Today we are going on a journey to a country you never knew existed. This is not some fantasy land; this is a bona fide nation on Germany’s western border so small that history has almost forgotten it was ever there. Pack lightly –it’s only going to be a day trip. Neutral Moresnet is so tiny you won’t ever need to spend the night there.
In fairness I should point out that this brie-shaped triangle of land between Germany and Belgium hasn’t actually been an independent state since 1920. But for more than 100 years, this microscopic strip just one-and-a-half square miles in size (343 hectares, 95 ares and 28 centares to be precise) separated the two colonial empires of Germany and Belgium –and was a thorn in the side of both of them. A Gaulish village with Low German as a lingua franca.
To find out how this little band of Gauls was able to hold out for so long we need to go there. So we get the train down to Aachen. The Frankish capital is still the archetypal cosmopolitan European. Looking straight on we see Germany. Looking right we see the Netherlands, looking left we see Belgium. You can walk to any of them.
We jump on a bus to the Netherlands. From the end of the line we will attempt to cross our forgotten country on foot, beginning at the northern point of the brie near the Dutch town of Vaals. It’s a lovely little place but we’re not stopping. It’s packed with day trippers from Germany buying coffee at the coffee shop. The stuff is piled so high the shelves are bending. It’s cheaper here than two hundred yards down the road over the border. When Germans say they are going to Holland to the “coffee shop” then this is what they mean.
We head out of the town uphill through the woods. It’s pretty hard work but after 15 minutes we reach a plateau 322 metres above sea level. Congratulations: You’ve just climbed the highest mountain in the Netherlands.
Take a minute to enjoy the view: a car park attached to a fun park with two or three cafes and chip shops. The tourists are here and most of them haven’t summited on foot. It’s an eclectic mix of south-east Asians, American accents and selfie sticks. Leaving aside the tricolors which mark where the borders of Germany, Holland and Belgium meet we could be anywhere. Anywhere that has restrooms and a labyrinth.
The one-armed paparazzi form an orderly queue to photograph themselves. An obelisk marks the boundary lines; you can walk round and cross the borders as many times as you want. We do this, spoiling very many selfies in the process. But if we look very closely at the obelisk we see that not three countries have been marked here but four.
Here it is. Welcome to Neutral Moresnet. We have just entered the country at her northernmost point. Nobody has checked our passports and we are now at the top of the triangle. We walk a couple of hundred yards southwards into the woods. The crowds disappear. It is quiet now and I can tell you the story of how the country came into being.
Back in 1815 all of this was French, thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon met his Waterloo, Europe’s borders were redrawn at the Congress of Vienna. The land to the east was given to Prussia, the west was given to a newly formed union of Belgium and the Netherlands.
But right where we standing there was a problem. Under our feet was one of the most important zinc mines in Europe. It had to be one of the most important –there were only two in total. The other one was in Bristol in case you were wondering. Both sides wanted to control this mine so they decided to share.
Neutral Moresnet was born (we can walk and talk here –the woodlands are quiet). The compromise was a strange one. The country was ruled by two commissioners, one from each side. The mayor of Kelmis, the only settlement in the territory, came from Prussia or Belgium on an alternating basis. These three men governed 248 inhabitants, used the French Franc for money and upheld the law using Napoleon’s brainchild, the Code Napoléon.
The plan was a success. Life was good –by 19th century standards. Working conditions were generous. Taxes were low. If you lived here, you avoided military service in either Prussia or Belgium. You could supplement your income by smuggling; the borders were seldom checked. By the time the mine closed in 1860, the population had increased to ten times its former size.
We have been walking through the forest for just under an hour and have reached the town of Kelmis. Nowadays Kelmis is home to around 10,000 mostly German-speaking Belgians. The road to Liège, which today forms the town’s main street, marks the southernmost boundary between Neutral Moresnet and Belgium proper.
The last couple of times I’ve been here, Belgian flags have been hanging from the windows; once to support the country’s gifted football team in the world cup and once in a show of solidarity after a terrorist attack in Brussels. Today there are no flags except Neutral Moresnet’s black and blue flying from the church: You really can imagine you are in your own little country.
So small is Neutral Moresnet that its museum is actually on the wrong side of the Liège road. We are the only visitors. It is full of zinc buckets and lumps from the ground. There are glass cases devoted to the yellow violet, the de facto national flower (it was thought that these flowers grew well on zinc). We learn about life after the mine, the efforts to introduce Esperanto as a national language, the efforts to turn the country into a gamblers’ paradise. The museum shop has just one souvenir on offer: locally-brewed beer. Moresnet’s magic potion. I buy two bottles.
We cross back over the high street which was once a border. There are two supermarkets in Kelmis, three takeaways, four bars and a night shop. Around a dozen places where you can buy alcohol, museum included. In the 1890s there were 115. Booze was high on the smugglers’ lists, no surprise there. Oh and three distilleries. The local druids did good business, this much is clear.
By 1914 the 115 drinking dens had been reduced to 85. Still not bad for a town of 3,700 people. The place was almost genteel. It even attracted a travel writer, presumably with his Bradshaw’s Guide in hand. I have Robert Shackelton’s Unvisited Places of Old Europe in my pocket. He describes some of the stranger Moresnetian habits such as tucking pyjamas at the foot of the bed and not under the pillow –this confused him mightily –and moving house every springtime.
Later that year, the German army crossed the road at the point where the bus stops (there is a photograph to prove it). The Germans didn’t leave it at Kelmis of course. Belgium was occupied and Moresnet with it. The First World War had begun. Four years later, the Germans crossed back at the same point with the Belgian army following them. Neutral Moresnet hung on for two more years before it the Treaty of Versailles finally made it part of the Kingdom of Belgium.
We stop for food at a takeaway. I try to find some Moresnetian food. The menu is in French. The waiter takes the order in German. Haute cuisine it is not. I order a mitraillette (little machine gun): chips and sauce in a baguette. A Belgian chip butty. Surrounded by all the chips and sauce I am conscious that I am in Belgium again.
It’s easy to get confused. The border between Belgium and Germany is not as clear-cut as it looks. German is the official language in this part of Belgium, as it is down the road in Eupen. Villages in between speak French. Along the border there are several German enclaves, packets of land cut off from Germany by a Belgian-owned railway line. One of them consists of a single house and an outer building.
It’s the same along the Belgian-Dutch border and the French-Spanish border. Everywhere actually, even in Britain. The Principality of Sealand is a former military platform in the English Channel which declared independence from the UK in 1967. Theresa would never tell you that of course. The Prince has yet to comment on Brexit.
We take a walk down the street. Not much is left of old Kelmis. In 1940 another army crossed the street. The offices for the old mine are still standing but a crane hangs over them. The building will soon be knocked down. Neutral Moresnet will soon be nothing but a curiosity of history.
We walk past the old coach house, now a pub. I look through the window. It looks beautiful inside. Cold and curiosity lead me to open the door and enter. The fire is lit and there is dark beer on tap. The spoken language is French. We are two hundred yards from the German-speaking takeaway. No matter. We are adaptable, we Europhiles.
“Deux bières, s’il vous plaît.”