Visiting Mesch, The Netherlands, and the Grijzegraaf: to Bosnian complexity and back, within a few hundred metres?

Flag of The Netherlands
Flag of The Netherlands | Source
Cross at intersection of Bovenstraat & Grijzegraaf, Mesch, Limburg, The Netherlands
Cross at intersection of Bovenstraat & Grijzegraaf, Mesch, Limburg, The Netherlands | Source
Arms of the Dutch Province of Limburg
Arms of the Dutch Province of Limburg | Source

The complications of hiking near borders

This tranquil, even lush, scene (see main photo, above) in the Dutch village of Mesch is a typical backdrop to the popular passtime of hiking in the Dutch province of Limburg. Not all The Netherlands is flat, and the undulating countryside of southern Limburg attracts many hikers.

In the village of Mesch, keep walking east along the Grijzegraaf and the name changes to Weg op Mesch. Suddenly the walker leaves Limburg province and enters....Limburg province. (Yes, really.) The walker has entered Belgium which (maybe confusingly) also has a province by the name of Limburg. This province forms part of the Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest).

When I walked along the Grijzegraaf and in a few minutes found myself in Belgium, I was going along part of a route which can bring hikers round in a circle, back to the Dutch village of Mesch again: along the Grizegraaf, and further along Weg op Mesch (1), turning right in a south-easterly direction along Moelingerweg (which after a while forms the border between Belgium and The Netherlands again) and then into The Netherlands again in a nortwards direction along Boverste Bernauerweg, to the Grijzegraaf once more.

This circular route need take only a few minutes to follow, yet the hiker thereby takes in territory which is almost Bosnian in its linguistic and historical complexity, before returning back to Mesch: a seemingly straightforward, Dutch-speaking village in The Netherlands, where Dutch is the official language.

Part of this complexity lies in the fact that it was not until the 1960s that the adjacent Belgian territory was transferred into the Belgian province of Limburg, of which it thenceforth constituted an exclave. Previously it was part of officially French-speaking Liège (Dutch: Luik) province, while many local people spoke the Limburgs dialect. This area is known as the Voerstreek or Voeren (French: Fourons).

On the surface, the Voerstreek into which one enters not a long distance to the right of the main picture (above) may appear to consist of tranquil farming villages such as Mesch itself.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Voerstreek is blessed (or some might argue disadvantaged) by relatively inexpensive property prices, to the extent that young Dutch nationals have been buying property there. This might be thought to be reinforcing the Dutch language presence in the Voerstreek, but Belgian Dutch language activists can regret that these residents, unless they take on Belgian nationality, do not have voting rights in Belgium. Conversely, the relatively inexpensive property prices in the Voerstreek have also attracted not a few French-speaking Walloon young people, who treat it as a dormitory, but drive to work in nearby Wallonia (French: Wallonnie; Dutch: Wallonnië).

Thus, the notion of 'rights' promoted by some language activists seems to be a combination of fierce defence of one language in the locality, mixed with hostility toward fellow Belgians of the 'wrong' sort who might choose to live there. However, despite hostility on the part of some language activists towards fellow Belgians from nearby Liège province, there has not seemed to be a lack of willingness exercised on the part of some Dutch-langauge activists to recruit bus-loads of protesters from distant Antwerp, to complain vociferously at what they from time to time perceive as an encroachment on 'their' language rights in Voeren / Fourons (2).

Meanwhile, Belgian politicians, ever anxious to please their own backyards, have regularly turned almost literal parish-pump disputes into regional and national crises. Belgian governments can actually fall as a result of the emotional and political repercussions of highly localized disagreements in Voeren / Fourons. A number of years ago the local mayor of Voeren / Fourons, José Happart, elected on a ticket wanting the district to be re-classified as part of Liège province again, repeatedly declined to attend Dutch classes in order to prove that he could competently serve his Dutch-speaking constituents. The ingenious solution pursued was that he should formally be known as 'first councillor with the functions of mayor': a mouthful, but it was less unsatisfactory to some Dutch language activists than it was to the majority of local citizens who elected Monsieur Happart.

The latter subsequently went into Walloon regional politics, with his highly publicized, defiant past in Voeren / Fourons on his résumé, and proved to be very popular. (The fact that journalists unearthed Monsieur Happart's school reports, in which he was said to have well proven his Dutch language skills, was an odd twist to the story of this Belgian personality with a gift for publicity. It seemed to reveal that pretending not to speak Dutch can be an art form and part of one's political repertoire.)

Map location of the village of Mesch, The Netherlands
Map location of the village of Mesch, The Netherlands | Source

Good humoured Dutch bewilderment

Meanwhile, a few hundred metres away, north of the border, the villagers of Mesch may look on in bemused bewilderment at the antics of rival language activists. It is striking that with the names of roads on the Belgian side of the border, such as Weg op Mesch, reflect the proximity of The Netherlands, and, conversely, road names such as Boverste Bernauerweg (3) and Onderste Bernauerweg (4) on the Dutch side of the border, reflect the closeness of Belgian localities.

Interestingly, the village due south of Mesch is Berneau, for which some Dutch-speaking sources claim a Dutch version: Berne. But, in the hiking route in and around Mesch, suggested. above, the adjectival form of the road in Limburg, The Netherlands, is Boverste Bernauerweg (3). It appears that the desire to 'submerge' the French form of the place-name is not coming from any Dutch-speakers in The Netherlands!

It just goes to show that in this corner of Europe, and wherever a border with Belgium may be in proximity, linguistic and community complexities may turn out to be very profound. Even something as benign and apparently straightforward as a country hike around the Dutch village of Mesch may, on closer examination, reveal fault-lines and undercurrents hidden from most travellers, but acutely apparent to many local residents.

The moral for the hiker is thus: be aware when the Grijzegraaf turns into Weg op Mesch!

Mesch forms part of the municipality of Eijsden-Margraten, in the Dutch province of Limburg.

July 22, 2013

Notes

(1) Literally, Way to Mesch.

(2) There are even those who claim that the local dialect spoken by some of the inhabitants of the Voerstreek / Fourons is a form of German.

(3) Literally, Upper Berneau Way.

(4) Literally, Lower Berneau Way.

NB: Further, general tourist information about South Limburg may be accessed at www.vvvzuidlimburg.nl . Details of hiking paths in South Limburg and cross-border areas may be accessed at www.wandelgidszuidlimburg.com .

Also worth seeing

Eijsden (distance: 3.3 kilometres) has a remarkable, moated castle, situated near the Maas River.

Maastricht (distance: 14 kilometres), also on the Maas River, is an historic city, which was settled by the Romans. See the city's two largest churches; also, the Medieval gate known as the Helpoort.

...

How to get there: Airlines flying to Amsterdam Airport from New York include Delta Airlines and KLM. For North American travellers making the London, England area their base, the nearest sizable airport in The Netherlands to Mesch is Eindhoven Airport, to which Ryanair flies from London Stansted Airport. The Dutch railroad company NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) maintains rail services from Amsterdam and Eindhoven to Maastricht, near Mesch. Car rental availability includes options from Amsterdam and Eindhoven airports. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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