen Music Marathon. About 8,000 visitors come each year to the placid Belgian town – “more than half from Germany”, says Janssen. One reason for this is that borders no longer play an important part in people’s heads. “We’re located just twenty kilometres from the city centre of Aachen. Between it and us there’s a national, but no cultural border. We feel closer to Germany than we do to the rest of Belgium” says Janssen.

Steep path up Mount Vaals

Eupen is easy to reach by bike from the Three-Country Point. Broer van der Tuin, Renate van der Laan and their son Joeri van der Tuin are biking there. They are on a fourteen-day tour through the region. Their route takes them from Monschau in the Eifel, a German low mountain range south of Aachen, to Spa in the Belgian Ardennes and Maastricht in the Netherlands. They have come to the three-border region because they want to ascend the highest mountain in the Netherlands: Mount Vaals. It lies 327 metres above sea level. For the Dutch, this hilly area is the equivalent of the Alps for the Germans. “For us it’s something special to bike up Mount Vaals”, says Broer. The family hails from the small town of Westerland in the north of the Netherlands. “Our town lies five and a half metres below sea level”, he explains.

On the steep ascent to the highest elevation of the Netherlands, even athletic mountain bikers break into a sweat. Especially if, like the Turin family, they are travelling with luggage. “We have a tent, chairs, a table and a few clothes with us”, says Renate. All told, each of them has 15 kg of luggage strapped to his or her bike. The ascent becomes a real challenge.

The former four country border: brothels and booze

Like many of the 800,000 visitors who annually visit the three border region, the Turins also notice only on second glance that this was once a four border region. Up into the early twentieth century, the largely independent territory of “Neutral-Moresnet” was on the border to Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Between 1816 and 1919, the territory existed in and around the contemporary Belgium small town of La Calamine.

After the Allies expelled Napoleon, the Dutch and the Prussians could not agree on the border demarcation of the territory at the Congress of Vienna in 1814; both desired to mine the local calamine, a valuable natural resource. As a consequence, the region remained neutral and was administered jointly. The small village of La Calamine became a small town with 80 taverns and brothels, two casinos and a lively bootlegging business. By 1884 the calamine resources were already exhausted, after more than a million tons of the coveted ore had been mined. Today the region belongs to Belgium.

War – not only on the “Aachen coffee front”

In the region round Aachen, smuggling had long been a thriving business. The most popular contraband article after the Second World War, however, did not contain alcohol. Smugglers pirated coffee over the border by the sack. Some ran it through the forest, while others drove lorries full of the brown bean from one country to the other. Customs officers, the natural enemy of the smuggler, had no intention of putting up with this. They made themselves ready, laid sharp metal barriers on the roads and pursued smugglers in chases. Eventually, smuggling ceased to be profitable. And the “war of the Aachen coffee front” was over.

Relicts weighing many tons in the forest around Aachen also testify to military conflicts. If you take a bike from Aachen through the forest along the Belgian border, you pass the concrete humps of the “West Wall”. Gazing at these remnants of the war, Daniel Moselewski becomes aware of the historical significance of this place: “In the forest you still see tank traps, old bunkers and bomb craters. It makes you think about what was going on here during the Second World War.”

From coal mines to recreational area

The open areas south of Aachen and in Belgium are used today for agricultural purposes, mainly as pasture. Large grain, raps and maize fields dominate the area north of Aachen. For a long time, however, the most important economic factor in this region was the mining industry. Even today there are still numerous dumps testifying that once thousands of people used to haul coal from the mines to the surface. Most of the mines closed in the 1970s – for instance, in the Dutch towns of Heerlen and Kerkrade. Now they are all shut. What remains are the now green-covered dump heaps. They are used as a recreational area. The Aachen region now sees itself as a location for science and technology. The Rhine-Westphalian Technical University of Aachen has gained Excellence status. Well over 30,000 young people study there, mainly technical subjects.

Yesterday checkpoints, today lay-bys

Jeroen Veldman has just now little time for such considerations. He is underway with his racing bike from the three border region to Belgium. “I’m training for the Liège-Bastogne- Liège cycling race”, says the thirty-one year old Dutchman. “I like climbing up mountains on a bike. The rest of Holland is almost completely flat.” He wants to lay back 80 kilometres today. He will pass the border-crossing at Köpfchen. The building used to be a checkpoint. Today Veldman takes a break here. There is a cafe and the KuKuK – the Art and Culture in Köpfchen Association exhibition rooms. At the point where Germany and Belgium were once strictly separated there has emerged a “cultural link” between the two countries.

Right next to the former checkpoint, Jenny Theelen has set up her stand. The 25 year-old Belgian woman sells there fruits and vegetables from the region. “Germans, Belgians and Dutch people pass by here, by bike, car or on foot. The place has so much culture and history”, she says. You can hardly sense any more that the border is hard by, where customs officials used rigorously to examine travellers’ luggage. “Wow”, says Theelen, “I can hardly imagine that.”