Crossing the border in Europe is not what it once was. I remember an occasion from my student days, when we went on an geological field trip to Belgium. The bus was cruising on the highway as the professor announced: “Welcome to Belgium!” My fellow students, freshly arrived from African and Asian countries, were stunned. Where are the guards, the barbed wire? The prof had a hard time explaining that border controls are pretty much non-existent in modern day Europe, and that you just drive across without customs checks or passport stamps. The guys just couldn’t believe him, so on the way back they were hanging out the windows to catch a glimpse of the blue sign with Europe’s stars marking the border.
Part of the fun in living in a place with so many small countries, is experiencing the rapid changes as you cross the border. Nut just the car number plates change. The language, architecture, landscape, all can change dramatically even if you travel between apparently similar countries. You can see these sometimes subtle changes in just a few hours. Let me show you what I mean.
As there are so many borders so close by, hopping countries is really easy. One summer day, we’ve decided to do something no one has ever done before (as far as we know) – Extereme Ironing on the highest points of all three BeNeLux countries. We hired a car and a portable generator, packed an ironing board and an iron and were on our way. All three tops are similar in being car-accessible, non-challenging locations. But the atmosphere couldn’t be more different. The Vaalserberg in the Netherlands is a major tourist attraction where hordes of people stand simultaneously in 3 countries. There’s a huge lookout tower, multiple restaurants and even a postal office.
In Belgium, the setting is not quite similar. The highest point, actually a plateau, is tucked away behind a greasy roadside restaurant with a small garbage dump in the back. The added stairway to nowhere illustrates perfectly the absurdist nature of Belgium.
The highest point of Luxembourg, on a pastoral countryside hill besides a castle-like water tower is characteristic for the fairy-tale character of that country.
The whole feat took us some 8 hours including hiring the generator and driving there and back. However, some things have changed since that summer. Apparently, the highest point of Luxembourg is not the 558.8m high Buergplaz, but nearby Kneiff at 559.8m, a whole meter higher. Also, the island of Saba has become a part of the Netherlands after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles. The Dutch now have a proper mountain, Mount Scenery (877 meters), albeit rather far away from the mainland. We will wait until the Belgians rebuild the stairway, adding a couple of meters, or, even better, decide to demolish this abomination, and retake this historic journey. Saba, here we come!